357. Romanian Parliamentary Elections: New Alliances and Challenges

By
Vladimir Tismaneanu

Vladimir Tismaneanu is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maryland-College Park and currently a Wilson Center Fellow. He spoke at an EES Noon Discussion on December 3, 2008. The following is a summary of his presentation. Meeting Report 357.

In December 2008, a friend in Bucharest sent me a message quoting a recent statement by an influential political commentator from the Romanian media. This columnist reminds me of the former spokesman for the Polish military junta in the 1980s, who has since become a very successful capitalist: Jerzy Urban. Urban is the editor of the weekly magazine Nie, which irreverently makes fun of everybody. In my mind, Urban is no hero, but is a former Communist Party lackey who turned into the transition's profiteering buffoon. So, I am referring here to somebody who is the equivalent of Urban in Romania, and his name is Ion Cristoiu.

Ion Cristoiu, who recently turned 60, was one of the chief propagandists of the Ceausescu era and the former editor of student weekly Viata Studenteasca (Student Life), which was sponsored by the Communist Youth Union. Soon afterwards, he became the first deputy editor of Scanteia Tineretului, which was the Romanian Communist Youth newspaper, much like Komsomolskaya Pravda in the Soviet Union. In this capacity, he was very close to the late leader of the Communist Youth Union, the dictator's son, Nicu Ceausescu. He was well-known, not only as a sycophant to the father but also to the son. After the collapse of Ceausescu's regime in December 1989, Cristoiu made a spectacular career. He started a number of magazines and is now an influential voice in Romanian printed media and television. In a statement he made last December to the journalist Marius Tuca, Cristoiu declared that he hoped to experience during his lifetime the end of capitalism and the return of communism.

I will preface my presentation with the conclusion: in spite of many skeptical assessments, the elections of November 8, 2008 were relatively good news for Romania. This may explain why there has not been much press coverage of these elections in the Western media. Some of you may remember an event that made front page of International Herald Tribune, and was covered by the Washington Post and the New York Times. On December 18, 2006, President Traian Basescu of Romania, relying upon the over 600-page report authored by the Presidential Commission (which I had the honor to chair and to coordinate), officially condemned the communist dictatorship between 1945 and 1989 as illegitimate and criminal. Later, Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko tried to go along the same line, other people have tried as well, but this is the only case of a postcommunist country where such a condemnation took place at the highest state level. We have a similar case of the condemnation of the communist regime by a law adopted by the Czech parliament in 1993, there is a law also passed in Bulgaria, but they are not official state documents unequivocally stipulating the condemnation of the old regime and apologizing to the victims in the name of the new democratic state.

I emphasize this link to the elections because the president was opposed in a most outrageous way by a demonstration organized by the then-vice president of Romania's Senate and head of the Greater Romanian Party, Corneliu Vadim Tudor. Once a minstrel of the Ceausescu court, Vadim Tudor reemerged after the 1989 revolution to become the editor of a toxic weekly magazine Romania Mare (Greater Romania). His magazine specializes in xenophobic, anti-intellectual and anti-democratic stances. The magazine's name is itself a kind of blasphemy, because Greater Romania is something sacred to the Romanians, since it refers to the 1918 incorporation of Transylvania, northern Bukovina and Bessarabia, and the southern part of Dobrudja, based on the Versailles treaty of 1919-1920. This former champion of Ceausescu's cult made a career in post-1989 Romania and by capitalizing on the phobias, frustrations and rage Romanians faced during their painful political and economic transition. He is the embodiment of the kind of prophetic, tribune-type demagogue that has poisoned the Romanian public space. He has fraternized publicly with Jean-Marie Le Pen of France and various fringe groups of the European Parliament's far right, and has indulged in a discourse of hatred, resentment, exclusion and intolerance. In the elections of 2000, Vadim Tudor obtained enough votes in the first round to be a candidate against former president Ion Iliescu. In the second round, Iliescu defeated Vadim Tudor with the support of critical intellectuals who had opposed him during his first six years in power (1990-1996). In a public letter, Iliescu's reluctant supporters defended their actions by stating that given the choice between a fascist-communist demagogue and an ex-communist involved in many unpleasant things, they chose Iliescu because he was not a dictator. Vadim Tudor is a combination of Jean-Marie Le Pen and Zhirinovsky and a little bit of the late Jörg Haider.

