Left-Wing Electorate in Romania in Search for a Left-Wing Party

Re-posted from Transform Europe

After 35 years of capitalism, the chronically dire socio-economic conditions in Romania have led to the emergence of a leftist consciousness among the popular classes – not to a new mass left party, though. In this super-electoral year, it is business as usual. The various parties of capital compete over the votes of an increasingly disillusioned electorate.

They say the best teacher of anti-capitalism is capitalism itself. Romania makes no exception. After more than three decades of unhinged neoliberalism, the country tops the table in Europe for most negative indicators: from income inequality to in-work poverty to labour migration to underfunding of vital public services.

Inevitably, this has led to resurgence of left-wing and even anti-capitalist attitudes among the general public. According to a 2021 survey[1], no less than 93% of Romanians want the state to fund job creation, 86% to provide affordable housing, 73% to be more on the side of workers than bosses, and 60% that the former should have greater union rights. Indeed, 47% believe that there should be more public ownership in the economy (compared to 30% who disagree with that) and 37% would choose socialism over capitalism (only two percentage points fewer than those who prefer capitalism).

However, these shifts in consciousness have not yet been matched on the political field. The parliamentary left is currently weak in most European countries, but virtually absent in Romania, where a handful of minor left parties (e.g. Socialist Romanian Party, Demos) are struggling to become relevant electorally (or otherwise). Despite, or perhaps precisely because of, their over-emphasis on elections, neither of these parties stands a chance to gain political representation any time soon.

A Ruling Social Democratic Party

Thus, the Social Democratic Party (PSD) continues to be the only significant left party in Romania – but only in name. As the main party of government after 1989, PSD has been one of the key political vehicles for the capitalist restoration in Romania. Together with the right-wing National Liberal Party (PNL), which it has been sharing government with since 2021, PSD is the main political arm of domestic capital and the intertwined bureaucratic networks, while making sure nevertheless to keep big foreign corporations happy.

Sure, PSD still maintains a sizeable social base among the popular classes thanks to the limited social concessions it has granted while in government, including a prolonged cap on energy prices and successive increases in the minimum wage and pensions in recent years (still insufficient, though, as Romania still has the second lowest minimum wage in the EU[2]). But neither during the current government coalition with PNL, nor when it led the government in the previous legislature (2016-2019), has this social democratic party significantly challenged the neoliberal framework. On the contrary, in recent years, PSD government(s) have introduced further neoliberal policies, such as the transfer of most social contributions[3] from employers to the employees or the reduction of the flat tax on income[4] to 10% (with corporate tax at 16%, fourth lowest in the EU[5]).

That is coupled with salient ultra-conservative takes on cultural issues, such as gender equality or the secular character of the state. After calling for a vote to define marriage as strictly the “union between a man and a woman” in the ill-fated 2018 constitutional referendum[6], in 2020 the party’s MPs voted for a surreal ban on gender studies[7]. This places PSD in the ideological proximity of the ruling right-wing populist parties in neighbouring countries like Hungary, Serbia or Slovakia. For now, though, PSD remains a member of the PES and S&D group at transnational level, which perhaps says more about the latter two than about PSD.

For the upcoming European elections, PSD will run in alliance with PNL, which explains why their electoral message is rather limited to a vague reiteration of Romania’s pro-EU stance. This alliance – which is likely to be maintained for the legislative elections later this year – is set to gain[8] over 46% of the votes, followed by the far right populist party Alliance for the Union of Romanians (AUR) on 16%, and the United Right Alliance (made of the larger Save Romania Union (USR) party and two other minor right-wing parties), with nearly 14% of the voting intention.

Emergence of a Far-Right Populist Party

The main difference from the previous European elections is the emergence of a significant far-right populist and Eurosceptic party, thus ending the “Romanian exceptionalism” in the region. Established at the end of 2019, AUR (which also means “gold” in Romanian) gained 9% in the legislative elections the following year, with a particularly strong performance in the Romanian diaspora[9]. Led by a quasi-charismatic leader and supported by a strong financial and social infrastructure provided by a wide array[10] of conservative NGOs, religious groups and small-and-medium entrepreneurs, AUR is set to make significant gains[11] this year in the legislative elections, where is set to nearly double its score from 2020[12].

The party displays the usual reactionary tropes against immigration, LGBTQ+ people, feminism and “neo-Marxism”[13]. More interestingly, it puts forward an economic rhetoric critical of foreign corporations and supportive of domestic capital, having launched last year its own association of business people[14]. As with most parties of its ilk[15], therefore, AUR is chiefly the political vehicle of capital’s “losers of globalisation” – small, medium and sometimes big domestic capitalists who want the state to back them up in their competition with foreign capital. Thus, its populist rhetoric is precisely this – rhetoric that merely claims to represent the needs of ordinary people against the selfish elites. In fact, that conceals an agenda in the service of insurgent elites unhappy with a status quo that structurally favours Western companies in a semi-peripheral country such as Romania.

Most voters probably see through AUR’s demagoguery and the winner in all these elections will likely be again the ‘Abstention’ party. Nonetheless, while the popular appeal of right-wing populists should not be overstated, it should not be downplayed either. The level of that appeal is real, and on the rise, as shown in the polling trends[16] of the past few years. That is largely due the utter lack of any mass left-wing alternative capable to channel dissatisfaction with the status quo, which often plays out along left-wing ideological lines prone to such an alternative, as illustrated above.

