Insights from an Outsider: Do Not Mistake the Resignation of the Romanian Prime Minister for a Victorious Outcome

Solved by the politicians via latish resignations, the Bucharest protests generated a power vacuum mostly in theory.  Now that the Romanian Prime Minister, Victor Ponta and the Mayor of the 4th district of Bucharest, Cristian Popescu Piedone are not exercising their public functions anymore, there is one question that we need to focus on answering: what now?

The street movement comes after the last Friday fire tragedy that happened during a concert organized in the Bucharest-based club called Colectiv. 33 young people died since and 130 have been dangerously wounded and are now hospitalized in all Bucharest hospitals at intensive therapy units.

Congratulations! You managed to awaken the most indifferent 

It would be a mistake to treat the resignations in terms of victorious outcomes of the mass demonstrations, since they aim at serving (unfortunately and most probably exclusively) this purpose: namely to give citizens a splash of excitement and stir the feeling that their actions generate impact, only to calm them down, until one by one they blow off some steam and go back home humbly to watch mediocre TV shows.   But this time, the protesters are not the people that they bought votes from in the past 26 years. Now they insulted people that are not their target group for the local elections that ensure their percentages in the parliamentary and presidential ones. Now they mocked people that fight for ideas, no for survival. Now they stirred up a crash with these people that do not need their electoral bribes to survive, but with the ones that have the necessary competencies to replace them in a blink of an eye. This is the reason why what started with Roșia Montana and was showcased during the second ballot of the November 2014 presidential elections scares them. This is why they instantly resigned.

Protests

Accused of plagiarism in his PhD thesis, the same Prime Minister that resigned due to the protests defied all the ones that spent sleepless nights to earn their diplomas in the same university that granted him an undeserved title. He did not resign then, did he?  What about the elevating moment when he became the first prime minister of Romania to stand trial while in office? He did not resign either and I seriously doubt the importance of the moral aspect of this dilemma.

“I am obliged to acknowledge the legitimate discontent that exists within the society and the wish, legitimate as well, to hold responsible higher placed people than the owners of the club. People feel the need for more and it would be a mistake on my behalf to ignore this matter. […] I am ready to make this step that an important part of the society is waiting for and evidently I am going to resign today. I am doing this because in all these years that I have been doing politics I resisted to any battle with political adversaries, but I never fought against the will of the people”[1]

What party leader would fight against the will of the people a couple of months before the faith-defining local elections of 2016? There is not enough time to wash away the anger. Boys and girls, it is time to play the morbid game of ethics!

Why are they still protesting?

What should be acknowledged is the stimulus to which the Romanian public opinion reacted in its previous years of democracy-building. Firstly, “one particular feature of many Communist regimes was their systematic use of famine as a weapon[2] of control. Although it is clear that the disadvantaged categories that struggle to cover basic needs are stuck in a vicious circle of poverty, the post-Decembrist “mineriads” showcased the pseudo-anti-intellectual turn this discontent was channeled towards and the obvious tendency of keeping at bay the development of competent elites that would threaten the position of the inherited cartelized political environment. Two important dimensions of Romania’s transitional exceptionalism among the other members of the Warsaw Pact should come up in our minds these days: not only Romania was the only country where a former communist leader was reelected, but “the successor regime committed the most egregious violation of human rights[3].

Of course, the Romanian saying “with an empty stomach you cannot be concerned with ideas” applies. However, we should not forget that these ideas were the ones that shaped the process of improving citizens’ lives throughout history, from the French Revolution to the 1989 fall of the eastern block and many others. Conspiracy? Maybe. Many processes that underwent behind the scenes that we are not aware of? Most probably true. Still, development would have been impossible without ideas and people acting upon them. The same ideas that as we speak, although through an unwieldy complex process, stand behind developmental policies that aim to break the pattern of poverty. Thus, although functionalist at its core, this rationale does showcase that this unfolding process could have only been burdened, maybe confined, but not annihilated. This is why it took Romanians almost 25 years to start protesting for ideas. And one cannot treat this principle-based discontent “illness” via longitudinally tardy and short-term overhasty resignations. This is why Romanians are still protesting after the 4th of November.

Face it: demographics are still working in their favor

The fact that “so many people ‘swallowed!’ (the Great Terror) hook , line , and sinker”[4]  for so many years trained them to gobble up post 1989 injustice as well, turning public opinion into the cumulus of “new man” voices: in order to build up a functional civil society, we need more than non-governmental organizations. However, in Eastern Europe, people were preoccupied less by the fact that “without voluntary associations individuals were atomized”[5]. Orwell’s 1984 is not an overstatement and subjects keep behaving, even after the Big Brother is gone, transplanting patterns to their children as well.

