Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The political divide

Interesting map of how the country is divided:

Orange counties voted for Basescu (basically Transylvania, Bucharest, the coast), red ones voted for Geoana (the rest of the south and Moldova). (Green ones - Harghita and Covasna, where I am, voted for Kelemen). This country is pretty clearly divided, no? (Note that a fair few of the Transylvanian counties and all of the districts of the capital didn't even put Geoana second)

Monday, November 23, 2009

The morning after...

As predicted below, the Presidential run off in Romania will be between (incumbent) Traian Basescu and Mircea Geoana of the PSD. So basically that means more of the same for Romania. Let's be honest here, electing a president from the PSD will not represent a huge change for Romania given that they've been in power for the vast majority of the time since 1989 (and before that too, since the PSD is essentially the rebranded Communist party).

One thing that is noticeable in the foreign press's coverage of this election is the insistence on calling Geoana/the PSD "left leaning" or "leftist". This is, to put it mildly, utter bollocks. The PSD are "leftist" in as much as they are made up of the old Communist party, but in any actual policy or ideas or ideology or approaches are a right wing party (with a populist streak thrown in) - to give an example, they are vehemently anti-minority, which is hardly a "leftist" position to take. Even the economic policies they espouse are basically right wing ones. So if you see a report that refers to them as "leftist" I suggest you flick v-signs at the TV or radio or newspaper which is parroting this utterly false line.

In any sane society the PSD and its apparatchiks would have vanished long ago. Corrupt, power-crazed, with a mafia-like grip over many communities. But it is just that apparatus left over from when they were all Ceausescu's mates (before they saw which way the wind was blowing and staged an internal coup under the guise of a national revolution), which has left them so strong. Many parts of the country are still very much under the grip of the local PSD office, through which all power, money and influence flows. Hence getting rid of them is incredibly difficult. Floating over this whole structure is the shadowy vampiric figure of Ion Iliescu, Ceausescu's one-time heir apparent who had fallen out of favour with the dictator, but who came back to lead the so-called revolution and subsequently occupy the Presidency for 11 of the 20 years since then. Geoana paints himself as a reformer of the PSD, but nobody really believes much has changed.

Over the last couple of days I had started to hope that maybe. just maybe, Crin Antonescu of the PNL would get enough votes to enter the second round which would at least have left people with a real possibility of something new. It was not to be however, and the PSD obviously did a good job of getting out their vote (their heartland seems to be in the rural counties of the south, most of which got higher than average turnout). There were also many cases of reported fraud, with some people being bussed from place to place to vote more than once, some dead people voting, and other cases of votes being bought.

The one positive that comes from this election is that the turnout was much higher than expected - dire predictions of 20-30% turnout were suggested but in the end the count was over 50%. Not exactly massive, but at least reasonable (and we can assume that the vast majority of these people only voted once and were actually alive and stuff). This in a country that is in such an incredible mess that, for example, my daughter will have a three day holiday from school this and next week because the government is forcing all public sector employees (including teachers) to take 10 days unpaid holiday this year to save money. When even the education of the next generation is being sacrificed by politicians, you know things are bad.

Now the horse trading begins, with both remaining candidates trying to pick up the votes that went to the others. Logically Antonescu's 20% ought to go to Basescu as those two candidates occupy similar ground politically, but with Basescu screwing the PNL over a fair few times in the recent past, there may be a doubt there. The far-right nationalist vote of Vadim Tudor and Becali (about 6% between them) will presumably go to Geoana. The Hungarians will vote (those who bother to show up) for Basescu, because while they have found him untrustworthy and that he's done absolutely nothing for the Hungarian minority in his 5 years in power, he's also not enacted policies that are specifically anti-Hungarian, while the assumption is that Geoana would. Basescu's real problem is that he's become quite a divisive figure, and it could be that those who will vote for him, already have, and those that haven't, won't.

I hope it goes to Basescu, but only on the basis that he's better than the alternative, not because I have any faith in his abilities. We now have two weeks of being reminded how bankrupt the country not only financially but also politically.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Bald men and combs

Romanian politics ought to be incredibly exciting and interesting. We've had 3 or 4 governments in the last few weeks, there is a presidential election right round the corner, the country is in the middle of a massive economic meltdown, and the country is in the grip of swine flu fear. It's also approaching the 20th anniversary of the revolution. Oh, and corruption is still totally endemic (as recently reported here on NPR, here in the Guardian, and here in El Pais)

And yet...

The presidential election is being contested between the biggest collection of nonentities and vacuous personality-free greying men you could imagine, while the most competent politicians in the country are having their political careers shattered by being proposed for the Prime Ministership, a job which is a chalice so full of poison that there is actually no room for anything else in it.