Despite the fact that Cristoiu and Vadim Tudor continue to be fixtures in Romanian politics, the 2008 elections were good news—not fantastic, not great, but a clear sign that Romania has become a ‘normal' democracy. The most obvious evidence of this was that the Greater Romania Party did not make it into Parliament, and other ultra-nationalist formations failed to pass the threshold as well. This means that there is nothing disquieting to report about Romania at this moment. Yes, there will be new coalitions that may allow former communists to join with the Social Democratic Party and enter the government that way. But this situation does not threaten the democratic process or the country's alliances and commitments to NATO and EU. As I revised this text on December 18, 2008, a new government will be soon sworn in: the designated prime minister is Emil Boc, a center-right politician. This government brings together the center right and the left in a coalition that seems more pragmatically than ideologically driven.

Let me now focus on the three major parties. One is the left-wing party, the Social Democrats (PSD), which is the successor party to the first post-1989 ruling party, the National Salvation Front. It has gone through a number of incarnations and is now a member of the Socialist International. In the recent elections, PSD garnered 33.6 percent of the national vote, probably due to the very low turnout.

The second party is the National Liberal Party (PNL), which until the elections of November 2008 was the governing party. It was a minority government that ran the country with the tacit but real support of the PSD. The liberals had the support of something between 15 and 18 percent in the 2004 elections and they maintained more or less the same score in the elections of 2008 with 18.5 percent.

The third party is the Democratic-Liberal Party. It resulted from the unification of the Democratic Party (PD), which is President Traian Basescu's party, with a faction that broke away from the PNL, headed by two influential politicians, former Prime Minister Theodor Stolojan and former Minister of Justice Valeriu Stoica. This party won 33 percent of the vote. The party is a member of European Popular Party (PPE), which is a right-of-center, Christian-democratic party, which includes Angela Merkel, Nicolas Sarkozy and other prominent European leaders. I call them liberal-conservatives, but these labels should be very carefully used in order not to get lost in an ideological quicksand.

These are now the three major political actors in Romania, but the real watershed is that the fourth actor, the Greater Romanian Party, which in 2000 had mobilized about between 15 to 18 percent of electorate was evicted from Parliament. I believe that this reflects that Romania is now a consolidated democracy. It is not simply moving towards the consolidation of democracy, because it is now very hard for anybody to imagine that there might be an authoritarian backlash. In his wonderful book Reflections on the Revolution in Europe, Sir Ralf Dahrendorf was concerned with military dictators that could take over power, and in 1990 many such unsavory things appeared to be possible. If you look at the current situation in Romania and compare it to what was in place in 1990—with the riots by the miners of the Cluj valley, the ethnic clashes in Targu-Mures, the viciousness of the anti-dissident campaigns and all the rest—then the difference is more than striking. I would say that the public space is still inhabited by all kinds of ghosts. But leaving this aside, as a whole the picture is relatively uplifting. I would say this needs to be taken into account.

How do I define democratic consolidation? I compare Romania with other countries such as Ukraine, Serbia, Croatia, Russia, Albania and Bulgaria. Some of you will remember an article that appeared only a few months ago on the front page of the New York Times, describing the rampant political crime and corruption in Bulgaria. In Romania, the system cannot be considered to be criminal while in Bulgaria it seems to be moving in the direction of criminalization, which is very disturbing. In a consolidated democracy, political behavior is rationally organized with the populist fringe is unable to subvert institutions. Political parties organize campaigns; elections take place in a free and fair way; and people discuss the nature of the electoral law. Ideological choices in consolidated democracies are significantly delineated, even if not very strong, but we know them (that is why I made the distinction between the three major parties at the beginning). In consolidated Democracies, outcomes of elections are reasonably predictable, within a margin of error of between 3 and 4 percent (which is quite big). Prior to elections in Romania, the polls predicted the results of the elections quite well. Let me also mention another important actor, the Hungarian Democratic Union of Romania, which is an umbrella movement rather than a party. It has itself a left, a center, and a right and has been a subscriber to all the governments since probably 1996 in Romania. They did not join the government because of ideological issues they have and, let us say, their ethnic-political party agenda.

