Playing Party Politics

Political parties in East-Central Europe are like amoebas. They are constantly splitting apart (mitosis) and then banding together in coalitions (aggregation). For someone coming from a U.S. context of two relatively stable parties, the political scene in East-Central Europe seems hopelessly complex.

That goes double for Romania.

During the 1989 revolution in Romania, a popular front organization emerged as the chief political institution guiding the changes. The National Salvation Front (NSF) was a mix of former Communists, dissidents, and cultural figures. Several historic parties from the pre-Communist era also re-established themselves. But neither of these two main opposition parties — the National Liberal Party (PNL) under Radu Campeanu and the combined Christian Democrat–National Peasants’ Party under Ion Ratiu — did particularly well in either the presidential or parliamentary elections of 1990 that the NSF dominated.

All of these parties split and recombined over the next 20 years at a sometimes dizzying pace and in unexpected combinations. The NSF split into two main factions, with Ion Iliescu creating what has eventually become the Social Democratic Party, now led by current Prime Minister Victor Ponta. In 2012, Ponta came to power in alliance with the same PNL founded by Campeanu. They came together against the Democratic Liberal Party (PDL), which traces its roots back to the other faction of the National Salvation Front led by Petre Roman.

And now, with presidential elections coming up in November, the frontrunner is the left-leaning Ponta. The PNL and the PDL merged over the summer to come up with a right-leaning unity candidate, Klaus Iohannis, the current mayor of the city of Sibiu.

This political genealogy is necessary for explaining the trajectory of Andrei Chiliman. When I first met him in 1990, he and Dinu Patriciu had recently formed a breakaway faction within the PNL, which they viewed as hopelessly out of touch with Romanian realities. They created the Young Liberals to appeal to a new generation interested in the ideals of liberalism.

Patriciu eventually left politics to become one of the richest men in Romania through his management of the oil company Rompetrol. His fortune whittled down by poor investments, he ended up in court on charges of embezzlement, money laundering, and associated charges. The case was still in the courts when he died this August.

Chiliman, on the other hand, stayed in politics and in the PNL. He served two terms in parliament and is currently mayor of District One in Bucharest (the city has one general mayor and six sectoral mayors).

When I met Chiliman again in May 2013, it was the day after he’d been expelled from the PNL. He’d criticized the party leader Crin Antonescu for essentially attempting a “constitutional coup d’etat” to oust Romanian President Traian Basescu the previous summer through an impeachment referendum.

“Just three or four days before the day of the referendum, the president of the PNL signed a paper with a number of NGOs saying that they would dismantle the constitution and the federal institutions necessary for preserving democracy in Romania,” Chiliman told me in his office. “When I saw this paper signed — and I quickly had a copy of the original in hand — I publically asked the president of the party, ‘Who gave you the mandate to sign this? And is this the official position of the party?’ This was, in my opinion, a normal reaction to something that would eventually in the future be considered the beginning of a constitutional coup d’état. The president of the party became very furious with me, and not just angry, because he perceived that it tarnished the image of the PNL just three days before the referendum.”

The referendum went against Basescu, but the vote was invalid because an insufficient number of people voted. So, Basescu remained in office.

Chiliman’s beef with Antonescu was not just procedural. “I also wanted the party to stay on the Right side of the political spectrum in Romania. And unfortunately, Antonescu and the politics of the government are on the center Left or Left,” he told me. “So I am now for the time being a man without a party. But I do not regret that I was expelled from the PNL for what I did. I think I did the right thing.”

The “time being” lasted about a year. In June 2014, he joined the PDL. Shortly after, this party merged with the party that had expelled Chiliman, the PNL. So, in the end, Chiliman was not only a man with a party once again but the party had moved much closer to his political positions. In the bruising world of party politics in Romania, Chiliman had emerged with his position and reputation intact.

We talked about his disappointment with parliament, his accomplishments as mayor of District One, and the challenges of turning Bucharest into a green city.


The Interview


Let’s start with the most recent news, and then we’ll go back to 1990. I’m interested in this dispute you have with the leader of the Liberal Party. What will be the outcome?