To recap, on the assumption that very few people reading this actually follow Romanian politics: Earlier this year there was a general election, which after much horsetrading led to a coalition government of the PDL (liberal democrats - party of President Basescu) and PSD (social democrats, nominally left leaning, but in fact right wing party of ex-communists). This government was led by former Cluj mayor Emil Boc. Faced with the fallout from the ongoing economic crisis, which is really biting in Romania this year, this government was pretty useless, and before long had collapsed in a hail of recriminations, with the PSD pulling out. Boc's govt soldiered on for a while as minority, but soon got kicked out in the inevitable no confidence vote.

Anyway, following this collapse, two of the three major parties (the PSD and the PNL – national liberals) along with the 4th biggest party, the UDMR (Hungarian ethnic party) came together and proposed that a new government should be led by Klaus Johannis, the ethnic German mayor of Sibiu. This seemed like an eminently good choice as (a) he is not actually part of any of the main parties, and instead represents an party which originally represented the ethnic German population of Transylvania, but he has done such a good job as mayor of Sibiu (German population something like 2%), that he was most recently reelected with something crazy like 75% of the vote, and (b) he’s obviously good at what he does.

Basescu, and the PDL, though, were having none of it, and instead the president nominated a new prime minister whose name I have already forgotten (actually true) so short lived was his government. One theory here runs that Basescu is happy to perpetuate this continued instability on the basis that it enhances his prospects of reelection. Anyway, having failed the first time when choosing a PM who wasn’t Johannis, he is trying again (and once again going against the continued will of the other 3 parties who are steadfast in their support for the German), and has now nominated Liviu Negoita. Now I have a friend who swears that Negoita is the bee’s knees and had completely revitalised Bucharest Sector 3 where he is the mayor. He must be doing something right, since like Johannis he got reelected with a huge proportion of the vote. So, here we have the PM-ship being tossed around between seemingly two really really good politicians, both of whom look like they could really help Romania, but whose national political careers are liable to get destroyed by success (I can’t really see anyone benefitting in the long term by becoming PM at the moment). In the meantime the usual cretins and non-entities are contesting the presidential election. ..

So, a brief run through of the faceless nobodies who might be president (well most of them don’t stand a hope in hell, but they’re standing anyway)

Traian Basescu. To be fair, he at least does have a personality. I’m not sure if I’m fond of that personality but it is there. I wouldn’t trust him any further than I could comfortably throw him, though his schtick seems to be entirely based on being a man of the people, “Honest Traian”. You wouldn’t buy a car from him, why would you want him as president? I still can’t really get over the fact that a couple of years ago, he was caught making a blatantly racist remark, and rather than apologising, he said it was just what everybody thought. Only in Romania.

Mircea Geoana. Representing the PSD. A Goana is a lizard in Australia, and while his name is not actually Goana, it would be fitting. I’d say slimy would be the most fitting adjective. He also indirectly played a role in the recent death of my brother in law, which while I am pretty sure he was not really to blame for, it’s difficult to get past. Plus he’s in the PSD.

Crin Antonescu. (PNL) A man whose personality and look are so unobtrusive that you wonder whether he really exists. Despite seeing his face on posters all over, if I was asked to pick him out of a police line-up I don’t think I could. He would be infinitely more appealing if he would just go with the logical campaign slogan “Crin and bear it”. Of the three main parties the PNL is the one which I have marginally more time for, so he’s possibly the best of a bad lot.

Sorin Oprescu. Independent, ex-PSD, currently mayor of Bucharest (you may by now be getting the message that the way to high office in Romania is by way of being the mayor somewhere, and that certainly seems to be the case. Basescu was mayor of Bucharest too). Can’t say much about Oprescu, just that he looks like a bit of chancer. He’s only just been elected mayor of Bucharest, so it seems a bit rum that he’s already trying to dump that job in favour of a bigger one. On top of his couple of weeks experience in charge of the capital, I’m not sure what else he’s done aside from being a PSD apparatchik.

Kelemen Hunor (UDMR – Hungarian party). Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. Makes Crin Antonescu look like the life and soul of the country.

Corneliu Vadim Tudor (PRM – far right nationalists for old people and those pining for Ceausescu). Wanker, anti semitic, racist, anti-Hungarian, all round tosser and self-professed poet.

Gigi Becali (PNG – far right nationalists for disaffected urban youth). Makes Vadim Tudor look like the soul of moderation and intelligence. Complete and utter arsehole. Owner of Steaua Bucharest, and self-professed shepherd.

