An overview of Sunday’s Romanian parliamentary elections, and a few comparisons with Poland.
Romania’s PSD (the Social-Democratic Party) won about 45 percent of the votes in Sunday’s general elections. They will form the government, with support from the smaller, center-right ALDE. The leader of PSD, Liviu Dragnea, was convicted to a suspended 2-year jail sentence for attempting to rig a referendum in 2012 (he is serving the sentence now), so he is legally not allowed to become the prime minister (at the time of writing, it is still possible he might cut a deal with the Romanian center-right president to head the executive though).
Just under 40 percent of eligible voters turned up (about 7 million).
PSD is the most powerful political party in post-socialist Romania. They ruled the country (in a previous incarnation) in the first years of transition and kept alternating to power with various center-right forces ever since. In 2015, in response to massive protests following a fire at nightclub Colectiv that killed 64 people, PSD’s Victor Ponta resigned as prime minister, leaving the government in the hands of self-styled „tehnocrat” Dacian Ciolos, a former EU Commissioner for agriculture.
Why PSD won
PSD has organisational power unparalleled by any other political force in Romania. They’ve been around for over two decades, building up their resource base – often through corruption and clientelism – and faithful local structures all the way down to village level. There are parts of the country where voters have hardly heard of another party (overall, the center-right part of the political spectrum has been much more fragmented).
PSD has been presenting itself as an anti-austerity party ever since 2009-2010 when center-right governments implemented some of Europe’s harshest austerity measures designed together with the IMF. Close to 40 percent of Romania’s population is considered to be at risk of poverty, and about a third of workers are on the minimum wage (around 1,200 lei/zloty). Romania’s poor are many and they were crushed by austerity. With no other party standing up for their economic interests, it’s no wonder they voted for PSD (or stayed home). PSD promised increases of the minimum wage – which they have enacted before – and tax cuts which could benefit the poorest.
The only way to defeat PSD in these elections would have been an alliance between the Liberal Party (which polled second after PSD at around 20 percent of votes) and a party formed six months ago, the Union to Save Romania (USR, more on them below), which would have endorsed Dacian Ciolos to continue as prime minister. This was never an explicit alliance with a clear political platform, but judging by Ciolos’ one year in office it would have been a liberal government, mixing pro-business with some patchy pro-poor measures, representing the middle class, supporting the anti-corruption drive of the National Anti-Corruption Agency (which brought many politicians down over the last years) and striving for a cleaner government.
The Liberals, however, had a history of corruption and endorsing austerity measures, and newly founded USR likely took away votes from them than from PSD. Ciolos’ ratings had been good, but he had an ambiguous strategy of claiming to be apolitical (a „tehnocrat”) while at the same time being endorsed by the Liberals, one of Romania’s oldest parties.
(There are interesting analyses of why the popularity of „technocracy” signals the terminal illness of liberal democracy like this one – in Romanian).
PSD is no PiS (or not yet, at least)
PiS came to power in Poland in 2015 on a revolutionary wave. There was massive anger in Polish society that PiS capitalised on, which allowed them to claim to represent „the will of the Polish people” while implementing an authoritarian grab of all levels of power. There is widespread frustration in Romania too, but the vote for PSD seems to be less hopeful – there’s less stamina in the popular support for PSD.
In his victory speech on election night, Liviu Dragnea committed to sticking to the EU line. PSD will of course move to control state institutions while in government, but nothing they have done in previous mandates resembles the takeover of Poland that PiS is orchestrating now. They will likely hamper the activities of the anti-corruption body as most of the victims of the anti-corruption drive come from the ranks of the Social-Democrats, but it is unclear how aggressive they will be on establishing control on other fronts.