The outcome was that I was expelled from the party yesterday. But it’s a longer story, and I don’t know if you know the whole story. Last year in Romania, there was a dispute with President Basescu. The Social Liberal Union – which was a coalition of the Social Democratic Party, the National Liberal Party, and the Conservative Party – came into power. The prime minister came from the Social Democrat Party, and the president of the National Liberal Party (PNL), Crin Antonescu, wanted to become himself the president of Romania. Antonescu wanted to change the laws very quickly to make it possible to change the president very quickly. To do that required a referendum, so they tried to change the majority necessary for the referendum. In time, they managed to suspend the president from his office. Until the referendum took place, Antonescu became the interim president of Romania. He designated one of his vice presidents as the temporary president of the PNL.

Just three or four days before the day of the referendum, the president of the PNL signed a paper with a number of NGOs saying that they would dismantle the constitution and the federal institutions necessary for preserving democracy in Romania. When I saw this paper signed — and I quickly had a copy of the original in hand — I publically asked the president of the party, “Who gave you the mandate to sign this? And is this the official position of the party?” This was, in my opinion, a normal reaction to something that would eventually in the future be considered the beginning of a constitutional coup d’état. The president of the party became very furious with me, and not just angry, because he perceived that it tarnished the image of the PNL just three days before the referendum.

On the other hand, the unpopular measures imposed by Basescu and his party since 2009 when the global financial crisis hit Romania very hard made the government, his Democratic Party, and himself as president very unpopular. Many people wanted him to resign. I myself wanted him to leave. But we are members of NATO, members of the EU. We fought many years to build a normal democracy in Romania. I wanted to change the president — but in a democratic way, not by a kind of coup d’état. This was the beginning of my fight with the president of the party. At that time, Voice of Russia, which is an institution of the Russian government, agreed with everything that Antonescu did. Meanwhile, the leaders of Antonescu’s party reacted rather aggressively to the questions raised by the prime ministers of some of the EU member states, the president of the EU Commission, and even the U.S. State Department. For me, it was very unpleasant to watch this happening. My reactions at the time were the right ones. But since then I became public enemy number one for Antonescu. And he lost because there were not enough voters in the referendum. He lost the referendum, and he had to come back as leader of the PNL.

It was very clear that the Social Liberal Union would then win the elections by a very high percentage, which they did. But I remained the public enemy number one, and he tried to eliminate me from the party by different ways, such as forcing me to resign. I did nothing. I said that I was a member of the National Liberal Party, and he was not pleased with that. But it was his decision what to do, not mine. Now many people understand what really happened last year. Even if he tries eventually to convince the prime minister to organize another referendum to suspend the president again, it’s very clear they won’t be successful. I said everything I had to say knowing that he would some day expel me from the party. And he did just that yesterday.

In my opinion, it was another sign of the lack of democracy inside the PNL under the rule of Antonescu. I’ve been waiting for his reaction for a long time, and I always said what I had to say. One year after it happened, I asked him why he allowed the interim president of the party to sign those papers with those NGOs. Until now he’s not given an answer. In my opinion, on such a very specific and important subject, the lack of an answer is an answer in itself.

So I am now for the time being a man without a party. But I do not regret that I was expelled from the PNL for what I did. I think I did the right thing. I also wanted the party to stay on the Right side of the political spectrum in Romania. And unfortunately, Antonescu and the politics of the government are on the center Left or Left. So, I don’t entirely agree with these policies. And I disagree with the PNL not bringing any right-wing ideas to the members of the government for helping small enterprises after the crisis to keep working people employed and even create more workplaces. You cannot develop an economy just by imposing higher taxes, and higher taxes, and higher taxes. That’s a simple way of governing. If you want to develop something, you have to reduce taxes, give incentives to the entrepreneurs, and help them maintain their businesses –because a business that remains open employs a number of persons who are then not asking for help from the state. So, in my opinion, the PNL is just staying in government doing nothing.

With a lot of friends of mine, we created a non-government organization called the Liberal Initiative to promote liberal and right-wing policies and ideas for the country. We will bring a lot of our ideas to the public in the near future. We already brought up some suggestions for how the constitution of Romania should be modified.


