Saturday, 6 June 2015

What will Victor Ponta do next?

It seems timely, since he has been accused of seventeen counts of corruption, to republish the article on Victor Ponta that I wrote shortly after he lost the presidential election last November. Like the commentators in the press, I didn't expected Victor Ponta still to be in office seven months later, despite his party's parliamentary majority and despite the fact that there is no reason in principle why losing the presidency should means he loses the premiership. There is a strong reason in principle why plagiarising his doctoral thesis means he should have stood down, but he didn't, so I do not expect him to resign now unless, or rather until, forced to do so.

19th November, 2014: What will Victor Ponta do next?

What will happen in Romania next, after the surprise election of Klaus Iohannis (his name is really Johannis) as President?

What will happen to Victor Ponta, who lost the presidency to almost everyone’s surprise?
Nothing, for the time being. He will continue being Prime Minister, despite the change of president. It is the Government not the president that rules Romania. Like his mentor Adrian Nastase, who was the PSD candidate for the presidency ten years ago (and who is now out on parole), Victor Ponta never wanted to be president and wanted to continue as prime minister. So everything is peachy. Except it’s not.

Victor Ponta though a clever man is not leader of the Social Democrat party (PSD) or Prime Minister because of his own strength of personality or sheer stature. He is not what in British politics is called a big beast of the jungle. Only two Romanian politicians really qualify for that description: Ion Iliescu, who overthrew Ceausescu and had him shot, and Traian Basescu. Victor Ponta, by contrast, was chosen as a young (too young to have been a communist) and telegenic front man for the PSD.

For those who do not follow Romanian politics, I should explain that the PSD is not a political party in the sense understood in Western Europe. It is the continuation of the old Communist Party by other means and without the left-wing ideology. It is not monolithic or genuinely national but is a federation of parties organised in each Romanian county. Each country organisation is in effect a business, a conspiracy or, if we are to call spades spades, a criminal network. Mr. Ponta is leader as long as he can balance the competing interests of the leaders of the party in the countries (the so called ‘barons’) and offer them a chance of winning the 2016 parliamentary election.

Mr. Ponta said that any PSD candidate for the presidency would get 40% of the votes. It was up to him to get another 10%. The fact that Mr. Ponta won only 45% of the votes and therefore lost the presidency does not mean he cannot lead his party to victory in 2016. The way he lost Sunday’s election probably does. 

Victor Ponta fought a very old-fashioned campaign that seemed to be tailored to the unsophisticated, nationalistic Romanian electorate of the early 1990s, offering pension increases and public works. Playing the racial and religious cards against his German Protestant opponent is what everyone would expect him to do, though it seems to have been ineffective. No one was surprised by his shameless campaign to bribe electors with public money Electoral fraud which may have stolen up to 900,000 votes has not made a big impact here, through it certainly should have done. But the sight of very long queues of Romanians outside embassies and consulates, queueing all day in the cold, in many cases never to be allowed to vote, were crucial for winning the election for Mr. Iohannis and will permanently tarnish Mr. Ponta’s image. And these things happened not only on Sunday but in the first round of the election two weeks before. They happened because the diaspora is overwhelmingly opposed to the PSD. Those people were not queueing all day to vote for Victor Ponta. Mr. Ponta defended the way in which voting took place abroad on television in his debates with Mr. Iohannis. The contempt for the viewing public was unmistakable.

Remember that Mr. Ponta was discovered to have plagiarised his doctoral thesis. Then there are lurid, melodramatic allegations on the net about his connection with a young prosecutor who committed suicide back in 2002, while investigating Adrian Nastase. If I held stocks in Mr. Ponta I should sell them. That is what the barons are thinking too.

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