Twenty years after the events of 1989, a revolution that led to the collapse of communism, Romania held a series of presidential elections in November-December 2009.
Former president Traian Băsescu (candidate of the Liberal Democratic Party – PDL), won a new mandate over Mircea Geoană (the candidate of the Social Democratic Party – PSD), in the second round of the elections. The former president won 5,274,063 votes while Mircea Geoana gained 5,204,102 votes (50.33% – 49.66%). The third candidate was Crin Antonescu of the National Liberal Party (PNL) who supported Geoană in the second round.
The 2009 election brought something new to the Romanian political scene: for the first time, a presidential election was not held simultaneously with parliamentary elections in May. This also brought a change in terms of political communication as the presidential campaign extended throughout the year between the two elections.
During this period Romanians witnessed some amazing scandals like Monica Ridzi and Elena Udrea (ministers appointed by PDL for the portfolios of Sports and Tourism). The two ministers were accused of serious irregularities, Ridzi being removed from office. These two issues were used during the campaign to infer guilt by association with the president in office, Traian Băsescu, because the two ministers were perceived by the public as Băsescu’s people.
It’s all about enemies
Let’s get to the strategies employed by the three main candidates in this campaign. To understand the strategy used by Băsescu we must review a brief history of the man and his character.
The president is known as a politician who likes an argument. Because of this, all the time, Băsescu found enemies even where they did not exist and often positioned himself as one of us the people against an imagined them, the anti-democratic forces. In 2004, when he won his first term as president, Băsescu was branded as the anti-corruption candidate and the representative of the people in the struggle against the barons of PSD.
In 2007, Băsescu was suspended from office after 322 parliamentarians accused him of having violated the constitution. The fight between president and parliament was resolved by a referendum in which 74.48% supported the president. In his campaign Băsescu characterised the 322 MPs as a singular enemy who defied the people by suspending the democratically elected president.
In 2009 Băsescu adopted a similar strategy surrounding the topic of state reform. The theme materialised in a national referendum, in which people were asked about a proposed shift to a unicameral (ie single chamber) parliament. 77.78% agreed to this, supporting Băsescu, 88.84% agreed with having fewer than 300 parliamentarians. Alongside his battle against parliament, Băsescu also led a fight against moguls and oligarchs, terms invented by the president himself. The terms have been used to describe owners of a media group and those with financial power, as well as high profile backers of his opponents.
His opponents Mircea Geoană, the Socialist candidate, and Crin Antonescu, the Liberal candidate, responded with an anti-Băsescu strategy. In the fight with the current president, both candidates relied on the decrease of his notoriety and the accumulated discontent of the people in those five years of Basescu’s mandate. This strategy was also clear in the second round of elections, when PNL and Crin Antonescu supported Mircea Geoană in the battle with Traian Băsescu.
Surprisingly the global economic crisis did not feature as an issue and the candidates didn’t offer real solutions to end the crisis. Instead, due to the us versus them agenda the campaign was inwardly focused and personalized rather than focusing on political platforms.
Television as the main media
If we talk about tactics, we must mention that the three candidates made use of some TV stations previously considered as outside the mainstream. To give just a few examples, we can mention TarafTV, a Romanian folk music station, and OTV, a station designed to be in a continuous search of sensational gossip that has a growing audience.
Another novelty in this campaign was the ‘war of the videos’. During the campaign leading up to the second round the staff of the two candidates met with unpleasant surprises. Two videos became public: one of the 2004 campaign that portrayed Băsescu hitting a child and another where Mircea Geoană received a sum of money from a party member to ensure their presence on the list of candidates for parliamentary elections. Although the movie in which the president struck a child led to more discussion and controversy, it is difficult to assess the impact it had on voters in a context where there were many who held that the movie was a fake.
The debates between the candidates remained an important feature. In 2004 many said that the debate before the second round of elections made Băsescu the winner. This time, the debate between Băsescu, Antonescu and Geoană was watched by 4.1 million viewers and the final debate between Geoană and Basescu by 4.9 million. These figures show once more how important a debate is in a candidate’s strategy.
We also have online. Finally
If online communication was almost overlooked in 2004, in 2009 the presidential candidates took the internet much more seriously. Campaign websites, supportive websites, negative websites, campaign blogs, Facebook profiles, Twitter, Flickr or YouTube channels became key communication means and online PR tactics. The most active seemed to be Traian Băsescu who surprised many by giving two exclusive interviews to popular Romanian bloggers. Crin Antonescu’s also attempted to build a campaign through SMS donations, called “Invest in Action Antonescu”.
Also, a black component of PR was developed in this campaign. Almost every candidate appeared on at least three or four negative websites (especially parodies of the campaign site), each of which had specially employed people who posted negative comments about the opponents in the online media or on blogs.
Has political communications played a big part?
In Romania, political communications is just beginning to emerge. This is not surprising if we bear in mind that democracy is also fairly young. It is difficult to assess the importance of campaign communications, but every year sees new innovations. Romanian politics represents a great opportunity for us, the students and the next generation of communications specialists.