Romania’s “Sonderweg” to Illiberal Democracy
In German historiography, there is a current of thought dating to the 19th century regarding a “special path” (Sonderweg) of political development in Germany or German settled areas. Its first incarnation was a positive one, underlying the German aptitude for social reform and development in the absence of dangerous pressures. After WW2, it became a way of explaining the rise of Nazism and retconning it as inevitable, thus making the leap from theory to tool for self-blame. This article argues that Romania is undergoing its own Sonderweg to illiberalism, based on local specificities of a political and structural nature.
The Romanian PSD has not showed any interest or capacity until now to sketch or communicate a minimally coherent ideological critique, alternative or opposite view to the Brussels-inspired agenda of the European Union like the Visegrád countries.
Romania is the second largest country among the so-called New Member States, but you will not hear much about it in the European or Western press. Hidden in South-Eastern Europe, far from any shared border with an Old Member State and acceeding to the European Union in the second wave of its Eastern enlargement, Romania is a country with a complicated history and a mediocre postcommunist transition, known universally in an almost stereotypical manner for the only bloody overthrow of a communist dictator, the foreign-made myth of the great vampire Dracula and endemic corruption permeating even the highest levels of government. Although a bit late, as always, the country is now catching up to Europe’s – East-Central Europe, in particular – illiberal trend, but not without its own set of peculiarities.
Playing the long game
No political leader in Romania has embraced Brexit and there is currently no Romanian political party, even at the fringes, proposing anything remotely similar.
As everywhere in Europe, East and West alike, as well as on the other side of the Atlantic, the economic crisis of 2008 has profoundly affected political attitudes and triggered a series of changes within the various elements of the political system which have generally tilted the balance of power away from more moderate voters, parties or leaders and towards those at the extremities of the spectrum, acting under the guise of populism. In Romania however, as in the other former communist EU Member States, this shift in the political climate has generally not propelled new populist parties, of either left or right wing variety, to the forefront of national political life, as has happened in Spain, Italy and even Germany for instance, although here and there (Romania included) one can briefly find a meteoric new party acquiring parliamentary seats but which usually plays an inconsequential role, like the many splits and factions before it. At the same time, Romania differs from the core Visegrád countries of Hungary and Poland, which are making the headline news these days, in that it is not a challenger party of the postcommunist political establishment, such as FIDESZ or PiS, which is the driving political force behind this illiberal turn, but rather the dominant party of Romanian postcommunist political life, the PSD (Social-Democratic Party).
This fact has several implications. PSD, heir to the former Communist Party in Romania and the main architect of the current – often criticised – regime and administration, has no grand designs for constitutional change. Its politics is not guided by philosophical or ideological considerations, no matter how shallow or wrongheaded they may be, as one can find in Poland and Hungary, and its aim is not “revolutionnary” in a minimal sense of the word, but conservative. There is indeed a common pool of nationalist, social and cultural themes in the region since the 1990s and before that, like distrust of foreign meddling in issues regarded as sovereign internal affairs, complaints about disadvantageous or exploitative Western capitalist practices and Christianity, in its many varieties, as part of the national identity. But the Romanian PSD has not showed any interest or capacity until now to sketch or communicate a minimally coherent ideological critique, alternative or opposite view to the Brussels-inspired agenda of the European Union like the Visegrád countries. What PSD and its allies apparently desire is simply to prevent the further democratisation of the country and, for this, it must roll back various institutional reforms, imprudently buy out public support through government largesse and, above all, reassert its control over the judiciary whose strenghtened independence since Romania joined the EU in 2007 threatens in the long-run the very survival of its close-knit political elites.
In 2009, the year when the world economic crisis began to take its toll on the Romanian economy, PSD – which had been dominant since the fall of communism under various labels – was actually in decline and for a very brief period it seemed that it might be replaced in its role by a challenger party loosely approximating in the Romanian context the sinusoidal political trajectory of Viktor Orbán’s Hungarian FIDESZ party. That year, PSD, to its dismay, narrowly lost for a second time in a row the presidential elections in favour of Traian Băsescu, Romania’s former President and the leader of PD (Democratic Party), turned PDL (Liberal-Democratic Party), who quickly cajoled another governmental majority of the President’s choosing, as in 2004, sparking outcries and paranoia over presidential powers and presidential overreach. It was also President Băsescu and his loyal, but not very enthusiastic, party in government who pushed and followed through the emergency austerity package in 2010, involving a hard-to-swallow 25% cut in public sector wages, after an agreement concluded with the IMF, the World Bank and the European Comission. That decision – although not inappropriate for the imbalanced state of the Romanian economy at the time, as the recent strong rebound shows – will basically terminate his party’s glowing political prospects and proved a godsend for PSD’s comeback.
