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Greeting from troubled Europe, Ricochet and America! Romania is in political turmoil. I write from calm, prosperous, populous Bucharest, probably the safest, least troubled capital in Europe. The protests and political turmoil here have nothing to do with immigration. Horror came over the weekend — I thank again my fellow Ricochetti who inquired as to my safety! — when a nightclub burned down; there are nearly three dozen dead, another seven dozen wounded. These poor souls have somehow been connected to a political anger that is rarely voiced and never articulated here.
It is no explanation, but the facts are as follows: Prime Minister Victor Ponta will resign. The leader of the party running the legislature — and, therefore, the government — made the announcement; Ponta himself has not yet spoken. In name, this is a socialist party or social-democrat party. In deed, it is the party of the oligarchy. The PM runs the country, but it is not clear on what leash he runs.
The man who runs Ponta’s socialist party is Mr. Liviu Dragnea, of whose criminal deeds no one is in doubt. He is a new, corrupt man of ambition representing one of the more important fiefdoms. He has risen through the party without any connection to popular politics. He resigned from government earlier this year — in happier times — because of an unfortunate indictment. This is not necessarily held against him by the oligarchy (I hope to explain the basics of Romanian politics in a sequel post). For now, let me give you a view of democratic politics here.
PM Ponta went to Mexico last week to preach the gospel of government transparency. He is a young man with a weasel’s charms and the vague suggestion that wealthy men with dark designs have his back. He married into the heirs-of-the-communists part of his heir-to-the communists party, as had his mentor — a former prime minster — now in jail, or maybe recently released, who did it when communism was still alive and well.
Ponta has been successful in legislative and local elections lo these five years, leading his party to victory and the country to despair. He has thrived while the various people who claimed to stand for the democracy self-destructed, usually taking their parties with them. Lacking the sporting quality much treasured in storytelling, the law is looking to send him to jail for the crime of committing all sorts of crimes; he has not, however, been indicted, so it’s not clear what will become public knowledge. This can be said of many Romanian politicians of any importance. It cannot be said of all, as many others are — or have been — indicted. Justice is a growth industry in Romania.
Ponta was defeated, however, in last year’s presidential elections, the forbidden fruit of Romanian politics. The president has little authority and wields little more influence, but socialists treasure the position because of its prestige, as if it could transform Romania into a more open oligarchy. It cannot. They have failed, however, to win the presidency in the last three elections and — despite holding the legislature — doomed themselves politically for trying. This is not Macbeth country.
Through the nightclub disaster, the popular anger now grasps at various systemic failures starting from safety codes and running all the way to adequate facilities and personnel for medical care. All these things are intricately tied up with the state and its administration. The mayor of the district of the capital where the nightclub burned has also resigned. He is named — or has named himself for — an old start of Italian campy Westerns, Piedone. Romanian politics sometimes looks like American wrestling, with more than a touch of Mexican wrestling.
There is a hatred of corruption in Romania, but not much love of justice. There is not much sense among the people that they deserve better; there is no sense that they know who might do better by them. Why should a PM be held responsible for such a rare, unpredictable horror? This is not Prime Minister’s questions! There are many young people vaguely democratic believers who hate the man, that is why. This country, they fear — or they know — is run by an oligarchy that is not even using the institutions of the modern state to defend itself: it is using them to enrich itself while the people literally die.
The president, a Klaus Iohannis, who is not a politician, has declared — on Facebook? — that he supports the protesters. A more lackluster, unpopular, unlovable president is hard to imagine. He is the Peter Sellers of Romanian politics. He is of German descent and demeanor, let us say, and the object of a popular hysteria in last year’s presidential election. Everything that should have taught the people that the country cannot trust him taught them to trust him: he is not a politician; he is not a party creature or creator; he is not connected with any of the big organizations or policy changes of the EU, etc. The presidency does this: people persuade themselves that democracy might come through the office designed to excite hope but find disappointment, for it lacks any policy-making or even policy-breaking powers. Indeed, the Romanian president does not even have a real veto.
There is a hatred of politics in the country now. People — young people especially — are talking about getting rid of them all. From the gap-toothed old woman who has seen hell to freshly-minted, pale-faced poli-sci grads turned activists and community organizers, the refrain is the same: they’re all corrupt, they’re all thieves. Almost no one is speaking about organizing parties or political societies of any kind. There is confusion and euphoria in the small minority that might be described as middle-class or aspiring to that description. Anger has made its victims. Political wisdom is something else entirely, I fear.
Last night, reports spread of 15,000 people protesting in the capital, in front of the Parliament, as well as other places. More protests will follow. Romanians do not generally protest, but they are doing astounding things these days. The previous PM was also toppled by a protest in the capital, if a much smaller, sillier affair, than this one and lacking its moral claims, but with the same anger. Will a haunted protest make a real difference? I doubt it. The government is what it was; the legislative majority is what it was. Some of the less enthusiastic types are saying, let’s not have elections now, because the only parties with any organizations are the enemy. That is probably true.
I hope to have more to say on the relationship between the the oligarchy-democracy fight, party system, the institutions of the modern state in Romania. For now, let me end with this note: there will be some surprised faces at the next meeting of the various EU councils, and yet another man will get to shake hands with an American president.