The most revealing aspect of the 2014 European Parliament elections in Romania is the further move to the right of the governing party, PSD [the Social Democrat Party]. While the party identifies itself as a center-left one, in practice its policies and political discourse point to an increasing shift to the right. The campaign for the European Parliament rendered that clear: the slogan “proud to be Romanian” is not dissimilar to other similar slogans of European far right parties.
The 25 May vote produced the following results:
1. PSD (The Social Democrats) - 37.60 % -16 seats (S&D)
2. PNL (The National Liberals, center-right) - 15,00 % - 6 seats (Previously ALDE now they moved to EPP)
3. PDL (The Liberal-Democrats, right-wing) - 12,23 % - 5 seats (EPP)
4. UDMR (The Hungarian minority, right-wing): 6,47 % - 2 seats (EPP)
5. PMP (The Popular Movement, right-wing): 6,21 % - 2 seats (EPP)
6. Mircea Diaconu (independent right-wing): 6,81 % (independent)
While locally, it seems a staggering win for the PSD, in terms of European Parliamentary mandates, EPP-affiliated parties got 15 mandates, while the Socialists, 16. Therefore, the win of the “left” is not as clear as it might appear. While the Romanian right remains highly fragmented due to local historical reasons, this does not mean it is weak or that it is losing ground.
One aspect noted by local and international observers alike is the lack of extreme right parties running for these elections. Such forces seem to be completely absent from the Romanian political scene, in stark contrast to other places in Europe, where the extreme right not only scored high, but also, in places like France, in fact won the European elections. Explaining this absence became important.
However, such a quest might be misguided. Instead of trying to find explanations why there is no extreme right in Romania, one should look instead at how extreme right discourses, themes and policies have permeated mainstream parties, including the aforementioned PSD. Far from being absent from Romanian politics, extreme right views and language are in fact at its core.
The major difference between western extreme right and the eastern one is the object of hate that they have. In the western case, it is predominantly the figure of the migrant that organizes the system of fear on which extremism flourishes, whereas in the east it is mainly the figure of the Roma. All the nationalistic, xenophobic and racist sentiments are directed towards it. This has been a main feature of Romanian politicians for at least a decade, if not more.
This is not a new strategy either. Starting with the Communist Party prior to 1989, and then with every major party afterwards, the ruling political class was always able to mobilize nationalism, racism and extremism to its favor whenever political circumstances demanded it. Building the figure of the menacing Other, constructing the nation as a fortress under siege, mobilizing against external enemies were always part and parcel of mainstream politics from the 19th century nation-building process, not the strategies of some peculiar right-wing extremists. They were an integral part of the development of Romanian politics that accompanied the definition of nation-state in which blood, land and religion were salient components.
Therefore, in Romania the problem is not the mysterious absence of the extreme right, but the difficulty to disentangle such components from mainstream politics. They are almost synonymous and quintessential.
The aim of mainstream politicians is to preserve the monopoly on this discourse and use it to their own benefits. And this might confuse observers since indeed such a strategy reflects a more encompassing political protectionism. Romania has one of the most restricting laws in the EU regarding the formation of political parties. Not only the number of signatures required to form a political organization is huge (and in addition signatures must be collected proportionally from the entire country’s territory), but also the money deposit required is beyond the reach of ordinary people. Last year, a former prime minister, with notoriety and vast political and economic connections, tried to form his own party. He was not able to gather the required amount of signatures and therefore took the easier solution: he bought an already existing one. Regular citizens cannot do either (form or simply buy a party) and therefore many remain disenfranchised and un-represented by the existing political class.
But this strategy also keeps at bay and out of the recognized spectrum of political parties the extreme right. Without the realistic possibility of forming a party, the extreme right groups remain at the level of civic initiatives and NGOs, dealing like many other NGOs with specific issues: fighting against LGBT rights, supporting the rehabilitation of interwar leaders and so on. Their presence is stronger online and takes different forms: from secular nationalist football hooligans, to fascist Christian nostalgics of the interwar period, to eco-friendly, conservative anti-capitalists.
The vast array of such views and the number of groups existing in the shadow of organized politics became visible during the protests against Rosia Montana goldmine exploitation in the autumn of 2013. United by the common enemy of the foreign corporation, this struggle offered a platform for previously underground groups to come into the open and make their case. It is also true that, in some cases, their presence was magnified by the government in order to discredit the protests. The criticism of the extreme right, especially the one coming from the left, was also instrumentalized against the protests themselves. Thus, the mainstream parties try to control not only the ideology of the extreme right but also the groups embracing it, mobilizing them in order to regain control over political situations.
