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In Name Only: where are the People in the Romanian EU Election Campaign?

The cover photo. on the Romanian Democracy & Solidarity Party website.

We are publishing this article in cooperation with the Serbo-Croatian web portal Bilten.

Recently, relatively new political actors in Romania announced their intention to run for the upcoming elections of a new European Parliament. Their profiles could not be more different but they share nonetheless a common feature that neatly expresses the systemic and terminal crisis of post-communist Romanian politics. Rather than representing a break with the old order, the articulation of these new forces is a symptom of its stubborn endurance.

USR (Union to Save Romania) is the more established contender not just in historical terms but also because currently it is the 3rd largest Parliamentary party. Its origins are in Union to Save Bucharest, first a movement, then a local party initiated by Nicusor Dan, a local activist. The aim of the movement-turned-party was to wrest control of Bucharest from a political class that transformed the city into a paradise for private business interests, car ownership and retail at the expense of virtually everything else. The program of the movement was essentially neoliberal (market mechanisms instead of political collusion) and centered around the protection of the old patrimony of the city. Suing the municipality for illegal constructions was the major activity that gave the movement prominence.

Undeniably, however, the movement was friendlier towards pedestrians and bikers and regarded the city not just as moneymaking enterprise, but also as a collective project that had to be developed and organized. This appealed to important segments of the city’s middle classes, such as entrepreneurs, relatively well paid corporate workers, artists, NGOs and academics. Not even remotely comparable to the right to the city movements that sprang up in many cities at the end of the naughts, Save Bucharest did represent an attempt to reclaim the city for the citizens, albeit just for some of them and not coincidentally for the most active and more well-off segments.

The local elections of 2016 offered the breakthrough. Running for the first time as a registered party (four years previously Dan ran as an independent) USB came in second and almost won one of the district mayoral races of the city. Years of activism, a more solid financial backing from the local start-ups, and the internal implosion of the National Liberal party explain this unexpected result. Buoyed by it, the party quickly announced its transformation to USR and its plan to run for the 2016 Parliamentary elections. On this occasion, the party entered the Parliament with almost 10% of the vote and since then it became renowned for its disruptive tactics against the current governing coalition.

The process of scaling up entailed a significant change in the initial structure and scope of the party. Most importantly it required drawing more members from various groups around the country and abroad, usually people from the activist sector and from the business community, previously unengaged in politics. This transformed the party into a mixed bag, comprising people of various persuasions, creeds and orientations. Nicusor Dan became quite aware of this situation and not much after the party entered the Parliament he conceded the existence of at least three orientations within the party, not at ease with each other.

Nicusor Dan of the USR casts his vote in the 2016 parliamentary elections. Credit: ANDREI PUNGOVSCHI/AFP/Getty Images.

The most important addition to the party prior to entering the parliament was that of a group of people who worked in the technocratic government of Dacian Ciolos. Ciolos was appointed PM in November 2015 after the Colectiv tragedy and filled his cabinet with an assortment of EU mid level bureaucrats (Ciolos was EU commissioner for agriculture between 2010-2014), local NGO figures and business people. They rejected political allegiance and ideology in the name of a technocratic approach bent on reforming the bureaucracy, fight against corruption and EU-style administration of the country. But as 2016 elections were approaching they were called to make a decision regarding their future. Ciolos and his team were simultaneously courted by the National Liberals (who supported Ciolos’ government in the Parliament) and USR, who were trying to foster their numbers by adding marquee names. Ciolos vacillated until the last minute, declining to become member of either while simultaneously asking his supporters to vote for either of the two parties. Obviously, this stance irritated both parties and marginalized Ciolos after elections.

Some members of his cabinet, most notably Cristian Ghinea, however, did not follow his stance and joined USR and became MPs in the next legislature. Gradually, inside the party, this faction became very articulate and powerful, increasing its influence at the expense of Nicusor Dan and his initial band of supporters. The two factions directly locked horns on the topic of the referendum against gay marriage. Dan argued that the party should not have a clear stance and allow members to formulate their own views, while Ghinea pushed for the party to unequivocally oppose the referendum. After some internal wrestling that bordered on the farcical, Ghinea’s faction won, Dan resigned and quit the party and the former became vice-president after imposing a close colleague from Ciolos’ government as party leader. What initially seemed a tussle between the conservative and liberal wings of the party was in fact a very ruthless power struggle.

Ciolos’ trajectory after his departure as PM was as hesitant as his tenure. He announced that he intends to get involved in politics but his much-taunted plan to form a party was constantly being postponed. He then formed a popular movement to prepare the terrain for a new party. After several such back and fourths at the beginning of 2019 Ciolos finally announced the formation of his new party PLUS. Immediately he was mired in controversy after it was discovered that one of the persons who registered the party was a local lawyer and son of a former Securitate general (the infamous communist Secret Police). Hardly did this scandal finish that another immediately ensued. It turned out that two of the top echelon members in the new party were not new to politics at all. Instead they have been quite active members in radical right wing circles, openly supporting local fascist figures. For some this came as no surprise since one of the members of Ciolos’ government is financing the most important extreme right website in the country.

