Did populism rise to power in Romania?

The Alliance for the Unification of the Romanians (AUR) – an inside view.

As the echoes of the latest Romanian parliamentary elections, which took place on December 6th 2020 are beginning to subside, the newest revelation of the Romanian political scene is just preparing to take center stage.

The recently registered party called The Alliance for the Unification of the Romanians (AUR) managed to stun journalists, politicians, and the Romanian society alike. Ignored by the mainstream media, the young team headed by George Simion managed to take full advantage of social media and convey their message to a mostly disgruntled population, which considers itself not represented by the current political parties in Romania.

One must mention the fact that the attendance of this electoral cycle was the worst in recent Romanian history, with hardly 30% of the population of voting age casting a ballot. This was a message aimed at the main political parties in Romania, the Liberals (PNL) and social-democrats (PSD), which received almost an equal number of votes (approx. 30%), but also at the other „reforming” party, USR, which managed to gather approx. 15% of the votes. Thus, not even the strongest Romanian party managed to convince more than approx. 9% of the total population of voting age, to cast a vote in their support.

The underlying message and the reaction of each of the parties is noteworthy, but it would make this op-ed article much too complex on the one hand, or it would not allow for an in-depth analysis of the situation in case.

Therefore, I return to the new revelation of the Romanian political scene, AUR, which managed to burst out, center stage, with 9% of the votes, meaning 14 senators and 33 members of the Chamber of Deputies. The fact that almost no one gave them a chance makes the result even more surprising.

The message promoted by the new party is mostly Christian-Conservative, but the way in which the leadership and many of their members manifest themselves at the political rallies is quite flamboyant and on more than one occasion controversial.

AUR contests most of the measures imposed by the Liberal government towards combatting the COVID-19 pandemic and fight for the removal of restrictions and planned vaccination campaigns. Their way of manifesting lead to several encounters with law enforcement and fines.

Another actively contested topic is the deforestation of Romania. This has become an increasing problem over recent years, in which mostly Austrian companies promoted aggressive purchasing policies, which lead to the destruction of many ecosystems.

The more recent plans of AUR include the reintroduction of the military enlistment and basic military training of young men.

Last, but by far not least, AUR wishes the reunification of Romania and Moldova, now two separate states, but historically elements of the same nation-state. The topics of the historical roots, necessity, and current sociological realities are much too complex to outline here but represent a solid basis for the acceptance or the rejection of such plans.

Next to the flamboyant George Simion (who managed to get himself picked up by the police on several occasions during his actions as a civil rights activist) comes Claudiu Târziu, the co-president of AUR. He is the one linking the party to the structures of the Romanian Orthodox Church, as he was one of the prominent organizers of the (then failed) Referendum for the Tradition Family, which gathered over 3.5 million signatures in its support, but which failed mostly due to a very aggressive media campaign against it.

Another element behind the party’s success is represented by the political alliance made with the party Neamul Romanesc (The Romanian Folk’s Party) also known as the generals’ party, due to the number of high-ranking retired officers, which make up most of the party’s leadership. Ret. Gen. Mircea Chelaru, the head of the party and also the former Chief of Staff of the Romanian Army seems to have provided the newly formed and occasionally chaotic young political party with the necessary organizational skills.

One cannot overlook the fact that, as soon as the results were made public, most of the mainstream media and “influencers” started attacking the party members, the party officials, and their voters with an open and militant hate-speech. Sources were not checked and statements not confirmed, but everything was done to portrait the above-mentioned people as uneducated, violent, militaristic, Pro-Russian (yes, the lack of originality is stunning), or plain stupid.

Since AUR’s pool of voters is made up mainly of young people under 34 years of age, the challenges lying ahead of the party are on the one hand to counter-balance the negative campaign coordinated against them, to keep the loyalty of their young voters, and to expand into other demographics, but most important of all, to outline their strategy for the next four years, in order to prevent their victory from becoming a singular event.

There are varied threats to their development, as the new MP (which are all first-time members of Parliament) will certainly be “hunted” for recruitments by the old political parties and a change in political affiliation is neither uncommon nor difficult for any of the MPs. There is the risk of the negative campaign starting to trend and applying a permanent label to the party (which happened in a similar way in the case of the Referendum for the Traditional Family), which would separate their electorate from them. And the list continues…

From the point of view of their external political outlook, a label is hard to find. Due to their pro-European stance, they can not be included in the Eurosceptics, but cannot be included in the pro-EU category either. Probably, a tendency towards the Visegrad-Group will make itself felt over the next period. Lacking the traditional ingredients for populism, but also not essentially nationalistic, the new party will most probably have to find itself after the stunning victory.

Irrespective of this development, some conclusions remain: the Romanians expelled career politicians (like former Prime Ministers Victor Ponta and Calin Popescu-Tariceanu) together with their parties from the Parliament and signaled the desire for a new political outlook.

An analysis of the impact on the other parties represented in the Romanian Parliament will follow over the course of the next weeks.

Remus Rădoiu


(Photo credit: Facebook)

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