A bunch of others too, including Remus Cernea of the Green Party who I saw on TV the other day and who looks absolutely fantastic, and who if I had a vote I would vote for in a flash, and someone called Edouard Manole, about whom I know absolutely nothing, but whose poster I saw in Bucharest today, and whose logo seems to be the crossed hammer one which he’s obviously ripped off from the film “Pink Floyd: The Wall”. Based on that he could well be yet another far right candidate with fascistic tendencies, like Romania needs any more of them.

In all likelihood the first round will leave Basescu facing Geoana in the run off, at which point this election becomes even less interesting than it is now. The real loser will be turnout which threatens to be the lowest ever since democracy, and which, only 20 years after the overthrow of Ceausescu, and with all the problems that the country faces, is a really sad indictment.

[PS A much more interesting political analysis of the upcoming election can now be found at Gadjo Dilo's excellent blog]

Monday, November 09, 2009

The trip from hell (pt 2)

Two weeks ago, I started telling the story of my multi-legged trip across the globe. After Bucharest from where I posted that update, things got a little sticky. You see, when I checked in for my flight in Athens, I discovered that I actually needed a visa to go to Australia. It had never even occurred to me to check. I was told to go to the travel agents in Athens airport and see if I could get one. Apparently these things are possible to get online for travel agents. But the system was down, or it didn't like my name, or it perceived me as some form of existential threat to the nation. Like a cane toad or something. So having called ahead to the Australian travel agents who booked my ticket, I was advised to persuade Emirates to let me board the flight as far as Dubai, and from there we would sort it out. This I managed to do. In Dubai, I then spent hours (3+) online attempting to get my visa sorted, and eventually got an email saying that my application had been received and was a valid application (not that it had been accepted, just that I had filled everything in correctly). My Australia contact told me to assume it would be and see if they would let me board the plane. For some reason they did, and I took off for Brisbane, without knowing whether I'd actually get through immigration at the other end (once I reached Brisbane I would have been travelling for 42 hours, so the idea of being turned away and sent back was not really one I wanted to dwell on that much).

Obviously, I made it. Checking my email account later on revealed that the authorisation had come through about 5 hours into the trip, probably somewhere over Sri Lanka.

However, just to cap off the whole marathon experience, I then got busted for inadvertently attempting to bring an apple into Australia. I had forgotten it was in my bag, and a dog wandered up and sat there looking smug next to the suitcase. I was asked to open it up and there it was, a solitary, fairly wizened little apple. I was given a written warning, and told to be much more careful in future, as next time I would get fined, or something.

It was all worth it though, as I had a great time in the antipodes. I am writing this on the way home, back in Dubai airport, with only about 16 more hours to go before I make it back to my family, who I haven't seen for over 3 weeks now...

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

The Melbourne Cup

I never finished writing about my mega trip across the globe, and it actually did take on some extra twists and turned before it finished, but that will have to wait for another day.

Since then I have been in Brisbane, a city which is great (so great that I get to commute to work by catamaran), but also, more of that later too.

Today is Melbourne Cup day. The Melbourne Cup is a horse race that is so culturally ingrained that some of the states here actually get the day off for it. (I actually don't know how many do, and it may just be Victoria, which is where Melbourne is). Anyway, even those that don't everybody bunks off for a while in the afternoon to watch the race. To me, it's basically just a horse race, and I don't tend to find horse racing that interesting.

However, since I'm here, I feel I need to get into it a bit, if for no other reason that then the cultural-anthropological sight of seeing an entire nation getting wasted on a Tuesday afternoon. There is, though, a better reason for getting involved. And that is that one of the participants in the course I'm training is from Melbourne, and his girlfriend is the sister of someone who owns and trains a horse in the race. He told me this last week, and while for me it was sort of one of those vaguely interesting facts, it was clearly very very interesting for everyone else. I have since discovered that this horse is the joint favourite. So, I feel I have a connection (however tenuous the my student's girlfriend's brother's horse connection may seem to you). I think the horse is joint favourite because the story is what the media tend to call a fairytale (small town farmer, has a horse which used to be a polo-refereeing horse, and which came out of nowhere, etc etc) Anyway its name is Alcopop (crap name, but you know) and I am about to head down the pub to have a bit of a flutter (the betting shop is actually in the pub) and watch the race and have the experience of being in an Aussie pub during the Melbourne Cup.

I will report later on this field mission into the equine heart of Australia

[Just back. Sadly the horse came 6th, but it was an enjoyable afternoon watching people dressed up to the nines* getting plastered in a suburban pub at 2pm]

[*Though that was actually just the women. None of the blokes seemed to have bothered]