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The Romanian legislative elections of December 2016: A disaster for decent people, a bitter victory for the anguished majority deprived of a sense of its dignity, a season of fearful Socialism to come, and an opportunity for American grand strategy. Though the picture is bleak, this is what NATO-Eastern Europe will have to work with in the coming years. Before I attempt to write something worthwhile about Poland, the other country of some importance in Eastern Europe, let me wrap up the series I started on the political situation in my native Romania with a report about the anti-government protests. I’ll tell you how this new government got into office which in one month managed to create the scandal I’ve already covered for Ricochet.
We have to talk foreign affairs, the less urgent half of politics, but the one concerned with war and the threat of war. Conservatives now run America’s foreign policy and that seems rather providential, because the world stage is bleak and unfriendly, and conservatives are the less likely party to believe in a fairy tale peace. Foreign affairs, after all, means dealing with America’s enemies and the threat of war. The oldest and most openly bellicose of America’s three major enemies is Russia, and therefore Americans who are interested in politics should care to an extent about Eastern Europe, where lies my unhappy native country, Romania.
On the one hand, Romania needs international help, as it always has, to keep some unity of democratic politics and good governance. On the other hand, if Russia is a problem for the US, keeping it at bay through NATO seems like the easiest way to deal with the problem, at least provisionally. So I hope to appeal, in all-American fashion, both to your moral sense of indignation against oligarchic corruption and to your self-interest in keeping the NATO peace without war becoming necessary.
Romania is a country of some 20 million people, with several more million spread out in Western Europe, who speak a Romance language and whose forebears professed the Orthodox Christian faith. Romania is a natural American ally. It is a democratic people with reasonably stable institutions of representative government. It is neither a Slavic culture nor happy about having been conquered by the Soviets. It is part of the EU and NATO: it hosts a significant American military base, participates in America’s European missile shield system, offers good access to the Black Sea, and has participated loyally in America’s Middle Eastern wars. It certainly does not share in the anti-Americanism of Western Europe. And, finally, the massively urbanized economy and popular culture favor the English language, IT, and the fashions and fantasies of latter-day American popular culture. But the country is now undergoing political troubles that may weaken it and reduce its utility to NATO.
Sunday, December 11, 2016, a large majority of Romanians failed to bother to go vote for the national legislature, the bicameral Parliament where the majority creates the government and, therefore, wields power under the Constitution
Turnout was just under 40%, a bit more than 7.2 million people voted. Slightly more men than women voted, which is slightly unusual. Old people voted at twice the rate of the young, which is sadly the democratic normal–this may be prudent in a democracy, but not in a new democracy with a tyrannic past. There were significantly more urban than rural voters (about 4 to 3), which is surprising for Romania, and depressive: the future of Romania as a free democracy depends on urban voters, but this time they elected the Socialists. The Socialists, who have reverted to an older name, PSD, the Social-Democrat Party, won an unsurprising, but depressive victory, and the country with the greatest GDP growth in Europe, 4% last year, is changing the currently technocratic, Liberal-backed government for a socialist one elected on a promise to increase welfare and transfer payments to the poor.
The facts of the recent legislative election
The Socialists have won just over 45% of the votes cast for both chambers of Parliament. This is just below the numbers necessary to win an outright majority of seats under the strange schemes of proportional representation used in Romania. They have 221 of the 464 seats in the two chambers of the new quadrennial Parliament (154 Deputies and 67 Senators). They are now running the government in a coalition with a small party. They have won their most brilliant victory on a vaguely nationalist, emphatically populist platform, promising their electorate cheap healthcare and some kind of financial relief, a mix of increases in salaries (minimum wage, likely the wages for public sector employees, too) and tax cuts, while decrying foreign influences.
