Populism in Romania: Between Numbness and Strong Reactions

Damian Alexandru, Romanian Center for European Policies

December 11 of the year 2016 marked a historic victory for the Social Democrats in Romania’s legislative elections. With a percentage of 45% of the cast votes, it became by far the dominant party in Romania’s Parliament. Yet it was a victory triggered by a hate campaign, a mix of populism and xenophobia, a public discourse more linked to the #Erdoganization or #Orbanization of Romania. What was behind this stunning victory and, more importantly, is Romania slowly opting for an “illiberal democracy”, similar to what is now happening in the entire region?

An Electoral Campaign Mocking the Prime Minister’s “Foreign” Name

As for the electoral campaign itself, it reminded of a Romania that was thought to be forgotten, but seems to be more actual than ever. The populist slogans of the 90s, Romania’s tumultuous period, when scapegoats were needed to empower the new political class and distract the attention from Romania’s difficult post-communist years, reemerged. The 90s slogans against foreigners, intellectuals or people that did not fit into the “real working class Romanians” have now been replaced by tools and slogans that proved efficient in the past: Propaganda against George Soros peaked, him becoming an enemy of the state in Romania, while Brussels and the European Commission were accused of having an interest in transforming Romania into a Western colony. The “We do not sell our country” slogan reappeared in mainstream media.

The populist slogans merged with the xenophobic ones, promoted by the Social Democrats’ own mass media or by minor parties that played their role (especially the newly founded extremist party United Romania, supported by former Social Democrats Prime Minister, Victor Ponta). One of Romania’s main channels even broadcasted a faked Anonymous transmission that blamed George Soros for the tragedy at the Colectiv nightclub with the sole purpose of imposing his own government. In addition, mass media broadcasted spots mocking the non-Romanian names of the Prime Minister, the President or other parties’ candidates.

Nevertheless, populism reached its highest peak with the electoral promises made by the Social Democrats. In an attempt to cover not only their traditional voters from rural areas and smaller cities, but instead all the layers of the society, they put forward an electoral program proposing policies such as lowering taxes, promoting higher salaries, as well as increasing pension and social assistance (e. g. an ambulance service in each Romanian village or astonishing pay raises for doctors and professors). This policy mix proved to be more than popular.

The First Wakeup Call: “Oh, the Irony”

Soon after winning the elections in December, two events unveiled the gaps in the play put forward by the Social Democrats. First, the party’s president, Liviu Dragnea, tried to convince the acting Prime Minister at that time, Dacian Ciolos, to postpone some tax reductions that where to enter into force on January, 1, 2017. It was becoming clear that the promises made during the campaign were so vast that Romania would surpass the 3% deficit. Ciolos refused.

Yet what surprised most in those days was the first Prime Minister nomination. As the Party President was unable to act as Prime Minister due to a two year suspended conviction in a case involving electoral fraud, he tried to enact a performance based on the play “The Puppet and the Master Puppeteer”. And here comes the irony. Having their entire campaign based on xenophobic discourse, often with religious and nationalist aspects, appointing a Muslim woman seemed rather suspicious.

Being a rather low level figure in Romanian politics and coming from Romania’s tiny Muslim community, Sevil Shaideh can be described as a mere loyalist with low influence in the party and part of the Social Democrat’s power structure in Constanta county. At this point, it is relevant to mention that the former mayor of the city and the head of county council (members of the Social Democrats) were sent before court or are already in jail. Klaus Iohannis refused her nomination and asked for another nomination.

Following this poisonous mix of populism and xenophobia used for winning the elections, some key weaknesses emerged: First, they managed to antagonize a part of the society. Secondly, they created huge expectations from the ones that voted for them.

The Master Puppeteer and the Puppet: The Governments’ Real Agenda

On a late Tuesday, January 31, almost in the middle of the night, Romania’s leftist government decided to decriminalize a number of graft offences , in something that would have become the biggest retreat on anti-corruption policy since joining the EU. Nothing in the electoral program of the Social Democrats was linked even remotely to this; actually, the chapter on justice and rule of law was virtually inexistent.

Was this the real agenda of the Government? Putting a stop to the anti corruption campaign in Romania? That was the feeling of about 15.000 people who took the streets in Bucharest in the middle of the night, gathering in front of the government offices shouting “You will not escape this time”. Thousands joined in the country in what became and still is Romania’s largest protests since the fall of communism.

Romania on the Streets: A New Wave of Populism and Xenophobic Discourse

Romania has just entered its sixth week of massive protests, the largest ones since the fall of communism, with hundreds of thousands of people on the streets in support of rule of law. Although the law was repealed and the Minister of Justice resigned, the protesters are still on the streets asking for the resignation of the entire Cabinet, together with the Heads of the Parliament. On February 26, the protesters displayed a huge flag of the European Union, stating once again that Romania will not take the path of neighboring Hungary and becoming an “illiberal democracy”.

But what does the leftist Government think about the protests? Party President Liviu Dragnea blamed multinational companies for “sending their employees to the protests”. One of Romania’s main TV stations, linked to the Social Democrats, stated that every protester received 50 lei (around 11 euros) for attending the protests and additionally 30 lei for bringing a dog, while other Social Democrats explained that “psychotronic weapons” were used to influence the protests. An astonishing mix of fake news, populism and hate speech.

What next?

The situation in Romania is somehow following the world’s pattern of the last years. This mix of populism and hate speech is gaining more and more ground recently, both in the US and in the EU. Encouraged by the inability of the traditional parties and the democratic institutions to counter it, being unable to propose adequate policies and solutions to the current problems, this populist wave will soon prove to be a challenge again during the elections in Germany or France.

However, unlike other Eastern European countries, Romania resisted the temptation of emerging extremist parties or anti-establishment parties. That happened for a simple reason: Mainstream parties, such as the Social Democrats, managed to understand this trend of populism and incorporated it, in smaller doses, in their own platform.

Romania’s Alliance for Liberal and Democrats also deserves a special mention. Not only once ALDE MPs made controversial statements, but lately their leader stated his disappointment with the EU and declared that BREXIT was an “act of courage”. Of course, Sputnik News made headlines with the declaration and starting spreading news about a ROMEXIT. Unfortunately, no reaction came from ALDE group in the European Parliament or any leaders of the transnational political alliance, underlining again the numbness of some EU parties and leaders.

As for the governing coalition in Romania, its true nature has been revealed in less than two months of governing. This toxic mix between “bribing” a part of the society and “attacking” the other one will continue. Clientelistic mass media in Romania became a merely platform for spreading fake news, attacking political opponents or the Judiciary System.

But trying to #erdoganize Romania or use “democratic” means to capture state institutions, as happened in Poland or Hungary, will receive a powerful reaction. The massive protests show the signs of a civil society that will not cope with this way of governing and that, despite of an almost exclusive monopoly on mass media by the current governing coalition, Romania stopped the mix of populism and fake news in its tracks.

Alexandru Damian is a Researcher at the Romanian Center for European Policies.