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Last Updated: Friday, 16 March 2007, 10:57 GMT
Rich populist woos Romanians
By Oana Lungescu
European Affairs correspondent, Bucharest

Gigi Becali
Gigi Becali is a committed Orthodox Christian
Less than three months after Romania joined the EU, the country is in deep political crisis, with the president and prime minister accusing each other of lying and corruption.

Meanwhile, a third man is climbing in the polls. He is Gigi Becali, the multi-millionaire boss of the champion Steaua football club.

From humble beginnings as a shepherd, Mr Becali made his fortune in real estate after the fall of communism to become one of Romania's richest men and the second most popular politician after the president himself.

His New Generation Party (PNG) headquarters is as flamboyant as the man - a palace in Bucharest being polished back to its former glory with no expense spared.

Restorers carefully apply gold leaf to every moulding, while Gigi Becali, a dark-haired man in his late forties, looks on whistling O Sole Mio.

In Berlusconi's footsteps

His soulmate among European politicians is Silvio Berlusconi. Like the former Italian prime minister, Mr Becali wants to use football and money to get to the top. But he is also a devout Orthodox Christian.

Becali as St John
Becali is depicted as St John
I met him on his return from Mount Athos, the holiest site in Eastern Orthodoxy. He often goes there in a private jet to pray before key matches.

His office looks more like a shrine, with Byzantine icons on every wall, a life-size painting of himself as St John in the desert and on his desk a statuette of his namesake St George killing the dragon.

"I too want to kill the devil in Romania, the corruption and lies," he tells me, with an eye on the huge TV screen in the corner to check how often his own face pops up on the news channel.

So how does he explain his spectacular rise from shepherd to multi-millionaire politician?

"In the Byzantine Empire, the great kings were shepherds. And if you want me to quote the Bible, Jesus didn't say I am your captain or your driver, but I am your shepherd. So in Romanian politics, I see myself as an apostle because I'm trying to do something no one has tried before", he said.

"Now that Europe has been reunited, I also want to see a spiritual reunification of Europe, I want western Christian-democracy to be enriched by Eastern Orthodoxy. If we don't counter sin with faith, then the end of the world is nigh," Mr Becali says.

Fan base

This messianic tone goes down well in a country where the Orthodox Church is the most trusted institution. Football too enjoys cult status.

Steaua fans
Steaua football supporters are notorious for racist taunts

At a match in the Black Sea port of Constanta, I saw Steaua fans furiously chanting and waving their red and blue banners.

Some even had flags that looked suspiciously like iron crosses. Notorious for their violence and their racist taunts against Hungarian, Roma or black players, they are a force to be reckoned with, on the pitch and at the polls.

"Gigi would make Romania a cleaner and fairer country, because he has faith in God and he wants to clean out the mafia," one young man said. "He helps poor people, he understands their difficulties, while other politicians do nothing," said another.

Help for poor

For leading political analyst Alina Mungiu-Pippidi, Mr Becali "satisfies an important need in the voters right now - the need to denounce the whole corruption of the political system".

"He managed to create an image for himself of a person who not just speaks differently from the rest of the political class, but also is different. He's a man of his word, he is a provider, he delivers what he says he does," Alina Mungiu-Pippidi says.

Village of Vadu-Rosca
He's so generous, he deserves to become president
Eleonora Lazar, villager

The proof can be seen in a village in eastern Romania called Vadu-Rosca. It is now known as Becali's village.

The houses here were swept away by catastrophic floods two years ago. Then came Mr Becali in his trademark Maybach limousine and promised to build them all up again. And so he did.

Eleonora Lazar showed me into one of 200 identical small white bungalows, all built by Mr Becali. A widow with three children, she told me she had more faith in the football boss than in the government.

"He's so generous, he deserves to become president," she says. "Why should we elect someone who didn't even bother about us? We pray for him every day, for his health and so people should stop accusing him of all sorts of things. He's never done anything bad," Mrs Lazar told me.

Mr Becali has fought off accusations of tax evasion and dodgy deals. He equally rejects any charges of extremism and intolerance.

Anti-gay stance

But what about an offer he made last year to give a few million dollars to anyone who would root out homosexuality in Romania? Amid the faint smell of incense that pervades his office and with three bodyguards looking on, he got visibly angry.

Gigi Becali
Homosexuality is a sin
Gigi Becali

"I love homosexuals like everyone else. I have nothing against them. But I insist, it's a sin. And I will repeat it everywhere, including in the European Parliament, because I'm not afraid of any European policy or whatever, homosexuality is a sin, and that's that!" he shouted.

If he is elected, I asked him, what are the first three things he plans to do?

"I will ask God to give me wisdom," came the answer after a pause. "He will tell me, this is the first thing you should do, this is the second, and this is the third. I can't tell you now what God will tell me then."

Mr Becali's parting words were just as striking. "We'll see," he told me with a smile, "if you are on the side of God or on that of the devil."

In one of Europe's poorest countries, his voice is unashamedly anti-liberal, promising some sort of salvation to those angered and frustrated with conventional party politics.

Political turmoil

Mr Becali's party is gaining ground on the more established Greater Romania Party, which recently caused a stir in the European Parliament by helping to form a new ultra-nationalist group.

People like Becali are the product of a certain failure in our political transition
Alina Mungiu-Pippidi, political analyst

Polls credit PNG's list headed by Gigi Becali with 10-15% of the vote, which could see it wining four to six seats of the 35 allotted to Romania in the European Parliament.

But as Alina Mungiu-Pippidi explains, it is not just happening in Romania. "People like Becali and others in Central Europe, where everywhere radical populism is on the rise, are the product of a certain failure in our political transition," she says.

"Our transitions were very successful economically, they succeeded in bringing our countries into the EU, but didn't succeed in creating normal politics. If Becali fails, it's going to be somebody else. The problem is that normal politics don't manage to deliver as they should," Mrs Mungiu-Pippidi says.

If he fails, Mr Becali told me he would buy a few thousand sheep, make cheese and stop answering journalists' questions.

But many fear his flock will be the stray sheep of Romania's long transition to democracy.

Row threatens Romania coalition
18 Jan 07 |  Europe
Country profile: Romania
29 Dec 06 |  Country profiles

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