How are you proposing to modify the constitution?


There are ten points. Some of them are more important, some less important. For example, we want to increase the number of members of the constitutional court. There are only nine now. By doubling the number, the court could more quickly deal with the huge amount of work they have to do. That’s the price to pay for giving more power to the court. Another suggestion is a clearer, more specific separation of powers. For example, a member of the government can be also a member of the parliament. And in my opinion, when you say in the constitution that the first role of the parliament is to control the government, it’s a conflict of interest.


A minister can also be a parliament member?


Yes, and this should be banned. If you want to become a minister, you should have to leave the parliament in order to avoid any conflict of interest. We also want to give more power and more independence to the judiciary. It’s very difficult to do it through changing the constitution, but we should create a more powerful system of integrity for the elected and nominated members of all bodies in Romania. This is one of the big problems for of all the countries in the former Soviet-dominated part of Europe. There is insufficient integrity demanded of the people taking key positions. It’s very important to make sure that all these people will not abuse their positions or be subject to conflicts of interest.

I was a member of the parliament from 1996 until 2004. In 2002, I was aware that we had no law of integrity in Romania. So I studied what other countries did, including the United States and Canada. I created a draft of a law in which I put the accent on the conflict of interest, which I believe is the deadliest thing that can happen to a person occupying a key public position. By chance I had the possibility to meet an American who created the integrity system for the American administration. I sent him the draft of the law. He sent it back with some remarks. I integrated the remarks into the draft of law, and I submitted it to parliament as my initiative.

It was the government of the Social Democratic Party (PSD) with Adrian Nastase as prime minister. They rejected the law. They all said it was a very good draft, but the government had another idea. In 2003, they proposed a different draft of the law on government. By the rules of the parliament, they had to discuss the two laws together. It was very interesting what they did. In their draft of the law on government, they removed the very specific explanation of what constitutes a conflict of interest. So now, when the integrity agency is studying the files of a person doing something wrong, they are finding conflicts of interest – but not incompatibilities with the law. In the meantime, there were some additions and changes to the law. I tried to incorporate changes related to conflict of interest, but I don’t think it was enough. Many things I wrote into this law are in place even now. But it was impossible to find a group of MPs to promote it because, of course, there were a lot of conflicts of interest.

After my duel mandates in parliament, I was very disappointed in how things worked there. Ideas were rejected just because you were in the opposition. And the majority was always voting very clearly along the lines of what the government wanted. So I decided to leave the parliament in 2003 and become a candidate in 2004 for the position of mayor of Sector One. That was a very difficult decision to make. I found a lot of friends in the Sector One organization who supported my intention. Otherwise, it would have been very difficult. And we managed to win the elections for Sector One. I became mayor, and I tried to do my best to change things here and to make what’s called in Western countries “good government.” It was very difficult. There was corruption going on here in various pockets. I had to take very clear steps and very decisive ones. And in two years and a half, I managed to change a lot of things.

When I became mayor, I didn’t find any future projects waiting to be financed. So I had make some priorities. In the meantime, I put into place some measures just in order to have projects for the future. Now we have a lot of projects and not enough money. I was reelected in 2008 after a very tough fight. And in 2012 I was reelected again, this time with 74% of the vote. That means that the people of Sector One were not so unhappy to have me again for a new term as mayor. I am now trying to make Sector One the most beautiful place in the city.


Do you see a kind of a vacuum on the Right side of the political spectrum for a new party?


Not a vacuum, but all the NGOs and parties on the Right side now are very divided. Some of the parties have no credibility at the time being. For the European Parliament elections next year, the Right side of politics in Romania should have a common list. Though it will be a very difficult task to realize, I will try my best to convince all these parties and NGOs to come together to have only one list for this election.


In Hungary, there was also a coalition of socialists and liberals. As a result, Fidesz moved over to the Right side of the spectrum. It seems like there might be a possibility here as well for a similar kind of political development.


