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Romania: a social democratic anomaly in eastern Europe?

Romania should be the ideal playground for right-populist parties, but in its recent election it was the Social Democrats who left everyone else in the dust.

lead Liviu Dragnea, leader of the victorious Social Democrat Party. Wikimedia/Partidul Social Democrat. Some rights reserved.Romanian citizens voted in parliamentary elections yesterday. The results are not what you would expect in eastern Europe these days: with 46% of the seats in both chambers of Parliament, the Social Democrats (PSD) left everyone else in the dust; the far right party is puny, largely unknown and failed to enter the Parliament.

That this country was not engulfed by the region’s right-wing populist wave may seem puzzling. This is a multiethnic country whose interwar nationalism and fascism were strong. Even its communism had a strong nationalist flavour and its early post-communist politics saw the rise of the strongest ultranationalist parties in the region.  

Romania is also one of Europe’s poorest countries, its banking sector and export industry are almost entirely foreign owned, and its economic hardship sent close to a third of the labour force into emigration. Too many of its politicians, civil servants and business elite are corrupt, its population has some of the most conservative and authoritarian social values in Europe, and local millionaires have funded TV stations and parties peddling the standard right-wing populist fare. To top it off, Hungary’s Victor Orbán has unleashed new tension in bilateral relations.

Several right-wing parties made a bid for entry into the Parliament using the familiar rhetoric seen elsewhere in the region. None broke through.

In brief, Romania should be the ideal playground for right-populist parties. Several right-wing parties made a bid for entry into the Parliament using the familiar rhetoric seen elsewhere in the region. None broke through. There are several reasons for this.

History matters…

The first reason is political history. Far-right political formations in Romania were part of the government, or ran large municipalities, during the economic tragedy of early post-communism, before they could even begin to enter parliament in other east-central European countries. As such, to many voters, the populist-right message is reminiscent of grim socio-economic failures and the mismanagement of resources associated with that period. 

Second, the Social Democrats are one of the region’s most resilient and effective political formations. Critically, the institutional infrastructure of the PSD remains highly competitive: the top of the party hierarchy has real authority and its reach on the ground has no counterpart. This comes with the usual pork barrel politics feeding the party-municipal government networks and their known neo-patrimonial pathologies, but a third of the country still lives and votes in villages and, come election time, it is a huge asset to have these local party institutions. 

Saying that these party institutions and networks are simply means for personal enrichment is a cheap shot. Though there are many outrageous instances of graft and cronyism, the centre-right has learnt the hard way that it is misguided to ignore that PSD administrations have been actually quite effective at delivering improved healthcare, roads and education, not just discretionary rents for their constituencies.

The PSD may be riddled with major integrity issues, but it made a strong comeback in 2012 as an anti-austerity party and this remains their biggest message.

On policy, the PSD may be riddled with major integrity issues, but it made a strong comeback in 2012 as an anti-austerity party and this remains their biggest message. It was not just talk. Solidly pro-business and pro-middle class whilst keeping trade unions at arm’s length, the PSD also negotiated with the Troika during its last term (2012-2015) to increase the minimum wage several times and cut VAT for staples and medicine. This demand-side boost balanced with pro-export sector measures supported the sharpest economic recovery in the Eurozone. 

Although in the present elections the PSD moved further to the right on economic issues to attract the urban middle class electorates not too keen on corruption issues, their Reaganesque tax cuts sit, implausibly, next to their staple left-leaning wage-led growth strategy. Some of the PSD’s leading economists tend to be more Keynesian-minded and lashed out at the growing inequality amidst the economic boom, but the PSD as a whole has no plans to reverse the 2011 legislation that wrecked collective bargaining and reduced unions to irrelevance. 

…as does context 

The third reason is that outrage with the graft of the political establishment (and particularly at the PSD), does not have to be vented via a ‘cool-ified’, anti-establishment, right-populist party disposed to ranting about the vices of the political mainstream. There are other, more mainstream channels for this in Romania.  

One is a new party, Save Romania Union (USR), whose chief identity marker is not a clear program or ideology, but the profile of its candidates. The party brings together a (quite young) motley crew of neoliberals, environmentalists, left-liberals, genuine social democrats, Christian Democrats, NGO supporters and minority rights activists. One of their leaders is a French executive who speaks like an old fashioned Gaullist. For USR, a common ideology is hard to come by, but what makes it most appealing for the educated, middle class demographic in large cities is that none of its leaders and candidates are indicted or sentenced, and can make credible claims to meritocracy as bearers of prestigious degrees and respectable business, technology or activist careers that inspire credibility. 

