From scandal to comeback: How Romania’s political elite revived a media mogul’s…

Sursa Foto: Inquam Photos/ Octav Ganea

From scandal to comeback: How Romania’s political elite revived a media mogul’s influence

Dan Voiculescu, the founder of the Antena media networks, has forcefully returned to the political playground he left after being sentenced to ten years in prison in August 2014 for the fraudulent privatization of the Food Research Institute, of which he actually served almost three years.

The candidate supported by Voiculescu for the mayor of the Bucharest has upset all calculations by the PSD and PNL coalition. Whether Piedone withdraws or stays in the race could decide not only the future mayor of Romania’s capital city but could significantly influence the results of the European Parliament elections and, in the long run, of the presidential and parliamentary elections.

How did the revival of the mogul who had been completely knocked out of the game after his conviction come about?

Upon his release from prison, Dan Voiculescu seemingly withdrew from public life and took the path of humility. He took up theology and claimed he was ready to enter the priesthood, so deeply had the isolation shaken him. He left the Antena networks in the care of his daughters, toned down the harsh content that had turned the news station into a political bludgeon, and fully bowed to President Iohannis’s regime.

The one who saved the Antena networks from disintegration was none other than President Klaus Iohannis. The head of state signaled that Antena 3 was under his political protection in February 2016, when he criticized ANAF’s (Romanian Tax Authority) actions of forced eviction of the television from its headquarters on București-Ploiești Road. The headquarters had been confiscated by the Romanian state by the judicial decision of August 8, 2014, from the ICA-Voiculescu case.

„I believe you have reached an unpleasant and unnecessary situation. Firstly, I believe that freedom of expression in the media cannot be suppressed for trivial administrative reasons. Secondly, this brusque approach by ANAF seems to me at least inappropriate, if not questionable (…) I have noticed, from the discussions I have had, that there is openness among decision-makers and that suitable solutions can be found,” President Klaus Iohannis declared on February 1, 2016, while Dan Voiculescu lay harmlessly „in the aquarium” at Rahova prison.

It was later proved that the convenient solution for both parties was the cessation of any ANAF actions through which the Romanian state was to recover the damage of 60 million euros from the ICA case, and in exchange, Antena 3 provided total media protection to the head of state for years.

Ten years later: Klaus Iohannis is approaching the end of his term. Surrounded by weak leaders, who have bought their media peace at a high price, he is easy prey for the sharks escaped from the aquarium. Since the pandemic, the largest sums of public money have been pumped into Antena 3, although the Romanian state still has to recover tens of millions of lei from Dan Voiculescu.

Not only did they help him escape foreclosure and consolidate financially, but they positioned him as an important player in the media market. Once saved, Dan Voiculescu forged a partnership between Antena and CNN, which brought his news television, tarnished by the era of lynchings, added credibility and respectability.

A born predator, hence the nickname „The Lizard (Varanul),” Dan Voiculescu has recovered in less than ten years from humility. Today, he wants to appoint mayors, prime ministers, and why not, presidents back in office.

Klaus Iohannis, along with the straw leaders and prime ministers in his circle, has each contributed in their own way to Dan Voiculescu’s robust return. Today, Voiculescu is back in business as in his heyday. He is not alone; other moguls from Dubai, Monaco, or Miami are also attempting to sway the elections in Romania, all capitalizing on the significant leadership crisis in Romanian politics and the paralysis of anti-corruption bodies.

In the critical election year of 2024, they all aim to position their affiliates in pivotal roles and to join them at the power table post-election. They are once again active across the entire playing field, benefiting from the failure of justice and a remarkably weak state, led by unassertive politicians who are vulnerable and easily cowed by the media bludgeon wielded anew by the moguls’ hands.

It should be noted that PSD leader Marcel Ciolacu initially tried to distance himself from the founder of the Antena networks. He declined to allocate European Parliament list spots to Voiculescu and initially resisted negotiating over local seats and candidacies. Furthermore, he incrementally reduced the party’s contracts with the television network.

Ciolacu’s efforts to marginalize him in this pivotal election year likely infuriated the mogul, who has reawakened from his slumber. The founder of the Antena networks has re-emerged as a formidable political force, nominating Cristian Popescu Piedone as the mayoral candidate for the capital on behalf of PUSL, thus complicating the plans of the PSD-PNL alliance.

Following the failed candidacy of Cătălin Cîrstoiu, a proposition most likely originating from Cotroceni and endorsed by Ciolacu, Dan Voiculescu now finds himself as the wildcard in the capital. If he proceeds with Piedone, he stands a chance to win the capital, but he cannot govern it without a political majority in the General Council, which he lacks. However, if he negotiates Piedone’s withdrawal, Gabriela Firea, the new PSD candidate for mayor of Bucharest, theoretically has a slight chance of success.

A potential victory in the capital could avert a political catastrophe for Marcel Ciolacu personally, as well as for the PSD and PNL, in the near and medium term. Conversely, losing Bucharest by humiliating margins could trigger a series of reactions, creating a domino effect and an avalanche of votes that could dismantle the alliance in the European Parliament, presidential, and general elections.

What actions will Marcel Ciolacu and Nicolae Ciucă take? Will they engage in negotiations for power with Dan Voiculescu? Will they succumb to political blackmail? Will they position him as a key player in the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections out of fear of Antena’s influence? Will they revive the fortunes of someone who has inflicted considerable harm on Romania through his media-driven witch hunts against magistrates, politicians, journalists, and rival media conglomerates?

What is Klaus Iohannis’s response today, as he finds himself overwhelmed by those he shielded at the outset of his presidency, rescuing the media conglomerate during a challenging period? Was it genuinely ‘a convenient solution’ to preserve the media empire established by Dan Voiculescu? For him, an old Romanian proverb seems especially fitting: ‘Those whom you do not let die…’

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