Therefore, we need a different perspective to look at these issues. One such useful perspective is G.M Tamas’ notion of post-fascism: a matrix of various politics, policies, practices and ideologies that have nothing to do with the historical legacy of fascism or Nazism as such but a prevailing mood against the Enlightenment idea of universal citizenship. Basically, post-fascism is a political operation of excluding from citizenship, and indeed, from the ranks of human beings, certain categories of people deemed undesirable, dangerous, lowly, filthy and expendable. This can be the migrant, the Roma, the poor, the homosexual, the woman, the Jew and whomever at one point the majority decides to outcast as a scapegoat.
Who needs the extreme-right in such a context? Post-fascism is the tyranny of the mainstream politics itself, its fundamental core. The outcomes of the Romanian European Elections and the steady move to the right of the entire spectrum of parties point in that direction. On this background it is important to ask what kind of leftist politics is still possible?
The results of this year’s European Elections marked not only a landmark result for extreme right parties across Europe, but also impressive results for the European Left parties. The specificities of the local contexts are, of course, fundamental in any analysis of the left in these elections, but it also undeniable the fact that in Europe we are not at a conjuncture where a united European left is gaining ground in the context of failing austerity measures, prolonged crisis and extreme right radicalization. In the Romanian context, the left is yet to organize in a clear political movement or party. Leftist movements are still incipient and intellectual in nature. Last year’s protests against the gold exploitation in Rosia Montana managed to enlarge the spectrum of left-wing themes and to give more traction to a leftist language, but the movement itself remained rather right-wing in nature and quite loose. During the European Parliamentary elections, the activists grouped around Uniti Salvam, the steering nucleus of the protests, decided to boycott the vote in protest of the entire political class and of the restrictive regulation for forming a party and running in elections.
It is impossible to judge the impact of such a decision given the fact that usually around 60% of the people do not vote anyway. This might be a simple rationalization of an existing political situation, thus without carrying much political impact. However, by pinpointing to the difficult thresholds for forming a political and running in elections, the boycott might have achieved the task of at least opening up an important point. Lessening the criteria for forming a political party is the first prerequisite for any organized leftist political party in Romania.
This is not to deny the fact that there are some existing leftist parties already, including one affiliated to the European Left: PAS [the Socialist Alternative Party]. Long in the shadow of mainstream politics, PAS seems to enjoy a bit of momentum today, perhaps following an internal shift of generations. However, the party is still far from developing a comprehensive leftist discourse and to put forward some credible figures. As such, it still remains divorced both from the intellectual left and from a defined popular base. The immense advantage of being a registered political party remains so far unused.
After 25 years of national-communism under Nicolae Ceausescu and after 25 years of post-communist neoliberal transition, the left still faces an uphill battle for political articulation in Romania. But, for the first time in decades, the situation of the left in other European countries offers not only a blueprint but also grounds for hope.
+++ May 25
The main focal point of these European elections took place before the actual vote. A civic group –Uniti Salvam [United, We Save], a loose group of heterogeneous leftist activists, which successfully spearheaded last year’s protests against the goldmine project in Rosia Montana – announced at the beginning of the week a citizens strike. They invited citizens to boycott the vote and take to the streets instead, in order to protest against the existing political class and against the draconic laws governing the forming and the registration of political parties in Romania. This stirred a nation-wide debate, with many voices from within the establishment, either from the political parties or from the media, condemning such an attitude as defeatist and counterproductive.
So far, existing polls suggest a 32 % turnout, a 5% increase compared to the 2009 vote. From this perspective, combined with the fact that only about 300 people took to the streets in Bucharest, it appears that this civic initiative has failed. However, it is undeniable that the boycott determined an important societal debate and a (more or less leftist) political subjectivation of non-affiliated activists. In addition, the civic initiative made the first concrete towards a plausible political articulation in the future and also, though low-key, gave voice to a widespread disenchantment with the current political class. After all, about 60% of the voters did not vote in the past 3 electoral cycles. While the prevalent mood against established politics cannot be denied, its political articulation is still nascent. Whether this will take a leftist direction or a right-wing populist tone is still uncertain.
Apart from this aspect, at a more general level, internal issues dominated the campaign for the European Parliament. Basically it reflected current local struggles with a view to the Romanian presidential elections of December 2014. The campaign was polarized between the incumbent president Traian Basescu, a right-wing figure who carried the flag of austerity measures after the 2009 crisis, and the incumbent Prime-Minister, the head of PSD (the Social-Democrats, affiliated with S&D) which has now a confortable majority in Parliament following the 2013 Romanian Parliamentary Elections. Ponta seeks to replace Basescu as the next president, while Basescu, after falling out with his former party PDL (the right-wing Liberal-Democrats affiliated with EEP), is currently gunning for his new pet party, Partidul Miscarea Populara (Party for a Popular Movement). In between them, Crin Antonescu, the head of center-right PNL (the National-Liberal Party, affiliated with ALDE), a former ally of Ponta against Basescu in 2013, is trying to keep the backing of the party as a presidential nominee.