The Socialist leader, Mr. Dragnea, is a convicted felon or criminal: definitively condemned by the courts for abuse of power, and sentenced to two years in prison. Although the sentence was suspended, this means he cannot become Prime Minister under the laws. The protests now bringing tens of thousands of us into the streets have to do with the attempt of the government he runs from the Parliament to help out oligarchic criminals, whether condemned, accused, or as yet free; and to prepare for legal changes that would allow, by amnesty, for the convicted politician to ascend to the position of PM. He offers Romania yet another bracing show of the remarkable powers of corruption. The previous Socialist PM, Mr. Ponta, is, of course, under investigation, unsurprisingly, for corruption. His mentor, the socialist PM before him, Mr. Nastase, has recently seen the inside of a prison, convicted on corruption charges. And yet the ship sails on.
The opposition to the Socialists is now organized around two parties which campaigned without any alliance or fusion
There are three obvious reasons for this costly mistake, to do with the electorate, the parties, and the political doctrine. We who form the anti-Socialist, pro-capitalist electorate are, as middle class people, hopelessly ignorant of politics. The mood in the middle classes just now can be reduced to the opinion that the majority of the people are too base or ignorant to understand they’ve just voted for an economic catastrophe. A desire to punish those who did not vote–though turnout was the usual–or those who did not vote for capitalism is hiding in plain sight. Only those afflicted by these dark passions fail to recognize them and the partisanship they create at the precisely wrong time–when our social classes should be seeking an alliance to form a majority. Of course, we also are powerless to punish those with whose electoral choices we disagree. The ugly truth is, we’re bad at building institutions and coalitions, and are taking it out on other people.
Next, our politicians are incompetent to the extent that electoral victories as much as defeats destroy parties–this has been the rule with non-Socialist governments since 1989, of which only one lasted through a full term, or at least got close. The parties, as I will explain below, are a shambles and do much to instill fatalism and disgust in the very people who embody the possibility of a capitalist democratic future. There is reason to believe that the last men to lead non-Socialist parties to victory ran their parties such as to destroy other ambitions, which left the parties both somewhat hollow and very headless when those politicians themselves ended their careers, usually without any glory and no little ignominy.
Finally, nobody cared to organize to make a reality of the only hope for electoral victory: trying to get an enormous upsurge in the under-45 vote. Romania is new to democracy and depends on the attachment of the youth to democracy for its future. No one is doing very much to organize for that purpose; the youth is reasonably, if dangerously, ambivalent or indifferent to democracy. Not that they want to change democracy or believe any other system is better–they are merely cynical or indifferent. That’s a social failure on a large scale. It’s hard to find better evidence that the anti-Socialist and non-Socialist politicians who talk about changing politics and society in a more democratic direction–the anti-corruption message–and at the same time a more successful direction–the administrative reform and pro-growth messages–cannot persuade the young, the voters most interested in such a future.
The Romanian opposition to Socialism today
The party with some hope to form the core of a future opposition and maybe even a future majority coalition is called USR and did not exist last year. Now, it has won 9% of the votes. It has recently supported the technocratic, Liberal-backed, outgoing government which has administered a vibrant economy. The politicians now associated with this USR party have supported the Liberal-backed president, Mr. Iohannis, in his successful run for office in 2014, which managed to keep one important office out of the hands of the Socialists. The president has now proved to be the only officeholder willing to legitimize the public protests aiming to defend the criminal code and the magistracy from the self-interest of Parliamentary oligarchs. This much is good about USR.
USR stands for ‘the Save Romania Union’–Romanians who form parties have a fondness, common in Eastern Europe, for impossibly pompous names. This is done to compensate for the corruption of public life and the popular despair of ever effecting change in the direction of justice. Such names are, unfortunately, a very indifferent substitute for politicians and publicly influential men of education. The party is vaguely middle-class in outlook and address, with a hipster appeal, vaguely left-of-center, and relies on an urban, pro-EU electorate. Aside from the crazy fights within the party typical of Romania, USR is about sensible policies with a bias to modernizing Romanian administration and society. It has little to recommend it beyond its anti-Socialist partisanship, but that is enough for now. The real test of its character is mere survival until and through the next elections, in 2020.