The conflict between PDL and PNL – which, at one point, dreamt of completely eliminating PSD in Romanian politics and divide the political spectrum between them – allowed PSD to maneuver itself in the front seat of Romanian politics again, even before the economic crisis kicked in.
Instrumental in the rise and fall of Traian Băsescu’s PD/PDL was the conflict with its initial “Truth and Justice” coalition partner, PNL (the National Liberal Party). Although PD was originally a splinter reformist Social-Democratic party in the orbit of the new regime’s powerbrokers, by the middle of the 2000 it became the closest equivalent of a Conservative-Neoliberal party Romania has ever had. This ideological transformation, and its political and electoral effectiveness under Traian Băsescu, put him on a collision course with the National-Liberals, who feared for their own political survival and disdained its versatile allies. The conflict between PDL and PNL – which, at one point, dreamt of completely eliminating PSD in Romanian politics and divide the political spectrum between them – allowed PSD to maneuver itself in the front seat of Romanian politics again, even before the economic crisis kicked in. PNL managed to save itself through an electoral coalition with PSD in 2012, averting the fate of PNȚCD, the leading Christian-Democratic party in the failed center-right government coalition between 1996-2000. However, it soon found itself anew in opposion to the Social-Democrats, but this time weakened and discredited in the eyes of a large part of the core center-right electorate, despite having managed to win the contested presidential elections in 2014.
The present standoff is between the PSD-led government and a motley assortment of protesters, unions, a few civic organizations as well as the divided parliamentary opposition, backed up by statements in defense of the rule of law from European and American officials.
Economic turmoil, disconcerting domestic power struggles and often bombastic political rethoric in recent years aside, in Romania there is still a broad, although vaguely and rather sentimentally defined, pro-European consensus in society. The country sees itself as European, even mid-European in a historical and geographical sense, at the cross-roads of the Eastern Slavic world, the Western Catholic and Protestant one as well as Southern Mediteraneean Europe. There is also a sentimental attachment to Europe – understood in the sense given to it by Central-Europe’s anticommunist intelligentsia, as a place of freedom and dignity, high-culture and prosperity – among the country’s vocal, although not as influential or popular as elsewhere, groups of intellectuals. No political leader in Romania, for instance, has embraced Brexit and there is currently no Romanian political party, even at the fringes, proposing anything remotely similar to Britain’s eurosceptic voters and politicians.
Since the economic crisis unfolded in Romania, PSD and its splinter Liberal allies have built their campaign of return to power on two main issues. First, the idea that they are politically persecuted and obstructed by a triumvirate of institutions, including the Office of the President.
This is all the more remarkable since the country has been targeted, as other European countries, by Russia’s propaganda and informational war, by economic and diplomatic pressures, by covert interferences and divide and rule tactics. These actions are extremely sensitive in Romania which, in the aftermath of the Kremlin’s takeover of Crimea, actually finds itself de facto sharing an already contentious maritime border with Russia, in the possibly oil rich and environmentally problematic Danube-Black Sea area. There are also unresolved historical legacies and unavoidable ties with Soviet annexed former Romanian territories in the East – mostly with the ostensibly neutral Republic of Moldova, in whose breakaway territory Russia maintains some “peacekeeping” troops. Complicating the issue is the late 2016 Moldavian election which managed to install an avowed pro-Putin president, Igor Dodon.
The present standoff is between the PSD-led government and a motley assortment of protesters, unions, a few civic organizations as well as the divided parliamentary opposition, backed up by statements in defense of the rule of law from European and American officials, including US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson or accredited ambassadors in the Romanian capital. It started a year earlier, right after the Social-Democrats won the parliamentary elections almost single-handendly (45,6%) and formed a government in coalition with a splinter PNL group led by Călin Popescu-Tăriceanu, former Prime Minister under Traian Băsescu’s first presidential term, who spearheaded the alliance between PNL and PSD in 2009 and 2012. The biggest street protests the country has ever seen since the bloody and disputed Revolution of December 1989 irrrupted when the new PSD-ALDE government led by Sorin Grindeanu – now unshackled from a more or less hostile President Băsescu and an alliance with the more moderate PNL, which limited to some extent the actions of the previous four PSD cabinets led in succesion by Victor Ponta between 2012 and 2015, issued two emergency ordinances in the middle of the night. These executive acts with imediate force of law circumventing parliamentary process had as their purpose to eliminate graft from the Penal Code and covertly give amnesty to politicians already convicted for this crime. Among those convicted were a gallery of former PSD leaders, allies and sponsors, such as former Prime Minister Adrian Năstase, former Bucharest mayor Sorin Oprescu and media mogul Dan Voiculescu, but also former PDL and PNL officials and business connections.