In terms of distribution of the mandates, the PDL has the plurality of the mandates in Parliament, which can be accounted for by the urban electorate and the vote of the diaspora. The Diaspora vote was fundamentally for the PDL then PNL, the Liberal Party, PSD, the Social Democratic Party. So it goes from right to center-right, since PDL is what I consider to be a conservative liberal party.

The main results of the elections are of the elimination of extremist, nationalist, jingoist and xenophobic parties. I mentioned Greater Romania party with Vadim Tudor. Compared to the 2000 elections, when the final round opposed the ex-communist ideologue Ion Iliescu to the ex-Ceausescu sycophant Vadim Tudor, we now have a situation in which neither Iliescu nor Vadim Tudor is a Member of Parliament. This is brand new. This is something that Romania has not yet experienced. I have many friends who are in their early 30s or late 20s and they all agree that they want a parliament without Iliescu and Vadim Tudor and that they are tired of seeing these same faces. And now they succeeded in forming exactly such a parliament.

At this moment, many of these old faces have disappeared from Parliament as well as a few others who are quite well-known. The elections held last November are indeed the end of an era. The postcommunist cycle has ended with full democratic consolidation, predictable political behavior and the end of continuity with the communist regime. Although Iliescu is not a believer in communism anymore, he was still not a man of consensus. Now a younger generation has taken over, and I think even in the Social Democratic Party, they are going to be increasingly assertive. Becoming part of the new coalition government may offer a chance for the rejuvenation and genuine modernization of the Social Democrats. At the moment, the left appeals predominantly to the disenfranchised. The poorest areas in Romania voted for the left: the southern part of Moldova, the rural population and so on. The problem of the left in Romania is that it is deeply rooted in the clientelistic legacies of the communist and post-communist eras. It was for the left (not the Liberals or the Liberal Democrats) that the term baronocracy was created. Those barons are still there because the Social Democratic president of the Senate, Mircea Geoana, failed to reform the PSD. He still runs the Social Democratic Party with many of the old faces, who have become politically compromised.

One of President Traian Basescu's highest priorities now is the regeneration of the political class. In this respect, I think the elections have opened the door for this project: since there are many new faces in Parliament, there is new hope for a transformation of the political class. Some of the compromised people who tried to enter Parliament did not make it. Second, the Presidential Commission for Political Reform focuses on the Romanian political system and on rewriting the Constitution. The president would like to avoid a second moment like the suspension that took place in 2007, which paralyzed the Romanian political system. The Constitution has problems, and the president would like to move the country in the direction of a Third Republic (the first being the communist republic, and the second being the postcommunist republic). The third would be the republic as member-state of the EU and NATO. The first one was a pseudo-republic, the second was a quasi-republic and the third one should be the substantive republic. There is a commission made up of lawyers and constitutional experts, headed by University of Bucharest political science professor, Ioan Stanomir, which has been working for the president to propose a set of guidelines for the reform of political system. Finally, the priority of decommunization remains important, and the government should continue the implementation of the 23 proposals of the Final Report, of which only four or five have been implemented thus far.

An article by the historian and commentator Armand Gosu in the weekly magazine 22 published by the Group for Social Dialogue highlights the meaning of these elections. The title of the article is "Balanced and Reasonable Electorate." He emphasizes two elements of this election: the first is rationality and the second is moderation. The elections were dominated by rationality, since people voted according to what they thought would be in their interests. The second element, moderation, is evident because people are tired with vociferous radicalism and charismatic posturing, and therefore penalized the extremists. One can only hope that the new government which brings together parties of the right and the left will be able to act both rationally and imaginatively in times that may confront Romania with daunting economic and social challenges. Precisely because it is based in a large parliamentary majority, such a government can implement urgent reforms and act convincingly against corruption. It remains to be seen if the Social Democrats will finally engage in a long-delayed soul-searching and support President Basescu's decommunization agenda.

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