Our Beloved Corrupt Politicians
Why are Romanians voting for mayoral candidates accused of corruption? To answer the question, PressOne reporters visited three cities whose incumbent mayors are favored to re-elected in spite of their legal issues: Craiova (where Olguța Vasilescu is subject to legal restrictions pending trial), Baia Mare (Cătălin Cherecheș is in custody at the Gherla penitentiary), and Piteşti (where Tudor Pendiuc, after 9 months behind bars, has been put on trial).
Our findings suggest that voters are willing to excuse corruption, so long as there is a sense they might benefit from it.
Craiova – The City of Kings
by Iulia Marin
The people of Craiova elected Lia Olguța Vasilescu for mayor on Sunday June 5th. She won over 60% of the vote. Her win comes while she is under investigation by the DNA (Anti-Corruption Directorate) for bribe-taking and influence peddling.
We wanted to get a feel for the situation from the city’s cultural elite – writers, artists, and the project managers who’ve put the city on the map. Most of what we found can fit somewhere between ‘CraiOlguța’ and ‘King’ Solomon (the city’s former mayor, Antonie Solomon, already convicted of corruption): It is a city full of lofty statues, but also one in which the press is crippled and corruption scandals are kept under wraps.
Sunday – 12:30 PM. In front of Craiova’s red-painted train station we find an elaborate water fountain and several wooden benches.
As we walk into town stray dogs cut across our path often. Old houses, whose walls are covered in ivy, seem to come alive when women in colorful dresses come out to hang the laundry. It smells of detergent, fresh laundry, and exhaust fumes, yet the city appears deserted.
In front of the “Traian Demetrescu” (poet and literary critic) community center, we meet the institution’s administrator, Luiza Mitu, the art critic, Cătălin Davidescu, the writer, Petrișor Militaru, and professor Mihai Ene.
Luiza Mitu shows us the memorial house – which was recently renovated. Even the alleyway leading to it was only recently paved while the city center has been restored during Olguța Vasilescu’s previous term, Cătălin Davidescu tells us.
The project got underway during her predecessors mandate, Antonie Solomon, who is spending three years behind bars after sentencing in 2013. “King Solomon,” the critic says, with a hint of irony.
We walk the vacant alleyways, past outdoor patios, and find ourselves in William Shakespeare square, right by the “Marin Sorescu” theater. A few trees provide shade for the patios’ wicker chairs. The large Shakespeare bust sets the tone for the William Shakespeare festival, one of the country’s chief cultural events.
Our hosts tell us that Craiova has a lively cultural tradition: There are several literary magazines, along with film, art, and theater festivals. Historical buildings are getting much needed restorations, while museums have received subsidies from City Hall to buy works of art.
Scandals are forgotten, however.
For example, Davidescu tells us, the whole controversy surrounding the acquisition of the French Library (also known as Casa Pleșia), a designated historical monument which is now the PSD party’s Dolj county headquarters. In 2010 the senator Mircea Geoană had a constituency office here. At the time, the Ministry of Culture – the building’s rightful owner - had won their case against the Dolj county PSD. Geoană was meant to leave the premises – which had only been made available to him through then-mayor Solomon’s goodwill. And yet, it is still the Dolj county PSD seat.
All the while, Casa Pleșia is falling apart. There are signs out on the street warning passers-by to keep a safe distance from the crumbling building.
The restoration of Romanescu Park has its own controversial back-story, too. Davidescu explains that even though the park was granted historical monument status, there are parts of it that were given over to private individuals.
These stories are usually discussed in private and with a certain reserve. The people who manage the city-hall sponsored cultural events prefer not to discuss potential illegalities. The general consensus seems to be: “We don’t do politics.”
“You talk about the good stuff, I talk about the bad,” says Davidescu to Luiza Mitu when we ask for differing points of view. It’s true that she altogether avoids political topics.
In Craiova’s intellectual circles, adding politics to a discussion sullies it. “The city has changed, like everywhere else.” This is the prevailing sentiment. But Craiova can still brag about achievements like the Theater faculty at the city’s university. “Our graduates get roles at the national theater; they appear in productions in many cities. Plenty of talented people graduate from our university,” says the writer and professor Mihai Ene (photo).