Secondly, there was a populist anti-austerity economic program designed to garner the needed electoral support for a return to power, which however blended perfectly with PSD’s traditional, clientelistic more than welfarist, style of government even though it incoherently encompassed new themes.
Since the economic crisis unfolded in Romania, PSD and its splinter Liberal allies have built their campaign of return to power on two main issues. First, the idea that they are politically persecuted and obstructed by a triumvirate made up of:
- The Office of the President, which has a final say in top judicial appointments and directs the intelligence and security services, first under PDL President Traian Băsescu and now even under the PNL President Klaus Iohannis, initially an ally of former PSD Prime Minister and Chairman Victor Ponta;
- The independent judiciary, and above all the special National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA) run by Laura Codruța Kövesi, who collaborated with these security services in cases of high corruption, along with other independent bureaucracies and civic groups supporting them;
- And even the European Comission and foreign leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, misinformed by the first two or ill-disposed towards the country or the Social-Democratic Party.
Secondly, there was a rather populist anti-austerity economic program, designed to garner the needed electoral support for a return to power, which however blended perfectly with PSD’s traditional, clientelistic more than welfarist, style of government even though it incoherently encompassed new themes (left mostly to rhetoric), some favoured by Western left-wing and even center-right politicians, such as economic cooperation with China, a new national industrial policy, less reliance on finance and especially foreign owned banks, a more protective trade and investment policy.
The plot thickening
The fall of PM Grindeanu happened through a motion of no-confidence in Parliament against its own government, a first for Romania.
After the marathon protests in early 2017, Prime Minister Sorin Grindeanu, who bowed to public pressure and rescinded the two emergency ordinances, was dismisseed from office by Liviu Dragnea, the PSD Chairman barred from executive office because of an electoral fraud conviction and the real mastermind behind the party’s actions. This happened through a motion of no-confidence in Parliament against its own government, a first for Romania. The replacement Prime Minister, fellow PSD member Mihai Tudose, steered away from the highly controversial judicial revision wanted by PSD leaders and instead focused his cabinet’s activity on the economic program of the party. The fiscal reform envisioned involves shifting social security and healthcare payroll taxes from the employer to the employee, coupled with a reduction in personal income taxes for employees from 16% to 10%, which should be neutral towards net incomes according to the government, but got the union leaders in the street. A raise of almost 25% in the national minimum wage is set begining with January 1st next year, along with raises of similar magnitude for public wages as well as pensions. Concerning the latler, the government also plans to reduce the funds diverted to the privately-administered and capitalised, “2nd pillar” of the demographically-challenged public pension system, from 5,1% of the total social security payroll tax proceeds at present to 3,7% next year, effectively reversing the trend towards defined contribution pensions, rather than defined benefit under the pay-as-you-go system. The economic program also encompesses various measures to limit tax evasion, such as a turnover tax for small and medium size businesses, as well as tax arbitrage for the foreign-dominated corporate sector, which provoked the business community to lend its own blessing to the protests. But the push to change the judicial laws – the so-called Macovei reform, after the name of Monica Macovei, the Minister of Justice in the three years preceeding Romania’s accession to the EU – continued in Parliament, with the author of two emergency ordinances, former Justice Minister Florin Iordache, leading a special commission.
The PSD judicial revision package was sharply criticised even before making its way to Parliament. The High Council of the Magistrates (CSM), the country’s top judicial body made up of judges, prosecutors and some NGO representatives, rejected it in a majority vote, but its role is only advisory. The ongoing parliamentary debate on the bill has revealed how far PSD is willing to go to reassert executive control over the judiciary. Although PSD is not proposing abolishing the maligned National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA), the changes it proposes will turn this and other prosecutors’ offices, as well as judges, into subservient instruments of the politically appointed Minister of Justice and therefore curb their appetite to stand against government officials in power, as was the case during Adrian Năstase’s PSD government between 2000-2004, when the DNA was actuaĺly set up. First, the bill presented by Iordache wants to strip the President of his confirmation power for top prosecutors, in line with the party’s bias against this institution outside of its political control. Secondly, the bill proposes to take the disciplinary and inspection unit tasked with monitoring the activity of judges and prosecutors from the independent High Council of the Magistrates (CSM), which also nominates judges and prosecutors, and subordinate it directly to the office of the Minister for Justice, giving the government powerful leverage to influence the justice process. Third, the bill wants to eliminate the automatic suspension from office of a magistrate under indictment, even through a conditional immunity provision for constitutional judges, and reserve this sanction only after conviction, a situation to which many PSD politicians and sympathisers can surely relate to.
