By Ramona Calin
A pre-election version of this article was first published in Romanian by Criticatac.
In the first round of the presidential elections on 2 November this year, Romania voted for candidates in a manner reflective of its past. This could be identified as path dependency, a type of institutional determinism. Once a certain road has been taken, it becomes more difficult to change it, since all the mechanisms are in operation and changing course is perceived as costly, difficult or impossible. The possibilities for innovation are reduced since most agents are immersed in existing processes and there is little motivation and few resources to support the evolution of a new political paradigm in which elections could be carried out differently.
What is equally reflective of this historical dependency is Romanian society’s reaction to the options it has been confronted with for more than twenty years now. Presidential discussions have always revolved around the individual integrity of the candidates even as it is known they are all far from being moral compasses and are involved in a wide range of corruption scandals. The political game is confused with the political mandate, and Romanian national politics are overwhelmingly focused on how people get to power. To a very large extent this follows the personal conflicts between candidates. Before the campaign even started, PSD (Social Democratic Party, centre-left) representative Victor Ponta (the current Prime Minister) and an initial leader in polls, announced that he would not participate in debates before the initial round of votes but would instead get some popcorn and watch the other candidates fight with each other. When Monica Macovei (former PDL, centre-right) announced her candidature as an independent, she did so carrying a bag of popcorn for Victor Ponta, saying that he would need it as he watched her rise. She also brought a mirror for Klaus Iohannis from PNL (National Liberal Party, centre-right) so he could look at himself and see what a person who wants to become President without any strong convictions looks like. Discussions regarding Elena Udrea (centre-right), former Minister for Transport and close aide of current President Traian Basescu were also mostly focused on her relationship with the President and her physique.
The candidates who were expected to win this initial round, won, with Victor Ponta and Klaus Iohannis moving forward towards the final round of elections. Depending on which polls are used, the percentage gap between them in the first round varies between 5% and 10% with Ponta ahead of Iohannis.
The greatest disappointment in this entire process is an acute absence of analysis of the political mandate beyond left or right considerations, in terms of what it means for the future and the changes the population desires. The press is almost not even worth mentioning because its approach is at best ignorant and at worst an insult to the entire population. What continues to dominate – and is visible in every debate – is fragmentation and confusion among citizens. There is nothing convincing, progressive and democratic in using time and resources to accuse others of their political choices or their perceived lack of information. All that is seen is name-calling and a stereotypization of social groups (intellectuals, hipsters, chavs), which in fact follows the capitalist process of social stratification and which benefits nobody with the exception of the political class itself, because it uses these divisions to its own advantage. Arguments against or in favour of a candidate are nuanced mostly through pejorative and derogatory personal references. I wonder if the energy dedicated to endless online forums and debates to insult one another would not have been better put to use in formulating a citizens’ mandate which demands that the candidates use decent standards in addressing us, the electorate.
Going through the political programmes which have been made available for the public, it becomes obvious that everyone who worked on the campaigns understood that a national strategy is required. However, all programmes try to cover every single area of development; they do not prioritize or give specific indicators and lack a clear mission.
The isolated left, in spite of how little it has to offer, got the highest number of votes. Victor Ponta (PSD, centre-left), has a manifesto that reads like a fairy tale where wonderful things happen without one really understanding how. It is fantastic material for curing insomnia. He discusses internal regionalization, the strengthening of civil society, the strengthening of the rule of law, stability and a fair distribution of resources. He continues with a national strategy for fighting poverty and the possibility for Romania to become “Europe’s main grain resource, a leader in energy, a technological hub” but there is no mentioning of the required resources and policies for this to become reality. In fact it is even difficult to criticize or engage with this document since it does not contain anything except infinite normative sentences. It reflects the lack of credibility and integrity of this individual which has been discussed endlessly at national level.
In his programme, Klaus Iohannis (former leader of the small centrist Democratic Forum of Germans in Romania and member of the National Liberal party since April 2013) has a long discourse on the last 25 years and how critical this year´s elections are. His analysis of Romanian society is reasonable and fair in saying that it is “a divided society, highly polarized, <around 85% of Romanians say they are cautious in their relationships with others>”. His mission statement promotes the “philosophy of doing things right” which he claims has dominated Romania’s political and socio-economic activities for centuries (there is however very little knowledge of this so-called tradition). The pragmatic approach is laudable but his program displays similar insertions of gibberish like Victor Ponta or Elena Udrea, where values are often discussed without their institutional or legislative representation.
As far as concrete measures are concerned he supports: the strengthening of the rule of law, further European integration, building the capacity of the National Anti-Corruption Agency and a unification of relevant legislation, a dialogue platform between all political parties and civil society on corruption, increasing the transparency of public funding and fiscal decentralization. In terms of defense he supports the North-Atlantic alliance and a growth of military capacity of up to 2% of GDP. He initially shows support only for exploration of shale resources only to later jump to the fact that communities should receive a fraction of exploitation profits, a clearly flexible position on the matter. Economically he wants to reduce “the development gap between Romania and the leading 6 European states” and advocates for a “development plan for the next 15 years” without giving too many details of what this would entail. A sharper and more focused programme would have been more helpful for him.
