Why is Romania's democracy failing?

On 6th December, Romania had its parliamentary election. However, the results revealed something shocking; only 32% of the voting population actually participated, the lowest turnout in the country’s 30-year post-communist history. The winning party, the opposition Social Democrats (PSD), didn’t secure a resounding victory and amidst corruption scandals and the lack of a coalition partner it may be impossible for them to form a government. Indeed, President Klaus Iohannis and leaders of the National Liberal Party (PNL), who came second in the elections, claimed a coalition government excluding PSD will most likely be formed. To complicate matters further, the current Prime Minister Ludovic Orban resigned the day after the election, throwing the country into another round of political instability, whilst a new far-right party took fourth place. To find out why there was such a low turnout, and what this means for Romania’s democracy, we spoke with investigative journalists Madalina Rosca and Paul Arne Wagner.

Woman protesting during Romania's 2018 anti-corruption demonstrations. All photographs by Dominic Culverwell

1. How has the country reacted to these results and what steps will the parliament take next? Madalina Rosca: The reaction on election night was dominated by the shock of the historically low turnout. However, by the next day, the attention shifted to the unforeseen and, for many, shocking rise of a new, unknown nationalist party: the AUR. They didn't exist this time last year and rose from 1% in the local elections to 10% in just three months. Concerning the parliament; it does not play a role in the negotiations at the moment, as those are largely between party leaders and the president.

2. Romania has been in a political crisis for years, with major anti-corruption protests in 2018, the arrest of Liviu Dragnea (the ex-leader of the PSD) in 2019 and a disastrous coronavirus response; did you have hopes that this election would end the instability and put Romania on the right path?

Paul Arne Wagner: The PSD completely discredited itself in its three years of governing by undermining the democratic and economic foundations of the state, amending laws under the shadow rule* of their leader Liviu Dragnea to the liking of corrupt officials, many of whom escaped sentencing in ongoing lawsuits (Dragnea was convicted on-bail at the time for voting fraud and in 2019 sentenced to jail on corruption charges). The National Liberal Party came to power in 2019 after winning a vote of no-confidence, but in one year of minority government they looked like a PSD-light rather than a real alternative. The most vocal opposition party, the reformist USR-Plus alliance, scored third in the elections, but they have lost confidence in the last few months because of constant infighting and a vague agenda.

Anti-corruption protest, Bucharest 2018

We had hopes, but in the actual political configuration it doesn't seem like the worst possible outcome. There is no strong win for anyone, so there will be need for compromise, collaboration and dialogue.

3. Why were citizens complacent about voting; did coronavirus play a role or is it due to the failures of politicians?

Madalina: Romania has a traditionally low turnout in parliamentary elections. However, with coronavirus cases on the rise in Romania, there was an expectation that elections would be postponed. But this decision was in the hand of the governing National Liberal Party (PNL), who had only been in office for a year, and saw their popularity dropping steadily in the last months. PNL had no reason to postpone the elections - well, only if they cared about the health and safety of the people more than their electoral success! Our health system was on the brink of collapse even before Covid-19, so it was expected that the election turnout in the midst of a pandemic would be very low.

It is, however, obvious that besides the upstart nationalist AUR party, no political formation managed to bring out more than the core of their electorate and this can only be explained with a deep-rooted disillusionment that extends to the entire political spectrum.

4. Romania has a high emigration rate and a shrinking population; how has this affected the country and, in particular, its democratic process?

Madalina: Romania has a big and constantly growing diaspora. There are around 3.4 and 5.6 million Romanians living and working abroad, out of 20 million** people with Romanian citizenship. The diaspora can officially only vote for 6 seats out of a total 465 MPs, so there was little reason and, in many cases, little chance to vote for the bigger part of Romanian society.

5. The nationalist AUR party ended up in fourth place, but who are they?

Paul: The two leaders of the party are George Simoin, an activist for the unification of the Republic of Moldova with Romania***, and Claudiu Tarziu, a leading campaigner for a referendum to change the constitution so as to rule out any future possibility for same-sex marriages. Thus, at first glance, AUR – which is an abbreviation for the “Union for the Unification of Romanians” but also means GOLD in Romanian – seems like a coalition of right-wing forces ranging from nationalists to Christian fundamentalists and outright fascists.

Digging just a bit deeper in their list of candidates, you find some high ranking generals that are accused of taking part in the suppression of the Revolution of '89. Moreover, AUR contested the measures taken for preventing the spread of Covid-19, mirroring anti-lockdown protests in many other European countries.

6. Did you expect the AUR to do so well and why did people vote for them?

Paul: Unlike many others, we did have them, or at least their leaders, on the radar for many years, but nevertheless we didn't expect their strong social media presence would be transferred into real votes. There can be no doubt that there was a combination of real frustrations and a very well executed social media campaign, showing the AUR as the only real alternative to "the system", that contributed to this result. The discussion, which is going on right now, is whether this was possible without the participation of a national or foreign secret service or other kinds of in-mixture of interests and money.

7. Democracy is still a relatively recent thing for Romania, it’s only been 31 years since the end of Ceausescu’s dictatorship; is it something that people are still not comfortable with?

Madalina: Democracy isn't born over night, as much as dictatorship doesn't appear in a vacuum. In Romania, the transition from Ceausescu's dictatorship has been a slow process. Elections have been far from equal or fair in Romania in the last 31 years. Election fraud was even the reason for the first criminal conviction of Liviu Dragnea.

"Palace of the Parliament" built under Ceausescu

There are Romanians who still doubt the fairness of the vote, and issues are constantly surfacing bringing into question the accuracy of the vote count. In the last week, the independent candidate Valeriu Nicolae found himself dozens of votes away from winning a seat in the Deputy Chamber. He asked for a recount and to his surprise discovered votes for him which had not been counted. However, when he was just a handful of votes away from entering the parliament as an independent (something which hasn't happened in decades) the Central Electoral Office announced no more recounts will take place due to them being "too late", even though no law states a particular deadline for contestations. This is just one example of why Romanians have their doubts in the electoral process and the slow, still ongoing transition to a democratic system.

8. Do you think that this is the beginning of the end for democracy in Romania or do you see a way it can be salvaged?

Madalina: Six years ago we made a short documentary titled "The Beginning of the End of Democracy". It was about the first round of presidential elections in the Romanian diaspora, when hundreds of thousands of people were hindered in casting their vote by a method of unprecedented voter suppression.

In all the recent elections there is the same feeling; this still fragile democracy is in decline. And the large number of Romanians who choose to leave the country every year make for an even more uneve

n fight, since those are some of the young, most active or educated or bold citizens who are not in the country anymore, and on top of everything, regardless if they left for good or just for a seasonal job, they do not have electoral equality. But who can blame them for leaving!

You can follow Madalina's and Paul's company Passport Productions for investigative insight into Romania. Website YouTube Facebook

* Romania is a semi-presidential parliamentary Republic. The government lies in the hands of the prime minister but the president nominates the prime minister. The president in the Romanian constitution has significant powers: he is the commander in chief of the army and the secret services. Officially Dragnea was only the president of the deputy chamber (the third position in the state after president and president of the senate) and the PSD. However, from his position of coalition leader, Dragnea was fully in control of the government and both chambers of the parliament. The prime ministers "under" Dragnea were puppets whom he changed as he pleased.

**Proper statistics are missing

*** Throughout the last 200 years, Moldova has swung between Russia, the USSR and Romania.