Nicușor Dan, Save Romania Union leader. Wikimedia/Bogdan. Some rights reserved.

The space for the far right to lash out at the corruption of the establishment has also been reduced by the country’s anti-corruption prosecutor, Laura Codruța Köves, who has successfully sent to jail large swathes of the political class, courts, police force and domestic corporate elite. Live arrests and footage with the powerful being accommodated in jail cells helped destroy the sandbox of populist play. Live arrests and footage with the powerful being accommodated in jail cells helped destroy the sandbox of populist play.

Moreover, the political economy of right-populism demands real or plausibly impending economic decline, with downward status and income mobility for a largely sedentary population, increasing competition with migrants over public services or jobs and the sense that mainstream parties are unwilling or unable to reverse socio-economic decline. None of these conditions are in place in Romania. The country is the source of the largest emigration flows inside the EU. For most emigrants and their families, this means an improved socio-economic status. 

In fact, the country’s economy has been growing strongly since 2011 and although this did not dent inequality, poverty and social exclusion, the declinist sentiment that right-populists feed off elsewhere is not widespread. Romania has been famously inefficient at tapping EU funds (unlike Poland or Hungary) yet, after twenty years of dereliction, the improvement of the country’s infrastructure or the modernisation of its schools has been significant and broadly visible. It is hard, then, for one to make political gains by blaming the EU for all kinds of local ills. 

Crowding out populism?

Finally and most importantly, Romania may not have a parliamentary far-right populist force, but some of the language, reflexes and themes associated with these parties have long been a part of the mainstream in any case. Indeed, one does not have to wait for LGBT-bashing to come from right-wing populists — the Liberals and the Social Democrats have practiced it repeatedly, recently supporting a referendum for banning gay marriage in the constitution. 

The Social Democrats may be a part of the European Socialists, but on identity politics they have been solidly conservative

Ghastly slurs against opponents with foreign sounding names (such as the current president, who is an ethnic German) and conspiracy theories about the reach of a supposed “Soros network” — which pushes secularism, excessive minority rights, global economic interests and refugee quotas — have been peddled in broad daylight by mainstream politicians, much like Fidesz types do in Budapest.  

Classism that borders on explicit scorn for social benefit claimants, another hallmark of central European right-populism, has been a mainstay of the Romanian centre-right for years. As in the early days of the Lega Nord’s anti-Mezzogiorno antics, many in the centre-right often dwell on the contrast between the poverty of Romania’s (often PSD-governed) southern regions and the more right-leaning regions of former Austro-Hungarian regions in the centre, west and north of the country. 

The Social Democrats may be a part of the European Socialists, but on identity politics (especially on nationalism, LGBT, migration and church-state relations) they have been solidly conservative, catering to the country’s prevailing authoritarian social values. All this does not mean that the Social Democrats will go the way of the Slovak Smer, or that the Liberals will veer towards the populist right just like Fidesz did. Many young MPs in the party are progressives, some with pro-Roma or pro-LGBT positions. 

After many years spent in the doghouse of the non-EU eligible periphery, once in power, the Social Democrats may act as a disciplined party of the European mainstream and serve as a dependable pro-EU party. They are one of the actors that render the EU a positive force. If, on the other hand, the west European centre-left loses out even more to the populist right than it has done so far, much of this ideological conformism may melt into the air.

Once in power, the Social Democrats may act as a disciplined party of the European mainstream and serve as a dependable pro-EU political force

There are two big concerns at this point. One is that having been the party most damaged by prosecutions and jail sentences for corruption, the PSD may attempt to weaken the anti-corruption arm of the state. As problematic as some aspects of anti-corruption policy may be (such as the use of militarised wire-tapping), it would be distressing and politically self-destructive to see it wrecked. 

The other concern is even more serious: since PSD is not a genuine labour party, but a cross between a Blairite and a socially conservative political construct with no serious opposition on the economic left, right-wing populist entrepreneurs could launch productive raids into the sizeable electorate displaced by the violence of Romania’s neoliberal-dependent capitalism, the curtailment of freedom of movement and the risk of protectionism in developed economies.  

This is no time for self-congratulatory remarks about the Romanian liberal anomaly in an illiberal region. Instead, it is time for taking distribution issues seriously. Romanian liberal democracy may be living on borrowed time.

This article is published as part of an openDemocracy editorial partnership with EuVisions, an online observatory on social Europe established within the ERC-funded REScEU project, based at the University of Milan and the Centro Einaudi of Turin.
About the author

Cornel Ban is Assistant Professor of International Relations at the Pardee School of Boston University.


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