Romania is politically detoxifying. The diet is a «play by ear», without a set of rules, administered by disunited «technicians» and «doctors» on a clear concept for the cure.
Having already been dissatisfied with previous treatments, the patient lacks confidence in the possible success rate of what familiar specialists offer and appears ready to subscribe to more extreme methods. Romania may just be the last country in the European series to show the signs of fostering a mainstream nation-centric, anti-Western political movement.
Having so far averted the institutionalisation of extreme nationalism by including populist, ethnocentric elements in their own rhetoric, mainstream parties no longer appear able to contain this phenomenon. A disenchanted, unsatisfied society is looking for answers outside the seemingly panting political establishment. So where did it all go wrong for the country that constantly ranks among the highest trusting states in the European institutions according to the Standard Eurobarometer?
What can be so worrisome with the emergence of party outsiders in central decision making? Nothing. Unless they are too many. Parties remain the uncontested core of democratic rule. At least some outstanding outsiders should be included in already established parties. Without understanding the need to woo them once their proliferation is noticeable at the central or local level, parties increase the gap between themselves and the society they should represent. With few notable exceptions, such as the support provided by the Liberal Party to outsider and current president Klaus Iohannis, Romanian parties have had a faulty human resources policy. The all technocrat government ruling the country as of November 2015 is another first in the country’s history.
When you don’t have something to believe in, you can be easily manipulated to believe anything. Ideology has mostly been a ceremonial asset for mainstream parties and all political turn-overs have been the result of “anti” campaigns on broad temporary agendas. Three such phases of polarization can be so far identified: communism vs. anti-communism (1990-2000), corruption vs. anti-corruption (2000-2008), for President Basescu vs. anti - President Basescu (2008 – 2014). Once this final, highly personalised period in Romanian politics came to an end, confusion set. Romania now has two mainstream parties which call themselves socialist and centre-right liberals. The scene is set for an ideological division. If the ‘detox period’ is successful, it should end with the 2016 local and parliamentary elections. To this end, the lists of candidates should be balanced between the priorities of their activist - base and different social categories. If unsuccessful, the tension between parties and society continues and provides fertile ground for extremist parties.
Why are parties to blame for the possible questioning of the pro-European, pro-American sentiment? Besides the general flow of ideas in Europe that echoes even in the more pro-European Eastern members, parties have diluted or altogether ignored the meaning of the European project. After the fall of communism, the one thing that united all mainstream Romanian parties has been the rhetoric on the country’s European path of integration. There was little debate needed as the society was in favour of breaking with the Russian influenced past and head West. In time, no additional effort has been made to explain that EU integration also imposed certain conditions, but was used as a scape goat for difficult decisions. During my brief political campaigning experience it was a communality to hear that “campaigns are not won with issues of foreign affairs. What the people care about are internal matters.” Not taking the trouble to explain the interdependence of all internal matters with everything external – be it changes in the security order or matters of European integration – led to the false belief that the two could simply work in parallel. This is not a uniquely Romanian sin, but it rings differently for a nation that continues to be thought in schools about a glorious history in which it withstood the conquering efforts of empires. Parties never took it upon themselves to differentiate between the conditionality of European integration and US partnership - that we wanted - and the rules of conquering empires – that we did not want.
Reacting to the lack of inclusiveness of parties, civil society is strengthening. And after spending the last 25 years deploring its weakness, we may just start swallowing our words. Unorganised activism is an open gate for manipulation. Add the weakness and inadequacy of mainstream parties and one has the recipe for political chaos. Parties are strong as long as they understand to be inclusive institutions. The real competitors, those outside the Euro-Atlantic family, seek not to conquer but weaken. From this perspective, defence is no longer a matter of taking up arms, but ensuring governance.