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How parties fail in a collective identity: a guide to the Romanian parliamentary elections

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PHOTO: Erakogu

Parliamentary elections are to be held in Romania on December 11th. The outcome of the popular vote is the last piece of the 2016 political puzzle, but the course of the campaign is a telling synthesis of party strategies in itself. In terms of the quality and future of democracy, Romania sends out mixed messages.

On the positive side, the country escaped a confrontation with significant extremism. Nationalism lives to fight another day, but, for now, it remains in the margins as a single all – encompassing option for vote maximization. A second cause for optimism is to see that in terms of public discourse relevant parties seem to have reached a consensus on basic democratic principles and there are no recorded meaningful attacks on liberal democracy. Also, worries that any of the mainstream parties would contest Romania’s belonging to the EU and NATO are unsubstantiated. Thirdly, Romanian politics has moved away from its history of all breaking news politics and flashy political rhetoric.

The downside is that our senses might be so worn out by recent history and by the constant global hysteria that floods daily news feeds that we cannot grasp the slower, less strident processes that take over and make for less good news for the quality of democracy: the lack of significant disagreement on governing policies. As a result, ties are not only loosened between a particular party and a particular segment of the society, but between all parties taken together and the society as a whole. Along these lines and taking into account the increased passivity of Romanian voters and the coalition flexibility of Romanian parties (which newcomer parties seem to also embrace) all cabinet compositions following elections are possible.

In both content and form, the 2016 parliamentary campaign is what the author of “Silent Night” must have been thinking of when he wrote the popular Christmas song. On the one hand, the absence of all distracting extravagances is a positive evolution. But once the scene is clear of such interferences, the void becomes more evident. Recent amendments to the electoral law that significantly reduced electoral advertising and made parties even more dependent on state finance for their operations cleared the air enough to notice the apathy to engage in meaningful or content laden debates.  The campaign is not about new ideas.  There is an absence of great policy battles and real inter-party competition. There are no publicly upheld political programs that help to significantly differentiate parties and no leading political figures willing to limit the confusion in political identity.

To add to the confusion, the technocrat prime minister, Dacian Ciolos is supported for a second mandate by the PNL, which he refused to join. With his permission, his image and name are used at PNL rallies and candidates promote the measures taken by the technocrat government as their own.

The confrontation between the two main political parties, the Social Democrats (PSD) and the National Liberals (PNL) is, thus, muffled. This brings into question the success of parties to fulfil their basic purpose of ensuring a functioning arena of competition between independent and non-inclusive organisations. A flip through their programs provides little insight over the needed disagreement in governing policies.  As neither party has been in government for over a year, the lines are blurred even further between who is in power and who represents the opposition. Nationalist rhetoric, populism and electoral buy offs are also instruments used by both main political forces. In a world which seems to run on individualism and the strive to “stand out in a crowd and be yourself”, Romanian political parties indulge in a strategy of laying low.

To add to the confusion, the technocrat prime minister, Dacian Ciolos is supported for a second mandate by the PNL, which he refused to join. With his permission, his image and name are used at PNL rallies and candidates promote the measures taken by the technocrat government as their own. One example is the unprecedented subventions granted by the Ciolos government in the agriculture sector, with which the liberals hope to secure the vote of this wide electoral base. Similarly, the PSD bouts on the parliament floor. One example consists of a package of laws that aim to eliminate a significant number of taxes.

Most relevant newcomers to the mainstream political scene, the Save Romania Union (USR), have also expressed their support for a second mandate of technocrat Ciolos. Although an organisation that evolved from an NGO associated with protest politics and a recruiter of new names for their candidate list, the USR is less willing to ride the potential of an anti-establishment movement than expected. Their history of staunch environmentalist policies is replaced with a more moderate positioning, already showing willingness to negotiate. Similarly, their indistinct position related to an emerging debate on the recognition of same sex marriages indicates reluctance to push for societal change, despite their young, urban (mostly big cities), cosmopolite voter base. Their behaviour displays signs of wanting to be a serious and appealing option on the centre while maintaining partnership options open. Positively enough, so far, the USR does not fit the profile of the populist movements witnessed in Western Europe.

The Democratic Union of Hungarians in Romania (UDMR) focuses on their constant minority voter base concentrated in three Transylvanian counties. UDMR has to, willy-nilly, echo the nationalist policies of the Orban government. From this perspective, they might stand out in terms of more nuanced policy pursuits, but their usual inclusion in whichever cabinet composition serves as a moderator of ethnic discourse, at which point the same lack of individual policies becomes noticeable.

For this year, all parties have chosen to run independently. This observation includes other satellite or less significant parties whose relevance depends on passing the 5 % threshold for Parliament. Even so, all campaign strategies have been oriented having government participation in mind and maximizing coalition potential, stepping over the first natural stage of becoming legitimate depositories of competing interests or loyalties of the Romanian society.

Parties seem to work on the assumption that voters have multiple, scattered policy preferences but only one vote. In their bid for that vote without making hard policy choices, Romanian parties failed to develop a personality and succumbed to a confusing collective identity. This adds to the distrust of political parties as indispensable public utilities, leads to continuous citizens’ disengagement with politics and lowers the quality of democracy. Because you can fool some of the people all of the time, or you can fool all of the people some of the time. But you cannot fool all of the people all of the time….

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