Tragic (Politically) Perfect Timing

Post length: 812 words, about 3 and a half minutes.

Romania made the headlines across the world at the end of last month due to a tragic fire in a nighclub which has, so far, claimed the lives of more than 50 people. The fire itself is reported to have started when fireworks were used as part of an album launch, setting alight the club’s foam sound proofing. One of the reasons so many people were killed is because of the woefully inadequate fire precautions in the club. Following the fire Romanians did what they seem to do best — they took to the streets in protest.*

It seems that there is no doubt that safety rules were flaunted in Colectiv Club on the night of the fire and there is significant public feeling that this was allowed to happen due to high levels of corruption in both local and national government, and that’s what brought people out in massive numbers. Fundamentally they were protesting over the corruption which has embroiled pretty much every element of the state from Bucharest’s sector Mayors to the Prime Minister Victor Ponta. That said it was hard to ascertain exactly what the protesters were hoping would come of their street campaign. Of course with mass spontaneous protest of this kind there’s always a mixed message, but pinning down an outcome which would make people happy was somewhat of a challenge.

By Tuesday 3rd November the number of protesters on Bucharest’s streets is reported to have reached 20,000. The following morning Ponta resigned. The night of Wednesday 4th saw between 30,000 and 75,000 people — reported numbers vary wildly — protesting. Since then a new Prime Minister, Dacian Ciolos, a technocrat, has been appointed by the country’s President. It’s Ponta’s resignation which interests me as a casual political-stratagist commentator the most.

Back in November, following his defeat in the presidential elections, I wrote an article about how Ponta might best step down from his position while minimising the damage to the PSD’s electability in the Parliamentary elections next year. I suggested that the party would want to time Ponta’s departure to allow his replacement enough of a run into the general election, but not so long that the new leader becomes tarred with the brush of the old party leadership — campaign wise they need a fresh face who can claim to overhaul the party. My feeling was that the middle of 2015 would be an ideal time. This terrible tragedy in Bucharest gave Ponta the perfect opportunity.

The Prime Minister himself could not have directly prevented this fire and he did not sign the license allowing the club to operate. Of course he could have done a huge amount more to tackle the systemic corruption in the country, but by taking this opportunity to fall on his sword he’s admitted to very little himself. Had Ponta resigned in the wake of the accusations of plagiarism leveled against him or when he was brought in for interview by the nation’s anti-corruption agency it would likely have been seen by most people as an admission of guilt. So Ponta leaves at the will of the people — in the same way as he came to power following the protests in 2011/12 — and takes the top-brass of his party with him, opening the PSD up for an internal shakeup.

I’m not alone in observing Ponta’s deft timing (although I didn’t read any others predicting it last year): Ciprian Ciucu of the Romanian Centre for European Policies told the AFP “Ponta was looking for a way out, his government was coming to its end” and in a recent post on the LSE’s EUROPP blog Dan Brett commented “The cynical view expressed by many Romanians is that Ponta is resigning now, when he is not under direct fire, in order to appear as a martyr.”

So how does that impact next year’s legislative elections in Romania? If the PSD are to stand any chance of clinging on to power they will need to show that the party has changed. They have just over a year to do that, sweeping out the old leadership and bringing in fresh blood. As for the opposition they’ll need to capitalise on every negative report about the PSD. They’ll need to show that the old guard are still pulling the strings behind the scenes, and that they are a viable alternative. They’ll need to show a strong commitment to the anti-corruption agencies, working hand-in-hand with the country’s president Iohannis, and make it clear that they are listening to the public; representing their views over those of the increasingly unpopular establishment.

All in all, the next 13 months will be fascinating to watch as Romania heads into what is bound to be a lively and closely contested parliamentary election.

* They also gave blood in huge numbers and did all they could to assist the people who had been caught up in the blaze.

Posted on Monday 16th November, 2015 at 8:58 am in Obiter dicta.
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