The National Liberal Party was on the Right side of the spectrum. And they went to the Left side. It’s very difficult for them to turn around and occupy this field again. With Antonescu as leader, it’s impossible. But they chose this solution. It’s also very difficult for them to leave the government now. Many members of the party are now occupying key positions at the national, regional, and local levels, and it will be difficult for them to leave and go to the Right side of the spectrum again. And even if they will do it, many people will stay in the positions they occupy. I will do my best in the near future to try to bring together all these right-wing parties and NGOs and make them understand that divided they will lose but united they will be able to win.

Many people who supported PNL are now very disappointed with the more left-wing policies the party is pushing. They are waiting for something else to vote for. If there’s no credible alternative, they will stay home instead of voting. So it’s our job now to create for them an alternative so they have a reason again to vote. This is 35% of the electorate. That’s a lot of people. I have no interest in becoming president of Romania or president of anything or even the overall mayor of Bucharest. But I’m very interested in creating a credible right-wing Romanian party or confederation of parties and NGOs.


You were in parliament for eight years — across several governments. Did you find the experience under Constantinescu any different from the other periods of time?


It’s very complicated to say because Constantinescu replaced Iliescu as president. Iliescu was a member of the former Communist Party and a high-ranking member. Even if he was seen as a reformer within the Communist Party, he was still part of the Party at the time. Constantinescu became president, but he had no experience of governing or being president. He tried his best at the time. But during those four years from 1996 to 2000 when he was president, the coalition of parties, the Conventia Democrata (Democratic Convention) made important changes. They pushed Romania towards the EU and towards NATO. These were very important steps in radically changing Romania. When the Social Democrat Party came again into power in 2000 after the reforms of Democratic Convention, they were obliged to continue on this path. And this was a very good thing. Because now we are members of NATO and of the EU. Even if there are economic problems throughout the world, we are trying to overcome this crisis and we are on a good track. And what’s important in Romania is that even if there are some politicians looking still to the East, the majority of the population is looking and wanting the West.


You mentioned that you are very happy about some of the projects here in Sector One. What would you hold up as some of your most successful achievements here?


It’s difficult for me to say the most important achievement. But I’ll give you an example. I have administration over secondary streets in this sector of Bucharest. In 2004 we had over 400 of these streets without water and sewage and asphalt. So my first priority was to bring all these people into the city. They lived like in a village in the 1900s! We had to make a very impressive investment just in order to bring them normal municipal utilities. Some of them were paying local taxes for more than 100 years, and they received nothing for these taxes. That was my first-term priority. It was very interesting because once we introduced these utilities, a lot of people began to sell their land because it had increased in value. Then other people came there and built new, bigger houses — so they paid a lot more taxes to Sector One. This change brought me a bigger budget and allowed me to begin other projects and I could repair other streets. I did my best to reshape the face of this sector. And now we are awaiting another earthquake, maybe in the next 10 years.


An earthquake?


Yes. We had one in 1940 and another in 1977. The next one will come maybe in the next 10 years, but who knows when. I’ve had to make all the public buildings under my administration able to withstand earthquakes – all the schools, everything. This kind of building reconstruction is not something the mayor should do because it doesn’t bring in votes. But we have to do it even if it’s not bringing votes.

After that I’ve focused on creating green spaces. This is a dusty town. It’s on a plain, and when winds are coming through they bring dust from outside. But there’s also a lot of dust here in the city. How can you stabilize it? We’ve planted grass everywhere, and that’s something we’re still doing. But grass in a town where you have some 20 or 30 days every year over 30 degrees without rain? That means the grass will die. So we also had to bring in irrigation systems, and that’s costly. So, we’ve invested a lot of money in things that were necessary to give people a better quality of life.


Did you also have access to EU funds for special projects?


It’s very difficult to access the EU funds in Bucharest because the city has a higher level of income than other places in Romania. So we have some restrictions. But we did access EU funds for some social programs because we have maybe the most developed social and child protections system in Romania in the first district. We received a lot of new funds in cooperation with many European NGOs and universities. We also accessed some funds for developing tourism in Sector One. But there is no money for earthquake-proofing buildings, redoing the streets, or establishing sewage systems. If I had been the mayor of a little village, it might have been faster. We have a lot of schools in this district with over 120 buildings. It costs a lot to renovate these buildings and also ensure that they use less energy through modern lighting and the use of solar panels. We’ll see if we will be allowed in 2014 to use new funds to carry out these projects, but I’ll do it anyway, though it will take longer with my existing budget.