The Left Lags Behind the Masses

Against the background of an ebb in class struggle in the post-Covid period (which contrasts to the context outlined here this time 5 years ago[17]), the extra-parliamentary left is still struggling to find a coherent articulation that can appeal to the masses. Two main attempts have failed, so far, in this respect. The Romanian Socialist Party (PSR, member of the European Left Party) calls for “a socialist market economy”, which resembles more state capitalism with Chinese characteristics than actual democratically controlled socialism. More problematically, perhaps, is the party’s very limited mobilisation and engagement with the grassroots, as most of its activity seems to consist of internal meetings and throwing itself into electoral campaigns every four years that not only bring meagre results but fail to connect the party to the politically conscious layers in society that are looking for a left alternative.

Although it is more present in the movements and social campaigns, Demos is trapped in a similarly sterile electoralism, which is fundamentally rooted in its neo-reformist outlook. The latter is a blend of neo-Keynesian economic policies and staunch pro-Europeanism (including pro-NATO views), which fails to appreciate the limited space for major social concessions in a semi-peripheral country like Romania, where the state is firmly captured by various fractions of foreign and domestic capital. There is no propitious context in Eastern Europe for the kind of social democratic policies implemented in Western Europe after the Second World War. In truth, such policies would be only possible if backed by more radical measures, of a socialist character, without which any attempts for a major social change is doomed to be crushed by the ruthless counter-offensive of capital. While generally true in times of capitalist polycrisis, it is particularly true in the periphery that the most radical programme and strategy are also, paradoxically, the most realistic.

The significant developments in class consciousness outlined at the start of the article show that, yet again, the left is lagging behind the masses, in Romania and beyond. The worldwide historical process of rebuilding the mass organisations and revolutionary currents of our class is still in an early stage, more so in Romania than in most European countries. It is happening, nevertheless, as reflected by the emergence, over the last few years, of several anti-capitalist groups of young, militant people such as the Socialist Action Group (GAS)[18] or the Bloc of the Marxist Youth (BMT)[19], alongside significant activist campaigns and movements around the issue of housing[20] and, at the time of writing, the genocide in Gaza[21]. Hopefully, such a rejuvenation will also engulf the labour movement in the next few years. And, while these developments will not necessarily have an echo in these European elections, they represent the basis for the future formation of a mass left-wing political force capable to pose an alternative to the parties of capital.


Footnotes

[1] Gabriel Bădescu, Sorin Gog, Claudiu Tufiș (Mai 2022). ATITUDINI ȘI VALORI DE TIP PROGRESIST ÎN ROMÂNIA, Friedrich Ebert Stiftung.

[2] Eurostats (2024), Minimum wage statistics (page yearly updated, year consulted: 2024)

[3] Taxsummaries.pwc.com, Romania: Social contributions (last reviewed: 25 April 2024)

[4] Taxsummaries.pwc.com, Romania: Individual taxes on personal income (last reviewed: 25 April 2024)

[5] Cristina Enach (16 January 2024). Corporate Income Tax Rates in Europe. Taxfoundation.org

[6] BBC (2018), https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-45779107

[7] Euronews (2020), https://www.euronews.com/my-europe/2020/06/17/romania-gender-studies-ban-students-slam-new-law-as-going-back-to-the-middle-ages

[8] Digi24.ro (23.04.2024), https://www.digi24.ro/alegeri-europarlamentare-2024/sondaj-inscop-alianta-psd-pnl-ar-obtine-466-din-voturi-la-europarlamentare-aur-e-pe-locul-2-dar-pierde-procente-2769331 (in Romanian)

[9] Vladimir Bortun (13.12.2020). Romanian legislative elections in the diaspora: record participation and the emergence of the nationalist vote, Migrademo.eu

[10] Vladimir Mitev (13.02.2023). Interview with Romanian political scientist Sergiu Mișcoiu: How AUR’s ideological synthesis generates mobilization in Romania. Crossbordertalks.eu

[11] Ivo Kesler. Romania’s far right could enter government after the 2024 parliamentary elections, The Loop, ECPR’s Political Science Blog.

[12] Politico, Poll of Polls – Romania – National parliament voting intention.

[13] Alina Dragolea (2022). Illiberal Discourse in Romania: A “Golden” New Beginning? Politics and Governance Open Access Journal, Vol.10, No4 (2022).

[14] Leonard Bădilă (11 December 2023) AUR lansează Organizația Oamenilor de Afaceri AUR. Sunt invitați toți antreprenorii din România (in Romanian). Capital.ro (in Romanian)

[15] Vladimir Bortun (19.03.2024). It’s time for a ‘material turn’ in populism studies. The Loop (ECPR).

[16] Politico, Poll of Polls, Romania : National parliament voting intention

[17] Vladimir Bortun (23 May 2019), European elections in Romania (European Elections Observatory 2019), transform ! europe

[18] https://actiunesocialista.org/

[19] https://www.facebook.com/BloculTineretuluiMarxist/

[20] https://casisocialeacum.ro/archives/2606/social-housing-now/

[21] https://www.facebook.com/RomaniaPalestineSolidarity

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