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The Only Way is Back: Romanian Social-Democrats after Liviu Dragnea

Supporters of the Social Democrat Party leader Liviu Dragnea shout slogans in the front of The High court of Cassation and Justice (ICCJ) during Dragnea’s last appeareance before the court in the “fake jobs” case on April 15, 2019. (Photo by Daniel MIHAILESCU / AFP)

This article is published in cooperation with Bilten: Regional Portal.

1. Failing against all odds

Just as the polls were announcing a crushing defeat for the Romanian Social-Democrats at the European elections, their party leader, Liviu Dragnea, was slowly being escorted to prison, putting what is probably an end to his political career: a three and a half year sentence had been handed in to him, a blast from his past as a local official in one of the poorest of Romania’s counties. It wasn’t the first time a high-ranking Social-Democrat had been sent jailed: in 2012, former prime-minister and former president of the party, Adrian Nastase, was also indicted on corruption charges. By the time Nastase went to the Rahova prison, near Bucharest, however, he belonged to the history of the party rather than its present. This was not the case with Dragnea: the conviction struck when the PSD boss seemed to have all power strings in his hands.

And yet, Dragnea’s powerful sway over the government and the largest party in the country were not enough: for almost three years, his constant efforts to push forward an amnesty legislation that would have spared him of legal complications proved to be a failure. Popular protests, judicial resistance, and even opposition from his own party did not deter Dragnea from pursuing his amnesty agenda, but neither did they allow him to fulfill it. For three years, the country was in a standstill solely over this issue. By hindsight, Dragnea’s desperate moves seem rational: after all, it was the legal system that provided the final blow and an amnesty covering corruption charges would have come in handy. One wonders, however, if it is not exactly Dragnea’s obstinate insistence on this issue that made the justice system move so efficient against the most powerful person in the country. What is clear is that Dragnea’s amnesty proposals, always on the horizon, never accomplished, managed to raise enough popular animosity to make the PSD governments which he unofficially directed an unexpected fiasco. In a period in which the economy was blooming, the opposition was basically non-existent, and there were no outbursts of economic and social grievances, Dragnea’s quest for amnesty has managed to offset the moral economy of the country to such a point that it brought the biggest Romanian party to one of its lowest points since 1989.

The PSD’s only move at the moment is to distance itself as much as possible from Dragnea and his legacy, presenting him as a strange meteoric presence: Violeta Dancila, Dragnea’s former right-hand, and now President of the Social-Democrats, is trying to describe the amnesty laws as the work of a corrupt political Maverick, who tried to force his will on a powerless, awe-struck party. Any discussion about the legislation has been halted. For the Romanian liberal press, on the other hand, Dragnea’s trajectory comprises the essence of the Social-Democrats: unreformed communists, using their political power to hide their corruption. Of course, Liviu Dragnea was hardly some essentialized remnant of the communist past, but very much a product of the postsocialist period, just as much as he was deeply entrenched in the Party’s history rather than an episodic presence. The relevance of his political imprint, however, lies exactly in the obstinacy with which he pursued his amnesty legislation: much more than personal hubris, amnesty was his attempt to solve one of the inner tensions that had split Romanian Social-Democracy since the early 2000.

2. Corruption and EU integration

By that time the PSD was slowly moving from a certain reluctance to European integration and pro-market reforms, to a full-blown adoption of a pro-EU agenda, including radical privatizations and capital deregulation. The shift was coming after a 1996-2000 right-wing coalition, which had faced powerful popular mobilization when proposing their version of shock-therapy and EU integration: endless waves of strikes, local factory resistance, and even a Romanian miners’ attempts to attack Bucharest.

If the Social-Democrats could weather this resistance, and go on with their pro-market reforms, it was because of the complex networks of patronage on which they relied, unlike the liberal coalition preceding them: their connections with the trade-union movement, their reliance on state managerial strata, and the swelling number of local “barons,” local politicians cum capitalists who could win votes and support in the countryside. In this way, the PSD acted as a mediator between the local Romanian bourgeoisie, at first wary of capital deregulation, and the demands of international capital asking for an open economy rather than capital controls. What the liberal press calls corruption was the price such a mediation involved: oftentimes, local acquiesce to neoliberalization involved turning a blind eye to the corruption of local officials, to shady privatizations deals, or the development of small economic and political fiefdoms like those over which Liviu Dragnea presided throughout the 2000s. It is no coincidence that his emergence as a consequential PSD figure took place during this period, as one of the local “barons” ruling over the impoverished county of Teleorman: an intrepid party member who could thrive on louche business as long as he could win votes for the party.

It is hard to imagine Romania’s EU integration without this political brokerage occasioned by the Social-Democrats. Thanks to it, Romanian local elites, wary of capital internationalization, were coaxed into adopting a European mindset and an open economy. Suddenly people like Dragnea realized that rather than an attack on their local power, internationalization could become a good business opportunity and Europe a chance: Dragnea’s business connections began to span from the backwaters of the Romanian countryside to France, Brazil, and Panama. And yet, as much as it ensured the success of the Party, enabling Romania’s EU ascension and a period of high economic growth, the 2000s, the “age of the barons”, as it became known, would always come to haunt the PSD through its corruption scandals. Even when it could win the political or the economic race, the PSD would lose the moral one. This was especially the case for the young middle-class generation for which the moral compromises of the Party seemed unpardonable. A direct result of this loss of moral credibility were the 2006-2010 election failures, but also this spring’s fiasco in the EU polls. As importantly, the barons on which the party relied for negotiating local relations and obtaining votes started to play an oversized role within the PSD. Dragnea’s accession to power, as one of the main local strongmen of the period, was a result of this political weight of the local elites.

It is not hard to see Dragnea’s amnesty laws as an attempt to put an end, once and for all, to the memory of this period, which, with all its downsides, prepared the road for Romania’s EU integration. The legislation he proposed was a way to exonerate a local elite which has felt too tarnished by the anti-corruption campaign of recent years. And yet Dragnea’s political vision seems now to be more grandiose: not just a legal forgiveness, but a full-blown political redemption of the local bourgeoisie. Following in the footsteps of the Hungarian FIDESZ or the Poles from PiS, he thought he could reposition Romanian local elites at the helm of state institutions through an anti-EU, anti-foreign capital discourse that had little success among the population. The failure of this type of discourse is very simple: unlike Hungary or Poland, which have already experience huge levels of FDI, Romania still needs to lure in foreign capital. For the general population dealing with low levels of investment, an anti-foreign capital discourse makes little sense. Similarly, with more than three million Romanian workers scattered around the EU, it is hard to maintain a strong anti-EU stance without sounding shallow. Rather than the caustic discourse of PiS or Fidesz, for Romanian Social-Democracy the only way forward seems to be a few steps back: a return to a Blairite Social-Democracy in which the enthusiasm for the market and foreign capital is mixed with sporadic social benefits for the local population.

By Mihai-Dan Cirjan

Mihai-Dan Cîrjan is a PhD candidate in the Department of History of the Central European University in Budapest. His research interests include economic sociology, financial anthropology and the history of capitalism in Eastern Europe, with a focus on the first decades after the Great Depression. His current research project tackles the restructuring of the Romanian financial system after 1929, with an emphasis on the state’s sovereign debt and the private debt of Romanian citizens.