This struggle kept European issues at bay and the electoral results for the European Parliament have been framed from the beginning as indicators for the presidential race. Most of the right-wing parties displayed clear messages against the ruling PSD and tried to portray this party as anti-democratic and lacking in European values given its high number of local capitalists as members, most accused of corruption and monopoly. This label was magnified during the 2013 impeachment of the President, when PSD had to bend several laws in order to accomplish it, which attracted the wrath of several European officials, denouncing the Orban-like tactics of Victor Ponta. While the President survived the impeachment, PSD retained the anti-European stamp for right-wing voters, already quite powerful given that it is considered to be the offspring of the pre-1989 communists.
In order to counter this and with an eye to the Presidential elections, PSD played the national card and portrayed itself as the only party able to represent the interests of the Romanians at the European level. PSD’s campaign veered from social issues to national pride, effectively styling itself as a popular and even populist party. No wonder that some local commentators considered that PSD managed to incorporate a significant number of votes that otherwise would have gone to the extreme-right.
In this context, paradoxically or not, the independent candidates were the ones addressing themes more in line with current European debates. That these candidates were largely conservative and right wing, with Orthodox undertones, is no surprise either, given the Romanian context. Iulian Capsali for example, a candidate having the backing of the Romanian Orthodox church, had the most coherent independent campaign by feeding into all the conservative fears: from gay rights to EU ingrained secularism. It had little societal impact, but it managed to coagulate such views which so far remained dispersed and without a political articulation.
At the time of writing this report there are several exit-poll results available, from different survey institutions. However, they are highly contested by the preliminary results coming from electoral parties and from the Central Election Bureau. Therefore, the following figures must be treated with caution since they are definitely subjected to change. Early preliminary official results together with the number of seats apportioned to each party will not be announced until Monday 26 May at noon.
1. PSD (The Social Democrats) (41.01 %),
2. PNL (The National Liberals, center-right)(14,92 %),
3. PDL (The Liberal-Democrats, right-wing) (11,82 %),
4. UDMR (The Hungarian minority, right-wing)(7,1 %),
5. PMP (The Popular Movement, right-wing) (6,7 %)
6. Mircea Diaconu (independent right-wing) (5,91 %),
7. Forţa Civică (right-wing) (2,11%)
From this preliminary data, PSD is bound for a landslide victory. But as mentioned above, even though the party is affiliated to S&D, for this campaign it mobilized nationalist feelings, tapping into growing anti-EU sentiments, largely because of the austerity measures following the 2009 crisis. As such, at least on this level, PSD was more on the right than the right-wing parties below them, which were more focused on the internal struggles and as such did not formulate proper European messages (with the exception of PNL, whose campaign was focused on the idea that Romania should switch to Central European Time in order to be closer to the heart of Europe).
While internally the right wing seem to have lost these elections, it nonetheless retains an important foothold, and will contribute a significant number of MEPs to the EEP faction of the European Parliament.
The left registered by far the biggest defeat in these elections, but such statement has to be mitigated by the fact that there was no real left wing party or coalition taking part in these elections. The closest such party, PAS (The Socialist Alternative Party, affiliated to the European Left) took part in these elections, but being a very small party with virtually no resources or popularity its results were always certain to be negligible. PAS is a party currently undergoing a generational change, with the old guard –largely Stalinist and nostalgic of Romanian national-communism – being challenged by a younger generation more open to contemporary European Left ideas, with Syriza as a model to follow. However, the disjuncture of this new generation with the non-affiliated, intellectual and activist left is huge, which might impact negatively the chances to stir the party towards a reconstructed left.
It is too early to draw comparisons with the previous European Elections since what is available now are only exit polls estimations. However, the larger political trends seem to continue.
2009 election results:
PSD – 31,7% (11 mandates)
PDL – 29,7 (10 mandates)
PNL – 14, 5 (5 mandates)
UDMR – 8,9 (3 mandates)
PRM (the extreme-right) – 8,6 (3 mandates)
Elena Basescu (independent, right-wing) – 4,22 (1 mandate)
The elections for European Parliament in Romania are organized on countrywide party lists. There is a threshold of 5%. The votes for the parties or candidates that fail to make the threshold are redistributed proportionally to those above the threshold. Independent candidates must score over 200,000 in order to get a seat in the European Parliament.