The other opposition party has a past, having been part of Romanian politics since 1989, and not much future. This is the Liberal party, which won only 20% of the vote. Their last politician to form a majority coalition and become PM, which happened not ten years back, is now an enemy of the party and has the support of the Socialists, who suffer him to be President of the Senate. The party, on the other hand, supported the current president, Mr. Iohannis, so that’s one political success. Unfortunately, the presidency is constitutionally a non-partisan office in Romania and does not hold real power, which is concentrated in the PM. The recent technocratic PM, unelected and now thrown out by the electorate, was actually backed by the Liberals and was competent. But as a consequence of their political incompetence, the Liberals found themselves in a position of running the legislative election campaign of 2016 on a fairly impressive record and on the utterly mismanaged promise of improvement, should they win sufficient seats to form a governing coalition. This was stupid–it is difficult and dangerous to run as the party in government in Romania. This is so much so that the major party in Parliament, the Socialists, preferred to run as an opposition party, for which masquerade the electorate rewarded them with their greatest victory in a dozen years or more.
The Liberals have turned their party into a catastrophe and it is not impossible that the party will soon collapse. The only reason to keep it going is that a party is a money-making machine in various ways. They have managed to lose about 40% of the electorate who supported them in the statistically comparable previous local elections. They lost especially in the places where they run the local mayoralties and therefore could get out the vote much better (by means legal and illegal, and mostly immoral). In short, the mayors betrayed the central party to take revenge. The central party organized a catastrophic campaign fronted by non-entities who happened to be party leaders. The only seasoned–if unsuccessful–recent party leader resigned, during the campaign, on account of a corruption investigation… Everything went wrong and they themselves did everything wrong. The leadership resigned, which is fitting: the collapse of the campaign and the incredibly disappointing defeat were to a large extent the result of a lack of serious, attractive politicians to make the case for the party with the electorate. But the new leadership seems like no improvement.
Romania is a country where the people think they’re part of a democracy, but fear that the country is run by an oligarchy. They are right on both counts and this wisdom somehow paralyzes them. Romania is an incredibly peaceful country, mostly bereft of social protests. Crime rates, too, are very low and the capital, Bucharest, is the safest in the EU, likely the safest big city, too. These facts are probably related. The people mostly acquiesce in a form of rule they detest.
Romanians vote in large numbers only in presidential elections: turnout was 53% and 64% in the two rounds of voting in 2014, but the president, who is directly elected, has very little power. In short, the people’s experience of democracy as consent of the governed turns out to have no connection to the constitutional organization of political power. This is because the Constitution was written by the people who conspired to run the country after ’89, who resolved conflicts among themselves by paramilitary attacks on Bucharest…
The Parliament, where authority is lodged by the Constitution, functions both as a means to get wealth illegally and as a means to defend illegally obtained wealth from criminal charges. Both political and apolitical corruption meet in the halls of representation… In the outgoing Parliament, 80 out 588 legislators were condemned (16 definitively, 11 pending appeal), on trial (20), or under investigation (33). The Socialist-dominated Parliament is now trying to change the criminal code through government decree, without laws, to protect such criminals and suspected, accused or tried, MPs, as well as past and future generations of the same.
The political immunity offered legislators as a condition for the functioning of representative regimes with a partisan government is intended to be a defense of the minority from the wrath or lawless self-interest of the majority. In Romania, as well as all other countries with strong corruption, political immunity is the self-defense of the minions of oligarchy from the courts of law that might be run by the democracy or at least run to its advantage. Practically, the democracy has only two kinds of agents, the largely powerless president and the magistrates in the Ministry of Justice who have recently started bringing politicians, including the most powerful, into the courts of law, where they are sometimes condemned and sent to prison. This democratic form of punitive justice was unimaginable not ten years back; it has recently become a fact. The regime in Romania is now more democratic than it was. The reaction of the oligarchy after its legislative victory through the Socialist party is to attempt to cripple the rule of law.