Given your political experiences, has your political philosophy changed in any way since 1990?


Being an engineer, I have a lot of practical expertise when it comes to what a mayor should know and do. In my opinion, a mayor should be a very practical person, not only a politician.

Since 1990, I also believed very strongly, after my term on the municipal council of Bucharest, that a politician going into parliament or into a ministry should have prior experience of local administration. There are so many laws that we have been forced to apply that cannot be applied because they were made by people in a ministry and approved in the parliament by people without any experience in administration. They’re creating laws that are either very difficult to implement or that require a lot of bureaucracy. And you cannot bring on other people necessary to implement the law because other laws forbid you from hiring them. Laws are supposed to bring something good to the people, not something bad. The law should in the end be the result of common sense, and it should be respected by everybody. Those who don’t respect this common sense should be punished somehow. But the law is made not against the people but for the people.


I’ve heard two basic opinions about rule of law today in Romania. One side says things are getting better, a number of people have been put into jail, including of course, Nastase and several other people. The other opinion says those are just minor examples, and the system is still very corrupt and Romania is still in a very bad situation, in terms of rule of law, in general. What’s your opinion?


Romania each day is making a little progress in this way. But it’s very difficult to change from one day to the next a system along with the habits and mentalities of the people living in that system. What’s important now is to impose very strict rules. That’s why I’m telling you this story about integrity. With a very clear law of integrity, people should be obliged to do what they’re supposed to do and not something else. On the other hand, there has been progress in the independence of the judiciary, in the way the court system is functioning. But it’s not so easy. Still, we’ve made huge progress since 1996. An independent and well-functioning judiciary brings stability and confidence. If an investor comes here, and he loses money, he’ll go to the courts, and the judge will say, “You were an idiot, you lost your money.” He is also saying to other investors: Romania is not a place to invest. But if the courts provide justice, then investors will come here because they say, “Ok, the court system is normal in Romania.”


When you look back to 1990 and how you were thinking in those days when we talked, and you consider where we are today in Romania, did you think Romania would be further along? You mentioned you thought there’s been a tremendous step forward since 1996, but did you really think that Romania would be further along back then? Or are you just satisfied that Romania is in the EU and NATO and has made these steps?


I was very optimistic in 1990. I’m still optimistic now, but I am more realistic. What was very difficult to change in Romania was the mentality and habits of people. Maybe with very clear laws from the beginning, we should have been now at a higher level of development. But people’s mentalities and a lot of interests at the beginning made it very difficult to change very fast. It was not clear in 1990, considering some of the people in power then, that Romania would adopt Western ideas. Only when the Soviet Union disappeared, did we have a big breakthrough and the politicians understood that they should go toward the West. They began steps in this direction, even if they were not convinced that this was the right thing to do. But I wanted it from the beginning. It was a very long fight. Now the fight is to impose the rule of law in the proper sense of the word. This and the enforcement of the existing laws are quite difficult to do. And the fact that some important people have been tried shows not only that the justice system is functioning, but that we are going towards normality.


Bucharest, May 28, 2013


Interview (1990)


Few people either within Romania or outside were particularly satisfied with the performance of the opposition parties in Romania. The Liberal party, with Radu Campeanu at its head, especially disappointed the more Western-looking Romanian intellectuals with whom I talked. The party’s leadership was old and old-fashioned, its policies poorly equipped for today’s Romania. In July, a small group within the party broke away to form a youth faction. I spoke first with Dinu Patriciu and then Andrei Chiliman.