In the autumn of 2015, the tragic death of 64 young people and over another 180 wounded in a fire at a Bucharest night club without proper safety permits triggered the resignation of the previous PSD government led by Victor Ponta, whose anti-judiciary and populist economic stand was probably only moderated by the strained situation of the country still recovering from the 2009 crisis. A so-called technocratic government, made up of independents as well as politicians, led by former European Commisionner for Agriculture Dacian Cioloş, was put in place with the backing of both PSD and PNL to govern until the 2016 legislative elections. This kind of “technocratic” solution out of a political stalemate is a succesfully well-tested one in Romania’s postcommunist politics, having been preceded by the “technocratic” one year government of Mugur Isărescu – the longtime governor of the National Bank of Romania (BNR) – in 1999-2000 and even before that, in the early 1990s, by the government of Theodor Stolojan.
The preconditions for a “technocratic” exit out of the stalemate are missing in Romanian politics.
However, at the moment, the preconditions for a “technocratic” exit out of the stalemate are missing in Romanian politics. The “technocratic” government only works in times of emergency or deep economic crisis, allowing politicians with a dwindling public support to outsource the burden and consequences of political decisions on a group of independents or experts, usually made up of high civil servants or unaffiliated political personalities, but only for a brief period of time before the next elections cycle. The last Romanian parliamentary election took place only a year ago, and PSD won short of an absolute majority, while the next scheduled electoral competion, the presidential elections in 2019, might still turn in its favour.
The ability of the parliamentary opposition to prevent the passing of the justice bill, which will seriously undermine the independence of the judiciary, or to tweak various legislative acts under discussion, which will undermine the competitiveness of the Romanian economy, the business climate, the state of public finances and the macroeconomic stability, is in doubt.
Although the three center-right parties of the opposition are cooperating with each other on these issues, the alliance is uneasy. The largest among them is PNL, the party behind the current President Klaus Iohannis, which has shifted its allegiances many times in the past. Next comes the fledgling Save Romania Union (USR), a youth-oriented party composed mainly of various NGO activists and young entrepeneurs, which sprang out of a Bucharest centered movement for urban renewal a few months before the election. Finally, there is the Party of the Popular Movement (PMP) set up by former President Traian Băsescu for his ultraloyal followers, although Băsescu himself – whose brother, nephew and eldest daughter have faced trial for corruption – has become extremely ambivalent regarding the judiciary since leaving office. The governing coalition, supported by the main party of the Hungarian minority in Romania (UDMR), is, on the contrary, very united, determined and motivated, pushing the alarming legislation through Parliament even as they declared three days of national mourning in honour of King Michael I, Romania’s last sovereign and, in effect, the world’s last surviving head of state of the World War Two era. That is why the public protests and civic pressure are so important.
The protests are organised by various groups, among which the most active is the group of survivors of the November 2015 Colectiv Club fire, whose cri de guerre is “Corruption kills”, and promoted through various online resources and social networking sites such as Facebook. They enjoy the participation of proeminent intellectuals, such as the 101 years old philosopher Mihai Şora, artists, singers and even popular opposition politicians, having become a sort of feature of the winter nightlife in the Romanian capital and other major cities along with Christmas lighting, giving young people a voice for their discontent and reminding old people of the 1990s protests against the first postcommunist government installed by the current Social-Democrats after the fall of communist dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu.
Ultimately, however, what is needed is a radical change of the political elites, those of the Social-Democrats in particular, but also those of the Liberals, as the ALDE splinter party and coalition partner of PSD amply testifies. In short, the tragedy of Romanian politics – and of transition countries in general – is that, even 27 years after the fall of communism, it is still up to political elites which have acquired great power and wealth in an environment of legal and moral opacity to set the things right. An independent judiciary is incovenient because too many Romanian politicians could still end up in prison. Liviu Dragnea, for instance, the PSD party Chairman and President of the lower Chamber of Parliament, recently indicted for embezzelment involving also European funds, likes to present himself – and even talk appropriately – as a man of the people, a “peasant” coming from one of the country’s poorest counties in the South-West part of Romania, although his mansion in county seat Alexandria could rival even the dacha of Dimitry Medvedev and of many Russian oligarchs.
The proclivity for self-serving public lies, half-truths, distorsions and double speak, inherited from the former totalitarian regime and perfected with today’s fantastic array of media technologies, which is deeply entrenched in the mindset of the current leaders of the coalition government – as the so-called campaign against “the parallel state” promoted by Călin Popescu-Tăriceanu, ALDE party Chairman and President of the Romanian Senate, shows – must end if Social-Democratic or any other kind of ideological discourse and politics is to have a real future in Romania. The same goes for the anti-intellectual tendency of Romanian politicians to demonize entire groups or categories, be they foreign bankers or international NGOs, without actually analysing and addressing the issues at stake in a balanced manner.