Monica Macovei, former Minister of Justice and a Member of the European Parliament competed as an independent and put forward a programme which takes the form of the Ten Commandments. The content was not as extremely neoliberal as her opponents say, but that may be due to cautiousness on her part. Paradoxically, she won over the activist group of civil society through her focus on justice and anti-corruption but I wonder if it was fully understood that her programme displayed affinities for ideas like the privatization of public services and a general reduction in state support, that go against the group’s ideals. Udrea was very focused on strategic military issues, and yet she admitted on national television that she did not know what ´soft power´ was. Both Macovei and Udrea are seen as factions of Traian Basescu´s legacy and got less votes than expected, between 4 and 6 % each.
Essential developments at European and global level are generally ignored (the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) and all candidates barely discuss the subjects of the largest protests of the last decade, gold mining at Rosia Montana and shale gas exploitation. All the programmes were cautious regardless of whether they came from the right or from the left and they back everything from a competitive free market to a healthy pension system, reforms in education and health, the fight against corruption, and a strong civil society. Our candidates promise something for everyone.
The continuing East/West polarization is definitive, which makes internal Romanian politics evolve as a response to the external context. The Ukrainian crisis is real and at the border but it should not generate an options-analysis based on a Cold War perspective, which is a debilitating approach. A key sociological instrument of the Cold War was the demonization of the so-called “other” as an affirmation of the good within oneself, absolutizing moral values. Whoever is with them is against us. This attitude persists within society, when the political games we should watch out for the most are the ones which attempt to promote fear in order to introduce desperate measures, for example in terms of energy. Instead of looking towards the West as the supreme model of development and the East as the past we are trying to run away from, we should use our growth potential to attract investments which reflect the national interest.
The results of the initial round of elections brought about further segregation and an increase in hate-speech, for various reasons. Hundreds and maybe thousands of Romanians could not vote abroad because the embassies were allegedly not prepared for the high influx of voters. In Paris or London they had the same number of stands as four years ago even though it is widely acknowledged there are far more migrants now. Many accuse the current government and Victor Ponta himself as diaspora would not cast its votes for him, seeing this incident as a premeditated act of sabotage. A movement began asking for the resignation of the Minister of Foreign Affairs. Additionally, the self-diagnosed emancipated voters accuse sectors of the population which vote for Ponta, which they identify with the uneducated and the socially-assisted.
Again, sharp divisions are taking place without any real debate on how to change perceptions of a socialist discourse among people who see it as their only hope and how to look beyond ideological masks, when in fact the substance is the same. How absurd would it be to not understand anything from the most dominant experiences of strongly neoliberal societies: an extension of wealth but also a fascinating growth of inequality (and thus of social, territorial and economic segregation)? Equally absurd as to believe that a certain politico-economic development programme can be transported across borders regardless of context. It is anachronistic. For example, instead of discussing the futility of public services and the quality of the private ones we would do better in focusing on the type and structure of services and how they could be reshaped in order to stimulate economic development and the labour force instead of fostering dependency. But here even the global discourse is slow in moving beyond a public – private discrepancy.
Our candidates argue like toddlers, citizens accuse each other and political affiliations are often a mystery, growing apparently solely out of antagonism. Political postmodernity produces a differentiation between local, regional, national and international levels of governance and a constant weakening of institutions. It is mandatory to bridge these governance vacuums and civil society is crucial in making these claims. I would hereby clarify that governance does not necessarily equal to a bigger state and neither is it something which can be analysed through ideological frameworks like Right or Left but a coherent aggregate of policies which results from a structural diagnosis of the infinite chain of interactions between territory and population, a set of ideas transformed into a development plan which mobilizes all actors. Besides isolated and individual claims, it has not been understood from the debates surrounding the elections what it is that Romanian citizens want for the next five, ten or fifteen years. Furthermore, these claims tend to address particular results and never the processes which would generate them and here is where a transformation of civil society´s speech is mandatory.
Without a strong community backing a set of ideals there will be no change in the political class. The nature of these ideals would need to be established together, at least generally to begin with. Only when critical masses of people who know what they want and will make concrete demands from future candidates will representatives support these demands, knowing that it would be the only way to gain votes. The president´s role is important, yes, but alone he will not change a country regardless of their moral purity or goodwill. Any candidate who claims to have superpowers can be accused of populism, a trend we must avoid regardless of how comfortable it might be. Society needs to remember its own leadership role. Besides expressing opinions and fuelling personal conflicts we have a complex set of legislations as well as a constitution and these are the weapons we must use with the hopes that each small change will generate another. Until then, divide et impera and an archaic form of societal organisation reigns in a context where constantly changing global dynamics, growing inequalities and an increasing lack of governance do not allow us the luxury of not protecting each other.
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