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Romania’s Elections: Politics Can’t Be Different?

By Blog Admin, on 20 December 2012

2012-01-15-Romanian-protests-in-Bucgarest

Photo: Adriatikus

Romania’s recent parliamentary elections have done little to bring about the change needed to address the country’s ongoing political and economic crisis, argues Daniel Brett.

The Romanian elections of 9 December, which took place against a backdrop of economic crisis, austerity, political gamesmanship, polarisation, highly personalised politics, have produced a parliament with four main blocs:

  • The Social Liberal Union (USL), principally made up of the Social Democratic Party (PSD) and the National Liberals (PNL) but also includes the Conservative Party (PC) of businessman Dan Voiculescu and the UNPR, a small social democratic group. The Union won a two-thirds majority in both the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate, with its seats divided 60/40 in favour of the PSD;
  • The main opposition Right Romania Alliance (ARD), which was dominated by President Traian Băsescu’s Party of Democratic Liberals (PDL) but also included Civic Force, the party of former Prime Minister Mihai Răzvan Ungureanu and a faction of National Peasant Party (PNŢ).  Following the election the ARD dissolved itself, although many believe that some form of new opposition coalition will emerge before the next.
  • The People’s Party of Dan Diaconescu (PPDD), owner of the OTV television channel.
  • The Union of Democratic Hungarians (UMDR), the long established party of Romania’s Hungarian minority.

 The outcome of the election will do little to address Romania’s chronic economic and political crisis, which has stretched back almost two years. Despite the economic crisis, the elections were not dominated by discussions about what should be done about the economy. The USL promises – primarily increasing pensions and wages, while at the same time securing an IMF loan – remain impossible to fulfil. The whole crisis has been marked by a failure to develop an alternative strategy. The ARD programme was very loose, saying little about economic policies but choosing instead to focus on corruption and threats to democracy to set itself in opposition to the USL. The Alliance also emphasized its closeness to the European Union and the USA and attempted in some senses to de-politicise itself by focussing upon links with NGOs and civil society.

 Dan Diaconescu – send in the clowns or something more sinister?

 The one new emergent party the People’s Party of Dan Diaconescu is hardly a surprise or a force for positive change. Diaconescu has the two things that most people wishing to enter politics in Romania do not have – money and his own television station,. While the Romanian media ignored the non-USL protests during the winter or chose to frame them as purely as opposing President Băsescu, Diaconescu  by-pass the mainstream media and, by virtue of the money he has, was able to purchase advertising.

PPDD is a traditional top-down, populist party, which exists for and because of Diaconescu. Its policies are a mix of nationalism and – to the extent that it is in favour of re-collectivisation of agriculture – left-wing economics,. The party is the latest in a string of nationalist-neo-Communist parties that have been a feature of the Romanian party landscape since 1990 –a successor to the fascist Greater Romania Party or Gigi Becali’s neo-fascist New Generation Party (PNG), all of which have exited the parliamentary scene

  Romanian intellectuals have spent a great deal of time bemoaning the impact of the crisis, and yet have failed to really engage with the economic concerns of the majority of the population or organize in any coherent manner. Instead, intellectuals have tended to spend more time falling out with one another over minor issues and points of principle, instead of concentrating on the bigger picture. There is no left alternative to the neo-liberal consensus. A rare exception to this was Dan Nicușor’s recent campaign to be mayor of Bucharest, which gained over 10% of the vote. However, the Romanian intelligentsia rarely seeks to engage with the working class or rural poor, preferring to cocoon itself in a warm self-congratulatory circle of blogs, journals and protest groups.

Romania has not seen the emergence of groups such as  Hungary’s Politics Can Be Different (LMP), nor has there been any attempt to develop a Pirate Party to mobilise young voters. Likewise, the former Peasant Party (PNŢ) has made no attempt to try to re-energise itself as a party of the rural working class, instead preferring to expend energy on internal arguments about who should lead the party.

 Romania’s economic weakness, made worse by a poor harvest, creates an uncertain landscape. The need for IMF support provides the international community with some leverage over the Romanian political elite and may ultimately force a ceasefire between President Băsescu and his opponents in the USL. However, the tools the international community has are limited. The forced privatisation of utilities such as TAROM, the national airline, and other enterprises represents an opportunity for graft that Romanian politicians will welcome. We can also expect to see a retrenchment of anti-corruption initiatives and judicial independence.

However, austerity will continue to be the order of the day for ordinary Romanians. Whether this will herald a more strident, prickly nationalism similar to that of Viktor Orban, as we saw during the failed attempt to impeach President Băsescu, remains to be seen. It is also unclear whether the PDL will be able to regroup for the Presidential elections in 2013 or will fragment. Whether PPDD will prove to be another sideshow for Romanian political talk-shows, like Gigi Becali before him, or whether the party represents a sustainable movement.

  Ultimately, the direction of Romanian politics depends upon the coherence of the USL as a coalition: if either of its two principal members were to decide to leave the coalition, it would then collapse. The decision to increase the number of ministries to 22 and to divide these equally between the Social Democrats (PSD) and the National Liberals was clearly an attempt to placate key members of each party.  Electoral politics in Romania forces the formation of coalitions in order to govern, but often the thing that holds them together is a hatred of a particular political enemy such as President Băsescu. Thus, while there is little incentive for the PSD to break the coalition, without the Presidency, the National Liberals gain little, other than perhaps ending its increasing electoral marginalisation. The Romanian political scene since 1989 has, however, been littered with the remains of coalitions

Daniel Brett is a Teaching Fellow in the UCL Department of Political Science and Associate Lecturer with the Open University. He completed a PhD at SSEES dealing with the development of peasant parties in Romania and Poland.  His current research interests include the development of party organizations historically and rural politics and society.

 Further background to Romanian social and political crisis can be found in a podcast of a roundtable organised by the  UCL-SSEES Centre for Politics, Security and Integration and the UCL-SSEES Moldovan-Romanian Studies Group.

Note: This article gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of the SSEES Research blog, nor of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, nor of UCL