On December 22nd Romania will celebrate two symbolic moments: the 25th anniversary of the Romanian Revolution of 1989 and the inauguration of the new president, Klaus Werner Johannis. What a startling coincidence! An ethnic German from Transilvania, a direct descendant of the Saxon (and then Schwaben) colonists arriving in today’s Romania from the 12th century is becoming the president on the very day of the bloody fall of communism in Romania 25 years ago.
Nothing is more striking and more counter-intuitive from Ceausescu’s time: is the legacy of the aggressive national-communism and ethno-centric ideology before 1989 being vindicated by the election of Mr. Johannis, a low key, sturdy Lutheran in a dominant Christian Orthodox country? In a Europe where populism and the return to nationalism and xenophobia start to become the rule, is the resounding election of a president with such a background a sign of a tolerant, inclusive Romania or just another negative vote, like so many other times in my country and beyond? Probably a little bit of both.
As a social democrat, the victory of the centre-right of Johannis is also a strategic defeat of the Left in Romania. Victor Ponta, the prime minister and party leader of PSD is 42 and incarnates the young generation of politicians in the land. Moreover, the Right is in dissaray and fragmented, after the 10 year reign of the divisive and controversial president Traian Basescu. To make the pill even harder to swallow, in the first round Mr. Ponta got 40% of the vote against the only 30% for Mr. Johannis.vTwo weeks later, the situation turned around in an unprecedented way: Klaus Johannis won with a huge margin of 55% to 45%!
What happened? Was this tidal wave a vote against Victor Ponta, one against the PSD or a combination of both? Why is the PSD losing the presidency of Romania the third time in a row? What is the state of the Left in the one country in CEE where social democrats constantly represent the single largest political force?
Let’s have a quick look at the election campaign of Victor Ponta, widely considered as one of the ugliest and trivial in the quarter of a century of democratic elections in Romania. Sacrificing the fundamental values of the Left, Ponta chose to attack his counter candidate with the tools of the Ceasusescu propaganda toolkit: his German background, his faith, his parents (harassed by a TV station owned by a close associate of Mr. Ponta in the small city in Germany where they now live) and, to make things even worse, preposterous allegations of child and organ trafficking in the 1990’s by Klaus Johannis, then a young local education inspector! Moreover, the formal endorsement of Mr. Ponta by the far right Corneliu Vadim Tudor (with 4% of the vote in the first round) made the Hungarian minority in Romania (with two candidates in the first round) massively (85%) vote for Mr. Johannis, despite the formal coalition in government of the PSD and the Hungarian party, UDMR.
But the most dramatic and emotional moment of the campaign was triggered by the poor (and some believe deliberate) organisation of the vote for the massive Romanian diaspora in Europe. In the first round, tens of thousands of fellow Romanians, lining in long queues in front ot the Romanian embassies and consulates, were not able to cast their vote. To make things even worse, for the second round of the vote on November 16th, Mr. Ponta’s government did nothing (other than cosmetical improvements) to allow the Romanian diaspora (the number of voters doubled in the second round) to have normal conditions to vote. Long queues and up to 9 hours wait triggered a huge emotion and outrage across the country so connected with the 2,5 million or so fellow citizens abroad. Violent incidents confronting angry young Romanian voters with the riot police in Milan, Turin or Paris made headline news around the world. Mass demonstrations against Mr. Ponta and his government erupted in the big cities of Romania, smartly amplified by PNL, the center right party supporting Mr. Johannis. A criminal investigation is now under way looking into the perceived deliberate obstruction of the fundamental right to vote.
But is Mr. Ponta’s and his campaign team’s abysmal performance the only cause for this catastrophic defeat? Is there anything about the PSD that would make any party candidate suffer? “Partidul-stat” – the Party-State – is one standard accusation against the PSD. Mr. Ponta’s autocratic tendencies as party leader have amplified this concern. To make things worse, the accusations made by president Basescu that Ponta was an undercover agent for one of the intelligence agencies while being a prosecutor between 1997 to 2001 renewed the fear that a Ponta presidency would revive authoritarian traditions much older than Ceausescu’s. The Victor & Viktor strongmen duet in Romania and Hungary was not a very nice outlook for many inside and outside of the country.
Corruption was another big topic of the campaign. Ponta, with many of the PSD local and national leaders, made a strong case to amend legislation or procrastinate the stripping of immunity of a number of prominent MPs (from all parties). This went against popular sentiment. Routinely presenting the avalanche of indictments as a witch-hunt by justice officials, politically orchestrated by loyalists of president Basescu, Ponta confirmed an older perception of the PSD – protecting corrupt politicians. The chaotic and sometimes utterly incompetent way to run the business of government was another line of attack. Dealings and allegedly privileged access to public contracts by inner circle and media moguls close to the PM were widely accused in a country in desperate need of public investments and job creation.
