One of the things I keep repeating here (and everywhere, really) is that PSD is a populist party run by populist leaders. To me, it’s self-evident.
However, when looking at media coverage around the phenomenon of populism in Europe, PSD – and Romania in a broader sense – almost never gets a mention. At a quick glance, you’ll find no mentions of Romania in any of these items:
As you can see, populism is one of the big topics today and yet there is no mention of Romania. I am still trying to figure out why this is. Is it because the ruling party is nominally left wing, and as such falls in the blind spot of analysts who overwhelmingly equate the radical right with populism? Is it self-inflicted – i.e. is Romania punching below its weight politically and thus is not as relevant? Or is it that populism has been a defining feature of Romanian politics for so long, and just as present in incumbent and opposition parties, that people don’t take note of it anymore?
To begin with, we should establish what we mean by ‘populism.’ If it’s simply defined as ‘appealing to the people,’ that’s far too broad and leads us nowhere nearer to untangling the mess (for an in-depth look at this, I recommend Michael Shafir’s 2008 article From Historical to “Dialectical” Populism: The Case of Post-Communist Romania).
Populism thinking is Manichean: on the one hand you have a virtuous and homogenous people, and on the other you have a set of elites and dangerous ‘others’ who supposedly deprive or attempt to deprive the people of their rights, values, prosperity, identity, and voice. There is very little in terms of middle ground: you’re either on the side of the people or, at best, equivocating for the elites as they plot nefariously.
Populist leaders often mobilise support by claiming to be the personal embodiment of popular grievances.
Populism can exist both in government and outside of it
Populism can be grassroots and be led from the top
Not all populism is necessarily radical right
As Michael Shafir explains at length, populism in Romania changed in the previous decade, with former president Traian Basescu a key figure in stoking its fire. During Basescu’s tenure, we can observe both a form of populism that comes from below (Shafir’s example is Gigi Becali’s short-lived but consequential adventure into politics) and one that is managed from above.
The latter is the more interesting of the two, as it was validated and legitimized by a handful of intellectual elites which decided to support Basescu and his initiatives due to his strong backing of a 2006 report on the crimes of the communist regime; Basescu called communism in Romania “illegal and criminal,” and figures such as Horia-Roman Patapievici, Vladimir Tismaneanu, Gabriel Liiceanu, and others were unwavering in support of him for most of his tenure afterwards (under the umbrella of GDS – the Group for Social Dialogue – thought by many including itself to have been the voice of the civil society in Romania in the ‘90s; that monopoly has been broken in the past few years as the country’s civil society went through a bit of a forced renaissance).
This elite group, together with Basescu, advanced the narrative that the president was engaged in a fight with the ‘old system’ made up of corrupt parties, for the benefit of regular people. Basescu had previously belonged to the same system as transport minister, MP, and mayor of Bucharest. However, in 2003, he became a co-chairman of a center-right platform, the Alliance for Justice and Truth (comparisons with PiS will have to wait for now) which allowed him to re-position as fighting the system. The platform eventually carried him to the presidency in 2004.
He cultivated a likable, relatable persona: a former sailor known for plain speaking, stinging humor, and even enjoying a drink or two. He continues today as an opposition MP.
The point being that populism is not just a staple of PSD but has been a core feature of Romanian politics for decades. But let’s return and look what I mean when I say that the party and its Dear Leader are populists – and as such should be included in every single analysis on European populism.
Liviu Dragnea is fighting his personal crusade against the justice system by re-framing it as a national struggle between obscure forces of the system – the ‘parallel state,’ a term adopted from Erdogan – and the people. The system is not just domestic but coordinated from abroad by devious figures like… George Soros. When mass protests took place in 2017 against PSD’s attacks on the justice system, the party and its media outlets claimed Soros was paying these protesters (and their pets; this quickly became the subject of ridicule by protesters).
It is convenient that he already has two criminal sentences: he then becomes the embodiment of this struggle, a folk hero directly targeted by intelligence agencies and prosecutors because he had the courage to speak up for the common man. At times it’s ridiculous – like when he claimed assassins had been sent to Bucharest by Soros to take him out, an outrageous comment he failed to provide evidence for – but for the most part the narrative has been solidified domestically.
So what? – you might ask. Well, Dragnea’s populism is becoming more and more virulent. His recent speech to the party where he denounced foreign companies for leeching off the wealth of the country quickly became policy through a hastily passed government emergency decree. This is all to do with him being convinced that he has a great shot at beating Iohannis in the 2019 presidential elections. To do so, he needs to push the story that he is the real Romanian standing up for the people against foreigners (and PSD has not been shy at attacking Iohannis for being part of an ethnic German minority). The groundwork has long been prepared and things will get much nastier.
Back to the original question – why is Romania not included in analyses of populism in Europe? One suggestion put forward by Cas Mudde is that Romanian politics is just too hard to follow: it’s been defined by continued personal fights by prominent political features and political splintering, making it difficult to pin down.
My take is that because populism has been a staple of in-power groups for so long, it is not nearly as exciting as the populism of insurgent political forces in the rest of Europe. The prevailing narrative is that populism is destabilizing the continent because it threatens the status quo. In Romania, populism IS the status quo, which makes it harder to fit into that narrative.
But, with three major elections coming up in the next two years, we need to have a much better understanding of how populism works in Romania, how it relates to the broader European trend, and what the best ways are to combat its noxious influences.