The Romanian opposition is trapped in an anti-corruption cycle
The opposition and civil society have remained stubborn in their talking points during an anti-PSD (Social Democratic Party) speech, almost exclusively focusing on the subject of corruption, at a time when its impact on the electoral plane has eroded.
Returning from the NATO summit in Brussels, President Iohannis assured us that everything was fine, the Alliance is not breaking up, and that we are even in better position than before because Romania will host a NATO command centre and increased attention will be paid to security in the Black Sea basin.
Missing the trick
In fact, much of the post-summit analyse has been significantly more pessimistic. Moreover, with regard to the security climate in the Black Sea basin, the main challenge is itself a NATO member, Turkey, which is cultivating close ties to Russia and Iran, powers with diametrical opposed interests to the transatlantic alliance. Turkey even decided to buy missiles from Russia, flagrantly violating the procedures in force within NATO.
However, in Romanian society, the media seems rather less concerned with these external developments even though they could have a more significant impact in configuring the spheres of influence on the continent and ultimately on the domestic scene.
Of course, this is not to suggest that the internal political situation in Romania is not important though it does highlight a chronic problem that has little chance of being corrected: even if some opinion polls appear to indicate an erosion of support for PSD, it is quite clear that the current imbalance in the Romanian political space has few chances to be significantly mitigated.
One reason is the long-standing position of PSD; they have remained in place, with some variations, since 1990. From this transition to democracy, the current ruling party has continued to exert control over the influential networks which they inherited from the former Communist Party, including central and local government offices, government agencies, sports federations and trade unions.
The opposition parties (including the main contender, the National Liberal Party) have nowhere near the same resources. Except for a relatively short period of time in which the political parties opposed to PSD were able to capitalise on the considerable electoral traction exerted by the then-president Traian Băsescu, PSD has remained very much in control, even when it was not in the government. This is why PSD is so formidable in the local and parliamentary elections.
However, in presidential elections, when the confrontation is personalized and more emotional, things are different.
When the anti-PSD opposition did succeed in winning elections, as happened in 1996 and 2005, it was under a united front, which explains why we are now seeing calls for unity, especially from the voices of civil society: strong critics of both the current ruling party and its leader, Liviu Dragnea. The problem is that reaching this accord is incredibly difficult to achieve.
There are few binding elements and many lingering resentments between the parties currently opposed to PSD. Even if ideological positions are not necessarily very important in Romania, there are some issues that need to be overcome, especially among exponents of the populist left and people who hold traditional conservative beliefs. This divide was on full display recently during a debate related to a proposed referendum to change the constitutional definition of a family.
Additionally, while the National Liberal Party is a typical, experienced party, which has previously had an alliance with (or supported parliamentarily) PSD, the new political parties (including one initiated by the former EU Commissioner Dacian Cioloş) do not have this political baggage.
On the other hand, PMP – the party of former president Traian Basescu – simultaneously benefits from his loyal base but also suffers from the strong resentments fostered during Basescu’s rule and which specifically creates difficulties in forming alliances with the other political parties.
A headless coalition
Currently, the only common interest for all these parties remains an aversion to PSD and particularly to Liviu Dragnea. Besides this fragmentation, the absence of a galvanising leader who could have a real electoral impact – a quality neither the current president, Klaus Iohannis, nor Dacian Ciolos could fit – is a serious handicap.
While both in parliament as well as in the public space, Traian Basescu has proven to be the most effective critic of PSD, the heavy criticism that has been thrust upon him by his former supporters, and which is only partly justified, seriously limits his ability to increase the impact of the opposition.
However, PSD also has serious difficulties in this respect; it has no far-reaching, charismatic leader, but in its case, the deleterious effect is significantly lower due to its formidable party machinery and the typology of its traditional electorate.
An unhealthy fixation
The second big problem of the opposition is its exclusive focus on corruption. The problem is that this issue, which has been constantly in the public eye for a decade and a half, has lost a significant amount of traction despite having intense, continuous support in the media and on Facebook.
There are at least two major reasons explaining why this has happened. The first is that over the last year, a considerable number of cases has been exposed by DNA (National Anticorruption Directorate) prosecutors, from doctoring false evidence of guilt to witness tampering, many instances of which have had generous coverage on the media channels hostile to DNA and sympathetic to PSD, such as Antena 3 and RTV. This is a tactic that was used in the past; then, there were only general accusations, but now the campaign has been buttressed by concrete factual elements, far more difficult to reject.
Additionally, a number of confidential agreements signed between SRI, the Romanian Secret Servie, and elements of the judicial system, including DNA, the High Court and SCM, the independent body overseeing the judicial system have been brought to the light of day. These kinds of confidential agreements have created suspicion around backchannel interventions in the judicial system, as part of an underground power struggle outside the normal political framework.
The combination of all these elements have eroded the public’s trust in DNA, which historically had been quite high. Moreover, there is a third, indirect reason: a growing sense of fatigue and futility in dealing with government corruption.
As things stand at the moment, the opposition seems incapable of focusing on any other topic of which the government is vulnerable, from the needed economic reforms to education and poor administration performance.
It could, for example, highlight many of the common blunders such as the ongoing repairs to one of the main bridges in the country which has made the traffic on this route a living hell. These kinds of issues, which are not necessarily related to corruption, are the ones that affect the everyday life of people.
Why the opposition remains almost exclusively trapped on the subject of corruption is hard to understand. One possible explanation is that it prefers to stick to the one promoted by a good segment of the media and civil society for whom the theme of corruption seems to remain the only important issue.
If it stays frozen on this topic, the opposition has slim chances to modify in any way the current Romanian electoral landscape, categorically dominated by PSD.
Alexandru Lăzescu is a journalist working and living in Bucharest, Romania.