Mired in so many scandals, Ciolos managed to move the spotlight elsewhere by brokering an electoral alliance with USR. The two parties will present a common list for the European elections in order not to split the vote since their supporters are very much similar. The decision was met with disappointment, however, among USR supporters and members, calling it a reverse take-over. USR is clearly the stronger party, enjoying parliamentary presence, a not insignificant local base and a 4-year experience in politics. Ciolos brings his name and part of his technocratic team but also a series of reservations regarding his intentions and capabilities.

To a certain extent this merger was likely to happen sooner rather than later and only ill-informed observers of the local scene could claim genuine surprise. This coalition naturally brings together the two main ideas of the local political right in the past half a decade: anti-corruption and technocracy, both aimed against a decaying, corrupt and oligarchic political class supposedly embodied by the current ruling coalition spearheaded by the Social Democrats  (but also by the National liberals, albeit they are in opposition, who appear to become the biggest victims of this new construction).

What is notable about this coalition is not its inherent populism but the fact that it is populism without people, a populism that does not need people. Its members claim that they will drain the swamp of Romanian politics through anti-corruption measures. Quite frequently, USR members boast how they will throw old politicians in jail once they take power and how they will replace them with a technocratic class of enlightened specialists. Politics will be suspended then and the parties in power will only do administration, just like Ciolos’ government tried to do. People will be free to mind their own private business with politics now safely in the hands of able technocrats.

None of the parties in this new coalition claim to represent a particular group of people or even particular interests. What they seek is just electors that will entrust them the power based on their pedigree and distance from traditional post-communist politics. This extraneous stance constitutes the main claim towards political power. Hence, this is not a movement that seeks to mobilize people’s grievances against a corrupt and aloof elite Trump-style, but an elite that claims a place for itself by virtue of being different (and better) than the previous one. In fact, in the past, none of the parties actually appealed to popular mobilization: they only seek the support and vote of the enlightened segments of the population that understand their mission. Hence the paradox that a political construction with a pocket-size electoral base and a miniature internal infrastructure might in fact become the second largest force in the country.

Concomitantly with the formation of USR-Plus coalition, Demos (which stands for Democracy and Solidarity) announced its list for European parliament after protracted internal debates. Demos is a recent political party formed by a loose network of academics and activists that is unmistakably left-bent even though the type of left they propose seem to stretch from central left liberalism, to social democracy and perhaps to socialism, depending on the topic. Clearly, this is the only leftist party worthy of the name in the Romanian politics at this moment, a feature that its members are all too keen to emphasize in order to deflect criticism from the left. They advocate for a social Europe and seek to become the political voice of those left behind by 30 years of neoliberal transition. Some of the best local minds are either directly involved or connected to the party.

However, even to the most benevolent observers the composition of and launching of its list of candidates for the European Parliament raised eyebrows, to say the least. Out of 12 candidates, 9 are women and they occupy the first positions, which is highly commendable and outright unprecedented for Romanian politics. Some are activists, other academics with a history in leftist circles of the past decade or so but virtually unknown outside of this milieu. With few exceptions none of the candidates has any experience in politics, elections or matters related to the EU. Some barely have any sort of experience at all, outside graduate and post-graduate work. Surely, the fetishism of “experience” is a neoliberal trope and should definitively be rejected. Political commitment, ideological rigor and practical application should represent alternative benchmarks.

Demos’ candidates emphasized none however. Instead they hinted at their material deprivation in the past in order to claim legitimacy to represent the interests of the working poor and of the dis-privileged in the European parliament and in politics more generally. However, only one candidate on the list, Linda Greta Zsinga, a Roma activist who was evicted from her house in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Cluj, can invoke this class background. To put it differently, DEMOS promised to represent segments of the population that are barely present among their membership or list of candidates. This was class politics at its worst and certainly a faux pas for the new party.

Because the party members and its supporters (all in all not more than 500 nationwide) are disproportionately involved in academic, activist and NGO circles, Demos has also been accused of elitism and aloofness, disconnected from the concrete struggles of working people. The disconcerting strategy surrounding the campaign launch was an obvious attempt to overcome this criticism by injecting some working class distinction into a group of people that generally clearly inhabit contradictory class locations. In this they did not differ radically from USR-Plus’ populism without people: for the time being it seems that Demos too does not need anything more than electors, not members or actual constituencies to represent. Just like USR and Plus, Demos members try to convince voters to vote for them by virtue of who they are not of what they do or plan to do. It seems that just being a party with a leftist discourse is simply enough. 

From this perspective, the new parties, irrespective of their ideological orientations, are a symptom of the old ones and not their overcoming. They radicalize the complete disconnection between people and politics while solidifying populism without people. The people appear in name only, docile electors of a new, more benevolent and perhaps less corrupt political class.

Florin Poenaru is an anthropologist and co-editor of CriticAtac. He works on issues of class and post-communism.