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Where’s my ideology? Romania’s political landscape before the EU elections

Credit: CIUPICO.com

Romania is probably the country in Europe displaying the most blurred ideological landscape, with political parties, citizen groups and home-grown think-tanks playing with labels such as “right” and “left”, “liberals” and “libertarians” and “free marketeers” that bear little relation to their use in the West.

In this respect, Romania is more like its little sister Moldova, the former Soviet republic that is also struggling to build itself a European identity. Speaking the same language, both are permeated by a permanent self-induced nostalgia for a golden age of national glory that has never existed.

In other Eastern-European countries such as Poland or Hungary, one holds a more traditional, better defined distinction between right and left. Nothing like this in Romania, where, for lack of a solid political tradition, ideological distinctions are mere cosmetic, hiding a solid streak of populism shared by most parties.

Take the Socialist (Social Democratic Party, PSD) party in power, in a coalition with the supposedly Liberal ALDE built around the president of the senate Călin Tăriceanu. The Romanian PSD Socialists are “socialist” but in name. They are a semi-feudal structure of power, built around a network of regional barons running the country’s regional administrative entities, the counties (județe). They owe allegiance to the higher echelons ending, in a spiralling ascension, with the twice condemned, but all-powerful, leader of the party, Liviu Dragnea, sitting atop the pyramid of power.

Many of the party’s leadership have been convicted or are under investigation for corruption, abuse of power or misuse of public or EU money. They are ready of anything in order to delay or have their convictions and law suits annuled, including through bashing Europe, spreading conspiracy theories and announcing that they would move the country’s embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, thus breaking the EU common stance at a time when Romania is running the EU affairs.

One of them, Florin Iordache, chief of the committee for the revision of the laws in the lower chamber, went so far as to show the middle finger of both his hands to the opposition during a plenary debate upon pronouncing the formula: “European Commission”.

— ALDE – This supposedly Liberal formation is but a subsidiary of the Socialists. They have absolutely nothing to do with the European ALDE led by Guy Verhofstadt. They simply managed to sneak into ALDE, thanks to their acronym, and now the leader, Călin Popescu Tăriceanu, a largely derided figure, is the second man in the state, the third after him being the chief of the lower chamber, the aforementioned PSD boss Liviu Dragnea.

Widely derided for his shaky grammar, Tariceanu simply dreams of becoming president of the country (but the PSD Dragnea dreams of that too, if he can get rid of his two convictions through a general amnesty). The ALDE chief at the European level, Guy Verhofstadt, threatened to expel the Romanian ALDE: Tariceanu lied to him in Bucharest, Verhofstadt publicly accused.

The opposition

— UDMR – in the shadows of the power, there lurks the Union of the Hungarians (UDMR) a junior partner of many governments after 1989 (although not of the present one). Politically, their position could be compared with that of the party of the Turks in Bulgaria. Unscrupulous, with absolutely no political ideology, they only play the ethnic tune and periodically insist heavily towards obtaining some kind of autonomy for the Hungarian populated counties, which are situated in the geographical centre of the country (in this respect, the situation in Romania is less tense than in Slovakia, where the ethnic Hungarians live mostly along the border with Hungary).

— PNL (National Liberal Party) – Led by the unabashed and unpredictable macho Ludovic Orban (brother of the first Romanian EU Commissioner, Leonard Orban, and bearing no relation with Hungary’s Viktor Orban), the PNL “Liberals” have compromised themselves in 2012 by forming a coalition with the PSD “Socialists” in order to overthrow the then elected president Traian Basescu. Together (PSD + PNL) they launched a failed parliamentary putsch, the effects of which are still felt in the present permanent instability of the country. A historical party that became simply a shadow of itself, with no clear ideological identity, PNL never did its mea culpa after 2012. They now claim to to be in the opposition, while backing dubious initiatives of the ruling coalition, such as the 2018 (failed again) referendum for the “redefinition of the family”, which was meant to deny rights to gay couples. Since 2014, they are part of the EPP.

— USR (the Union to Save Romania) – a motley crew of intellectuals that claim to be on the moderate right of the political spectrum. They bear credit for having been the first to organise internal elections for the European elections. One of their major figures is a naturalised Frenchwoman of conservative tint, Clotilde Armand, who also backed the (failed) referendum for the “redefinition of the family” organised by the governing coalition.

— Dacian Cioloș’s RO + party no-one really knows its name now, it came to be PLUS, after a series of failed logos and acronyms and battles in court to register it as a party. This is another bizarre tightly-knit group of intellectuals and little known young activists of no clear cut left or right leaning, oozing good will, gathered around the figure of Dacian Ciolos. Clumsy and detached, seen by some as a “technocratic” Messiah, Dacian Ciolos is a former high official with no previous party affiliation, who managed to become EU Agriculture Commissioner (2010 – 2014) without having to publicly bend his spine through the intricate, trap-laden system of clientelism that forms the very nature of the Romanian political life.

The incessant infightings, and the media-controlled political wars that permanently rage at home, have surprisingly let him unscathed until recently, when his party was accused of having been founded by a former member of the Securitate (the much dreaded Communist secret services). No other important Romanian public figure has in recent memory managed to float above the political cesspool without as much as glancing down at its murky waves.

Ciolos has a French wife, and for a long time the Romanian press has speculated that France had backed him solidly before his nomination largely due to his having married a Frenchwoman. He has even been accused at the time of being France’s second Commissioner.

Then there is the newly formed PRO ROMANIA party of the former prime minister and former PSD strongman Victor Ponta, possibly the most chameleonic figure in Romanian politics, who flirted with Guevarism, nationalism, came to Brussels last year to convince the ECR Eurosceptics that he is one of them (and a “man of the Right”, he said), then settled on the image of an opponent to his former party PSD. No ideology there, just a sheer, inextinguishable thirst for power. Ponta managed to obtain the allegiance of the present Romanian Commissioner Corina Crețu (and the Commission will have to explain how Crețu can continue to work as a member of the EU executive after announcing that she is starting a campaign on behalf of a national party).

Finally, on the fringes, there float reflection groups and platforms that will not take part in the European elections but could have some influence on the electorate, although DEMOS (see below) toyed for a while with the idea of running as a political formation. These are groups such as the rabidly Trumpist In Linie Dreapta on the right, and Critic Atac on the left, but, although they appeal to some city intellectuals, they will not take part in the elections and are doomed to remain on the intellectual fringes of the political spectrum, or to back one of the running parties, if only they could identify their ideology.

The leftist movement has been enriched recently by DEMOS, a very socially-oriented group. Although registered as a party, it is unclear whether they would make it into a real political movement. All of these right and left groups are made of intellectuals with no direct leverage on the aforementioned political parties.

One final Romanian peculiarity is that none of these groups, possibly not even the PSD, will openly carry an anti-European message. They are all too concerned that they could eventually be rejected by their transnational sister parties, as Guy Verhofstadt threatened to do with the mendacious and inept Romanian ALDE.

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