Patriciu explained the grievances. The National Liberal party is Romania’s oldest with a 150 year history. After January, it reformed, mostly by a group of politicians from before the war: “their ideology is fifty years old and they don’t understand the reality now.” Campeanu was away from the country for 17 years and that was one reason why the party did so poorly in the elections. Patriciu thinks that liberalism as an ideology attracts 30-40 per cent of Romanians. “It is not enough to say that we want privatization. We have to explain to people what property is.” Further, one-third of the population is not stable, working in towns, for instance, and living in villages. This portion of the population should be stabilized by being provided work in the villages.

With several others, Patriciu founded the youth wing of the NLP but he hopes to turns this into a liberal forum, an oppositional force against the Front that unites the more than 40 parties that call themselves “liberal.” He expects that the Front will split into two parties, one socialist, the other social democratic. In this case, there must be a center-right party and this would be his liberal coalition. This coalition would function as a bridge between the left and the right. The economic task of the coalition: create in Romania a modern market economy. Considering the latter, large inefficient state enterprises must be split up into small self-managing enterprises. A private sector must be created that will produce goods and services. The party would also strive to solve Romania’s ethnic problems. Patriciu suspects that the Hungarian minority in the north will prosper economically in the new order because they will receive aid from Hungary. Therefore, private enterprise must be established quickly so that Romanians can compete side-by-side with Hungarians. Meanwhile, all rights of Hungarians must be respected though there could be no compromise on Romanian territorial integrity.

When they broke away 2 weeks ago, the youth faction brought 80 per cent of the membership with them. How many was this? Before elections, the leadership thought that the NLP was huge. After the elections it turned out that there were only 15,000 members. Now the popularity of liberalism seems greater outside the party than within. The new group has begun a journal that will print 200,000 copies. Financing of this, he says, is from their own money. They are looking for a big center for their offices (now they are located in Patriciu’s architecture office in one of the houses of the Rosettis, one of Romania’s former patrician families). The Campeanu party made no attempts to contact working people: the new party will rectify this error. Since the break, the new party has tried to inform Western liberal parties the truth about what happened within the party. But Campeanu has given interviews, to Radio Free Europe for instance, in which he has accused the breakaway movement of being Communists, of trying to destabilize the situation, of being Securitate, of being members of the Front.

The young liberals are in the process of putting together a program. Actually, two programs. One is an anti-NSF program: shorter, more conducive to public discussion. The other is broader: in fact it would be a shadow program with a shadow government that would be prepared to rule the country if necessary. I asked what “if necessary” meant. “Social tension will increase in Romania in the next six months and everything will be possible, even elections next year. We must be prepared for them.”

Patriciu went off to take care of business and Chiliman sat down to continue the narrative. At first, this new party was simply a group of intellectuals but now there are also some workers in the party. Why would workers and peasants possibly want to support the party? They will become dissatisfied with the NSF and will need a “buoy” in the turbulent times ahead. As for the economists working on the program, he wouldn’t give out their names. The economists were not members of the party and did not want to go public for fear of having problems with the Front.

Chiliman then talked about privatization. The problem: no money to accomplish the task when speaking of large state enterprises. The first step then is not to privatize this state sector but to encourage the development of a private sector and make a decentralized state sector more profitable. Some shares in privatized companies should be given to workers for free. Foreign investors must be attracted “but we do not want to sell our workforce for a little price.” Rather, Romanian products must be brought up to world standards. “We must learn from Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary and not make the same mistakes that they have done.” He did not think that a market economy could function if the state owned more than 25-30 per cent.

He described the events leading up to the split. An article appeared in the party paper in which the editor attacked four vice-presidents of the party. The substance of the article was correct, Chiliman said, but the manner was inappropriate. The older members of the party were shocked and kicked the editor out of the party. Four executive secretaries of the party–Patriciu, Chiliman and two others–then organized a press conference to protest the action. Before the conference, they met with Campeanu and asked for a reorganization of the party. Campeanu said no, so they went ahead with the press conference. The next day, the NLP held a meeting of the Executive Bureau, everyone agreed that the four dissenters wanted to destroy the party, so the dissenters were expelled.

The new party at first had good contacts with several Western embassies who had agreed that Romania to that time had no credible opposition. Now, however, many of the embassies believe what Campeanu has said.


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