PSD is „softcore” nationalist compared to PiS. They’ve played the „Romania for Romanians” card during the campaign, speak about making the economy more national and take a stab at foreigners (the Romanian president is ethnically German, Ciolos’ wife is French-born and so is Clotilde Armand, one of the main leaders of USR, and Dragnea has made xenophobic comments about them). In fact, most parties running in these elections have resorted to some form of nationalism, which does resonate with many in Romania. But PSD is far from the ultra-nationalism of PiS. The rhetoric is lighter, the instrumentalisation of history as well, the Romanian Orthodox Church which is close to PSD can only dream to ever have the influence of the Polish Catholic one, and Romanians – at least until recently – maintained a self-deprecating attitude about their nation. This can change too, especially in the current international climate, but it is important to note that new far-right parties running in these elections did not make it to Parliament (despite being well-resourced).
USR is not Nowoczesna
The Union to Save Romania (USR) got about 9 percent of the votes but it is unclear right now how many representatives they will have in the two chambers (Romania has a complicated redistribution system). This party was created half a year ago by Nicusor Dan, a well-respected long-term Bucharest activist for safeguarding the capital’s architectural heritage in front of illegal demolitions and privatisation of public space.
Dan originally formed a Bucharest party (he was a distant second in mayoral elections earlier this year) and then went national. A civic activist himself, Dan sensed very well the need for a new political party in Romania, one that could give an answer to the anger expressed in numerous large-scale protests that took place in Romania over the last years (anti-austerity protests in 2012, massive and long-lasting nationwide protests for saving the village of Rosia Montana in 2013, protests after the fire at Colectiv). Those protests have changed Romanian society: there’s more civic activism since, more watchdogging, including more independent journalism, more willingness of people to get involved in social and political life. This mood is usually characteristic for the big city well-educated middle class, but they are influential.
USR stood for some of that ethos of more civic involvement and fighting political and corporate abuse, so some perceived it as „the new hope” in Romanian politics (Western media reflected this too, they especially liked USR’s anti-corruption rhetoric). But USR lacked a clear ideological direction. The new party had everyone on their lists: left-wingers and neo-liberals, environmentalists and investment bankers. It also rallied behind the „tehnocratic” line of Ciolos (even putting up ministers from Ciolos’ government on USR lists). They ended up being perceived as mostly center-right (occasional statements from leaders that reaked of social racism didn’t help), taking away votes from the Liberals. This satisfied some of he middle class protesting in the previous years (the protests were broad and included people of all ideologies) but angered others who criticised tehnocracy for eroding parliamentary democracy and being just a front for economic neo-liberalism.
Yet USR is no Nowoczesna. The people they will bring to Parliament will be a mixed bunch and USR, considering themselves a party growing from the grassroots, are expected to be responsive to their voters, part of whom do not want neo-liberal policies. From all the new Romanian Parliament, these will be the people that progressive forces can engage with in the future. The USR parliamentarians have to do well, not only to provide even a minimal counterbalance to PSD, but also to safeguard the reputation of the first party politics expression of the protests.
Is Demos the Romanian Razem?
Like in Poland, there is a huge need for a real left-wing party in Romania. PSD, despite its minimum wage and tax break promises, are far from being a social-democratic party, nevermind the corruption. Their repeated stunts in power did little to reduce income inequalities, alleviate poverty, provide decent work conditions, or offer good social services. Their planned cuts for the upcoming mandate go across the board, including for the rich, and it’s really unclear what funding would be available for social services in their vision. Their social conservatism and nationalism also have no place in a left-wing agenda.
Demos, a new left-wing party, will likely run in the 2019 European parliament elections and 2020 general ones, but for now are just in construction stage. USR’s fast rise (getting to 9 percent in six months was fast, even if some expected more) shows there is demand for new politics in Romania, which bodes well for Demos. Until now, they appear to be academically rigorous and constructive in their critique of other parties, which might help to set them apart from the aggressive shouting game Romanian public discourse mostly is (once Romanians actually hear about them…). PSD, certainly, will do more damage to the already battered notion of the left in Romania, making it even more difficult for Demos to establish themselves as a legitimate force. But there is space for this kind of politics, in Romania and elsewhere.
Text: Claudia Ciobanu
Foto: Mihai Gotiu, independent journalist and Rosia Montana activist, running for USR (likely to get into Senate at the time of writing). The photo comes from Gotiu’s Facebook page, credit to Uniunea Salvati Romania.