In the midst of all these rehabilitated historical buildings, City Hall is a wreck. It is said that it was intentionally left for last. “This way nobody could say that rehabilitations were carried out for their interest alone…that kind of stuff,” Ene says.
One of the newly rehabilitated buildings is the National Art Museum, inside of the “Jean Mihail” Palace. Inside, the walls are covered in silk. Outside, gold leaves were used during the restoration process to match the building’s splendor from the height of its glory during the Interwar period.
The museum hosts works by Nicolae Grigorescu, Ștefan Luchian, and Theodor Aman, but also Constantin Brâncuși replicas and entire rooms dedicated to a lesser-known artist, Mihail Trifan – whose modest renown came only after his 70th birthday. “He’s a very interesting character,” Davidescu says, “a die-hard communist but a very talented artist, too.”
“His work is not of an ideological nature, you see?” Mihai Ene points out the artists’ remarkably creative use of various materials in his pieces.
A rehabilitated city center, parks, well-curated museums, and crumbling municipal buildings (so that citizens don’t make snide remarks), and the fine mist of water fountains: that’s what we found in Craiova.
And quiet. Especially quiet at the city’s voting sections. It’s as if the local press decided to take the day off on Election Day.
We take our leave from our hosts – who don’t seem to be very interested in voting – and go off to meet the actor, Emil Boroghină, who is also the director of the Shakespeare Festival.
Born in Corabia, he tells us he used to live next to Ion Oblemenco – the legendary captain of the local football club, Universitatea Craiova, after whom the stadium is named. He is, however, not a sympathizer of Pavel Badea, the PNL mayoral candidate, himself a former Universitatea Craiova team captain.
He is no fan of former mayor, Antonie Solomon either, but he says that Olguța Vasilescu has always shown her support for the city’s cultural inclination.
“Olguța will always get my vote. We love Olguța. At some point Solomon said to me that he doesn’t give a damn about the Shakespeare Festival. But Olguța has always been supportive,” says Boroghină. “The William Shakespeare statue was inaugurated by Olguța Vasilescu. Even the Speaker of the House of Commons was present (John Bercow visited Craiova in 2013 at the same the rehabilitation of Jean Mihail palace took place). We’re even twinned with Stratford-upon-Avon. If you think about it, the bard was a contemporary of Mihai Viteazu’s…”
We head back to the train station after taking our leave from Boroghină and his beloved festival. It’s getting dark and few people are coming out of the polling stations.
The train to Bucharest will be delayed by more than an hour. We sit outside, alongside fellow travelers, gazing at the water fountain.
The Beautiful Baia Mare
by Codruța Simina
Baia Mare languishes under the pleasant June sunshine. Here, too, the water fountains are putting on a show. Fine jets of water gush intermittently. Once upon a time one of these fountains was accompanied by classical music.
At the “Gheorghe Șincai” high school – where in the fall of 2015 the city’s mayor, Cătălin Cherecheș, was giving students a speech about ‘democracy’ – a polling station is opening for the area’s constituents. The mayor, by the way, is in preventative custody at the Gherla penitentiary in Cluj County.
Even while he’s in a prison cell on bribery charges, most voters speak very highly of Cherecheș.
As people share their views and opinions, a pattern emerges: A mayor who fancies himself a local idol, the local press mostly financed by local institutions, public tenders awarded to a handful of companies, and the citizens’ astonishing tolerance for asphalt, concrete, odd statues, and pebble-filled parks.
Most voters tell us, “at least he did something.” Fed up with this repetitive motto, mayoral candidates throughout the country have ironically embraced the #atleasthedidsomething hashtag.
Two pensioners, husband and wife, speak with conviction: “Why vote for him? For the betterment of our community, so that we all have something, not just the half of something, so that this city can get going again and there are job opportunities for our youth. We’re retired but the youth have nothing going for them…”
If he’s so good, why is he in jail?