Is the PSD incapable of winning a presidential election with a big turnout? Accusations of communism, arrogance and corruption accumulated against the PSD over the last 25 years. The miners raid on Bucharest and the violence associated, in 1990-91, with president Iliescu, the founder and honorary president of the PSD, is passed from one generation to the next. Heavily infiuenced by Third Way thinking (Mr. Blair is an official consultant to Mr. Ponta), the PSD’s successive goverments moved aggressively towards the center – some say to the right – with the aim (proven dead wrong by the results of the vote) to win over more liberal voters. The result was an ideological confusion and unattractiveness for the young, urban and more educated public, not to mention the diaspora. The consequence is a voter base made up primarily of the old, rural and less educated and a heavy reliance on the important network of mayors and county presidents (the so-called ‘local barons’). The efficiency and credibility of this cohort of party cadres is in many cases questioned by the wave of indictments and allegations of corruption and conflict of interest. With local and parliamentary elections coming up in 2016 and with the new president riding high in the opinion polls, the future looks grim for the PSD.
How can the Left not be the dominant political force in a country with such dramatic social and economic conditions like Romania? First, one should look to the unjust label of ‘former communists’ put on all socialist and social democratic parties in CEE. Despite a growing number of nostalgic citizens longing for the less insecure times of the previous regime, the large majority of the population is adamant against any association, no matter how far-fetched, with the communist past.
Secondly, the PSD is considered a main contributor to the making of the extremely inequitable form of ‘cocktail’ capitalism built over the last quarter century in Romania. Nobody can accept the reality, seen as a poor excuse, that Romanian social democrats could have resisted the neo-liberal dogma of excessive deregulation, privatisation and dismantling of the state. As a matter of fact, many of the more technocratic members of the successive Ponta cabinets over the last three years have publicly bragged about their ultra-liberal affinity. The perceived electoral need of moving out of the traditional party base led to a de facto shift away from the fundamentals of social justice by ‘the most pro-business guvernment’ in Romania.
Third, the party itself has become more and more decoupled from the huge shifts in society, including the underlying conditions and consequences of the huge migration of millions of Romanians in the last decade. Currently at 7%, the unemployment rate in Romania would be at 30% if the economic migration of the workforce would not have been offered by EU integration. The diaspora contributes, with roughly 6 billion euros/annum, to the national economy. With enough jobs and public services at home to make people stay or return to the country, the annual contribution to the GDP would be around 50 billion euros (at a GDP of 150 billion euros). The prolonged crisis caused additional shifts in the public psyche, reflected in a more active civic and social media engagement. In terms of new election and campaign techniques, the PSD seems outmoded and outpaced, despite its still formidable organisation machine.
The PSD is not in the first difficult moment after an important electoral loss. But today old and new fractures and stereotypes around the candidate and the party seem to create a real anti-Ponta and anti-PSD popular mood. Tensions, exclusions, and recriminations abound, aggravated by the lack of any form of analysis in the party of the deeper root-causes of the situation we find ourselves in. Autistic to the public outcry, Victor Ponta is holding on to his prime ministership and party leadership despite a growing dissatisfaction with his persona. Ponta is taking the party prisoner of his own political survival. They might both drown.
What could be done in such a situation? No simple rebranding or change of leadership would suffice this time. A deep and honest introspection is indispensable. A return to our core beliefs of equal opportunities and social justice for the 21st century is a must. Renewing the human resources in the party doubled with a clear separation from corrupted people and practices of the past and of today is also indispensable. The fact that the center-right of the political spectrum has similar problems should not be an invitation for complacency.
Competence, integrity and the intellectual courage to design a less dependent economy and a good society in the European and global context should become the norm and not the exception for Romanian social democrats. Can the PSD be transformed so dramatically? Can it become a true progressive force? Can it attract the intellectuals from the left who do not recognise themselves in an un-modern form of politics? Or will new political and civic forces challenge the monopoly of political representation of the left that the PSD has held? The jury is still out. The decisions and actions of the next few months will give us an indication in which direction things are going.
25 years after the fall of communism and the execution of the Ceausescu couple on December 22nd, Romania starts a new political, historical and strategic cycle. Escaping from the periphery of Europe and from the curse of poverty, corruption and bad governace is possible. Progressive forces should be the champions of this New Romania.
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