The modern state is supposed to be neutral to any of the people who attain to elected or appointed office. In Romania, the institutions of the state are the venue for a war between agents of democracy and agents of oligarchy. It is a rare, but revealing event that an incredibly wealthy man should seek to cling to his political office in the legislature in order to prevent the prosecutors from bringing him to court. This means the various parties in the legislature have to take sides on the question of whether to revoke the political immunity in order to allow the justice system to do its work. At the same time, a significant part of the economy, including the energy-production system, is nationalized, one of the catastrophic inheritances of the previous, Communist regime, so the opportunities for corruption are enormous. This also means that any political attempt to reform administration and to privatize such state corporations opens up another front in the war between the oligarchy and the democracy.
I will offer you a simple, but not misleading partisan identification of this conflict about the character of the regime: socialism equals oligarchy. The people do defend democracy in the only way they can institutionally, by keeping the presidency out of the hands of the Socialists in the last three elections. At the same time, the people have voted in a referendum for the basic anti-oligarchic statement that the Parliament should be limited to 300 people, but this act of the people’s will has been ignored by Parliament with impunity. This Parliament is, of course, safely in the hands of the Socialists. So the two political branches of the government are at an impasse which will not be solved until the basic problem of organizing a majority coalition is solved: forming parties that take their doctrine seriously so as not to collapse with every new election.
Romania matters to NATO
I have presented Romanian politics without prettifying it in order to earn your trust when I make the case that American conservatives should pay some attention to Romania. I cannot speak about American public diplomacy without speaking ill of it, so I will keep silent about the matter. I will speak instead of strategic concerns.
Romania has been an important part of American foreign policy concerning Russia. This was reflected in the NATO Summit organized in Bucharest in 2008. A reversal of America’s Obama-Clinton Russia policy, which would seem to be sanctioned by the recent election and not merely by GOP and conservative foreign affairs doctrine, would require strengthening alliances in Eastern Europe. America’s reputation is not difficult to improve in the region, but it is threatened by Russia’s recent successes at every level from buying energy companies to invading countries, occuppying territories, and militarizing borders.
Two countries are important in Eastern Europe, both NATO and EU members, Poland and Romania, bordering on the Baltic and Black Seas on the Northern and Southern extremities of the continent. They are useful allies to America and though Romania is the smaller of the two, it is instrumental in any future Russia policy that seeks to preserve Eastern Europe as a buffer between the wealthy Western democracies and a bellicose Russia.
Of course, a prudent American policy would not seek nation building or compulsive democratization in Romania. Instead, it would encourage democratic and lawful developments in accordance with American interest in order to stabilize the country’s partisan conflicts within certain boundaries set by the consensus around NATO and the EU, whose Treaties Romania accepted voluntarily.
Truth to tell, Romania is almost ideal for American interest: it has no Russian border and is therefore less of an international flashpoint, while being fully invested in participating in an American alliance. Investing politically would be very cheap for America, given the small size and population of the country, in a situation where the country already is significantly invested in IT work for America. And being that Romania is neither internally unstable nor internationally involved in any conflicts with any of its neighbors, it is about the best chance America has to show what benefits it can bestow on loyal allies.
Romania has weathered the recent world financial crisis without any political or economic crisis and is still committed to both NATO and the EU, and therefore to capitalist democracy and the West. But it is unrealistic to expect that a continuation of recent American foreign policy in Eastern Europe would not endanger the American alliance or dispirit America’s friends. It is also unrealistic to expect that American disinterest would be matched by Russia and that she would not intervene more in Romanian partisan conflicts. Eastern European countries have been baffled, dispirited, and recently scared by the shift in American-Russian relations. This is an ideal moment to mark a change and the beginning of a long commitment that would weaken Russia’s prestige and preempt its near-abroad foreign policy without military provocation. Romania would be a great place to begin that change.