“It’s a real shame. Crooks put him in there. He was framed. But we’re still voting for him. The difference between him and those before is like night and day. Take the park for example, the benches, flowers, he put flowers everywhere…the roads, too, he fixed up the sidewalks…he did in four years what the other mayor wasn’t able to achieve in ten.”
After them, another senior pipes in. He’s proud to support the historical political parties, but has no doubts about who deserves the vote today: Cherecheș.
“I’ll have you know that I also voted for him. Yes, maybe he did some things he shouldn’t have, but he did take care of the city, he was very good at it. It’s a shame. You know how it is, you swim with the sharks and you’re bound to get bit…a real shame.”
What do you think is going to happen if he wins the election?
“I couldn’t say. I don’t even care, but I don’t think he’s getting out of this one by the looks of it. It’s pretty serious apparently.”
Will there be a by-election or…what’s going to happen?
“I think so, yes. As far as I’ve heard from others it looks like it.”
This appears to be the general consensus among those who took the time to speak to us. But we wanted more details.
Gabriel Oana, better known by his internet moniker, Gaben – a Baia Mare resident, blogger, and former supporter of the incarcerated mayor – has his own theory: The residents of Baia Mare are suffering from Stockholm syndrome – the psychological affliction that causes victims to grow attached to their captor.
We asked him about the interminable excuse, “at least he did something”.
“Well, you know, it’s the eternal battle between the honest mayor who does nothing and the corrupt mayor who, indeed, does something [for the city]. We have a history of self-flagellation – we’ve always found it convenient to be subservient to others instead of leading. It’s a recurring theme in the history of the Romanians. Not a single city in this area was built by Romanians. We like it when the big boss comes to collect his tithes.”
He can also explain the mayor’s rampant popularity.
“To lead the masses you need bread and circuses. For us here, the circus was sport. He poured cash into sports in some very unorthodox ways. I can’t corroborate this in any legally acceptable manner, but it’s what I was able to gather about the whole thing. And please, let’s keep the discussion on this level; I don’t want words put into my mouth.
Anyway, he got hold of the Minaur teams [Baia Mare’s major handball club] – both the men’s and women’s. People loved him because they were doing so well. And then the DNA showed up and started investigating how money from City Hall was funding these teams. With the faucet shut off, the teams’ successes took a turn for the worse.
Here’s the funny thing, the people weren’t mad about his misappropriation of city funds – they were upset that he wasn’t putting money into sport teams! Wait a minute, it was illegal! City Hall isn’t allowed to funnel money like this, but all the people cared about was that he wasn’t doing it. They were booing him at the games because the teams were no longer getting their cash injection. People were mad because he took their favorite toy away, not because he was stealing.”
Gabriel Oana continues, bemused, explaining that most of us would probably go off the deep end with a God complex if we had enough money and power. Also, he explains, Cherecheș was incredibly ambitious.
“His goal was to become President of Romania. He saw what Iohannis did and immediately thought: Baia Mare, cultural capital, himself an independent, and then president. That’s what he was going for.”
A day after our visit, the results were in. Cătălin Cherecheș was voted as mayor in a landslide victory with 70% of the popular vote. During the course of his campaign he sent out over twenty letters from his cell to the citizens of Baia Mare. They all signed off with the same three words:
“I love you.”
Piteşti – The Red City
by Roxana Garaiman
In Piteşti, the PSD candidate Cornel Ionică won the election by 300 votes. The incumbent, Tudor Pendiuc, had been the longest serving mayor of any city in Romania. Pendiuc served from 1992 onwards (six mandates) while this year he ran as an independent after the PSD withdrew their support in light of his legal issues.
Ionică has been the de facto mayor since 2014 when Pendiuc was arrested on corruption charges. The former mayor had been incarcerated for 9 months prior to his release in August 2015. He’d lost nearly 50 pounds and claimed he was suffering from various ailments. He was placed under probation and, a month later, he was back in the mayor’s seat.
In spite of the legal issues, the city’s residents viewed them as the primary candidates in the city’s municipal elections.
“The city looks great,” a local tells us outside of polling station #49. “Pendiuc is an excellent caretaker. He did something for us during his mandate. I’m not sure about his legal situation, but if he comes back as mayor it’s a win for the city. I’d say that his best projects were the Piteşti bypass, taking care of the city parks, and the city center.”
To get a better understanding of the affinity for their corrupt mayor, as well as for his vice-mayor –found himself “incompatible” with the office – PressOne met with reserve Colonel, Cornel Carp, a doctor in history and former director of the Center of Historical Military Archives. He was close to Pendiuc and they co-wrote the book “Piteşti – 20 Years of History” back in 2010.
“I worked with Mr. Pendiuc in my capacity as a historian. We wrote the book together. He came up with the idea and I did the writing. Taking into account our personal relationship I asked him, about 8 years ago, why he doesn’t withdraw from public office. I told him we’re getting to a point where it’s important to also look after our own soul. He said to me: ‘I can’t. I just can’t stop!’”
Cornel Carp recognizes, however, that Pendiuc has the traits of an able politician who understands the spirit of his constituents very well.
“He was caught up in the frenzy of it all. A sane man wouldn’t want to run for office again. But it’s a common trait with all these corrupt politicians: they’ve lost touch with reality. This is partly because he was very popular as well. People appreciated that he would greet them on the street, that he wouldn’t refuse an audience, and he kept a dialogue going at all times. He was especially known for keeping to his weekly visiting hours – he’d stay five hours at a time if he had to.”
All this said, the historian affirms that under Pendiuc’s mandates the city’s development has been chaotic, bereft of identity, and that the city’s cultural life has suffered.
“The attitude towards culture is extremely lackadaisical. The Right [the National Liberals] in Piteşti are apathetic and cater to the city’s elites. One example of their lack of involvement is the illustrious Vila Florica that’s about to be sold for next to nothing. A historic 100 year old Liberal stronghold, a work of art, built by the celebrated interwar architect, Petre Antonescu, is most likely going to become an event hall. It’s going to be sold for about a million and a half euros and the Liberals have nothing to say about it.”
Carp also adds that Pendiuc was never taken to task by the citizens of Piteşti for the poor taste demonstrated in some of the modernization projects completed over the course of his many mandates.
The musical fountain in front of City Hall was inaugurated in 2008 and cost the city 1.5 million euros.
“He modernized the city center, the theater, the central plaza, he set up community areas in various neighborhoods for children and for seniors, he installed water fountains, and tended to the parks. He also wasted money on rehabilitating the Argeș river waterfront even if nobody goes there. Zăvoi Park, too, is an example of poor taste as it’s extremely tacky. But when you install an elevator in your three-story villa, what can you expect for the city?”
The historian emphasizes the lack of aesthetic values and a disregard for the city’s history.
“Piteşti has always been a Red [PSD] city. This is why candidates who didn’t deserve it have always won in elections. The affinity for the PSD has historical roots.
In the ‘60s Piteşti was a small industrial city with 40,000 inhabitants. Unlike other cities in the area, like Vâlcea or Câmpulung, the mentality here is a bit different. The mercantile side of the city stands out and, as a result, it was not the kind of place to produce artists or other cultural ambassadors.
There was a county official who was close to Ceaușescu at the time. He was an interesting character; open minded, wrote poetry, I knew him personally. He convinced the dictator to build a car factory in 1962 [the celebrated Dacia Piteşti factory], even though there were better options out there. Likewise, the petrochemical and motor works factories contributed to the population growth. As villages were swallowed up by urban expansion, the traditional rural values – an appreciation for the common good, the spirit of ownership and private property – were quickly replaced with a communist education.”
Outside of a polling station Raluca, 30, tells us that Piteşti is not a good place for her family.
“We’re looking to emigrate. Once you’ve completed university here there’s not much left to do. Our only hope is starting a business, but the government hardly offers any incentives, on the contrary, you go broke paying taxes on it. But the schooling is good; there are many teachers who still care to do a good job.”
On Monday, June 6th, the residents of Piteşti awoke to the news that Tudor Pendiuc, their mayor for 24 years, has been replaced by Cornel Ionică, the vice-mayor, and Pendiuc’s right-hand man for the past 16 years.