INSProtests2

 

“I can’t believe you actually went to the protests last night! You are so funny; you really think something will change? It will not. Stop acting like barbarians and go to work!”

This is a statement of a lady that is in her early 50s, which came as a reaction to the debates she witnessed among work colleagues about the directions the protests took prior to the resignation of the Prime Minister. She was shaming them for taking responsibility, because our Leninist legacy has “lots to do with traditional culture and generated behaviors that now aren’t such a strong fundament for the emergence of democracy”[6]; because in her mind it is rude to think outside of the mold in which she grew up, even forgetting that one of her son’s best friends was affected by the unfortunate incident.  This stance is a mirror image of what Jowitt coins as emotional fragmentation. How many citizens’ attitudes were shaped by this phenomenon? If it is plausible that the share of affected subjects decreases proportionally with the decrease of age and (as all across the world) the population of Romania is aging, were do we stand?

While we don’t know what is the relation between the two phenomena, we can conclude, however, that the electoral geography of Romania is not an encouraging factor in regards to our inherited civic apathy, but will remain a hampering one.  Although demographics is not among the variables that can be manipulated via political decisions anymore, it is still working in the politicians’ favor.

The game of pseudo-representation

Why did Romanians pour into the streets these days? Yes, it is a natural reaction to the Colectiv catastrophe. However, it is clear that the issues the protesters were addressing are systemic and go deeper in their conscience: citizens do not feel represented by politicians.

In the early days of post-communist Romanian democracy, the governing elite did form an established elite. Nevertheless, its legitimacy was fundamentally rejected, since “most of the people who should belong to the <elites> were people that collaborated with the old regime[7].   Thus, in Katz and Mair’s terms, the significant gap between the civil society and the state was deepened throughout the communist period and persisted in the transitional years that followed. Where did political entities emerge in this picture after 1989?

Parties1

Paradoxically or not, political representation in post-Decembrist Romania sprung into the last longitudinal evolutionary phase of political parties’ development coined by  Blyth and Katz:  the general (chronological as well) dynamics  framework of representation via political parties, from Mass, to Catch-All and to the Cartel, indicates “the possibility that the movement of the party from civil society  towards the state could continue to such an extent that [it would] become a part of the state apparatus itself”[8]. Romania witnessed, however, a reversed process in which political actors emerged from the core of the cartelized political environment that was a part of the state apparatus itself already.

Parties2

Was there any progress made in linking the alien political entities stuck into the state apparatus to the civil society? On the one hand, did parties reach their electorate by embodying its demands into their programs?  Can the recent protests be interpreted as an indicator that they did not? And on the other hand, did the Romanian civil society migrate towards the state via representative entities? Surely the civil society activists that were involved in the 2015 Political Parties Law reform hope they at least will in the future.

In the midst of this landscape, the protests can be treated in terms of lack of functionality of what Gaetano Mosca coins as class circulation. The disruption between the formal and informal rules, translated into the fact that formal rules that should ensure the course of this process “are often poor guides to what actually happens”[9] stand at the core of the issue.

Who are the protesters?

Among the most ardent questions asked nowadays is who are the protesters? Exact numbers should not be the focus of our attention. Fifteen or thirty thousand, it is clear that they were enough to trigger political reaction. But who are they?

In the evening of the 4th of November I arrived at the epicenter of the protests at about half past six and my first impression was that I got there quite early. When I stepped out of the University Square metro station I was expecting to feel suffocated by the concourse; it was not the case. Although the streets were full of people as far as the eye can reach, the square was somehow not crowded. In front of the National Theatre were several groups of people, chatting silently. In the background a couple of loudspeakers were disturbing the hum with slogans. Voices followed sequentially, but the truth was no one really felt like shouting, because the burdensome atmosphere was dominated by disappointment and grief. Usually protests are more about anger. Not this time.

Generally under forty years old (dominated by a fair share of under thirty), few of the protesters had the power to smile. These few were mainly the ones manipulating the loudspeakers, which raised question marks in my mind from the beginning. Meanwhile, I started seeing men wearing suits and ladies wearing heels – most of them were probably coming straight from their offices. No matter how casual, almost everyone was well dressed and very polite. Are these the features of an incipient middle class? I believe they are.

The cognitive dissonance dominating the practices of the Romanian state left its youth absent from public life. Increasingly competent, what Theda Skocpol defines as marginal elite movements remained outsiders, while excluding themselves from the political sphere based on another Romanian saying: “You enter the trough, pigs will eat you”.  While theoretically the large-scale structural change occurred almost 26 years ago, it seems that it took more to “transform the identities and structures of the middle class[10]; and the Colectiv tragedy was so personal, it awakened the juvenile non-governing elite.

What now?

The response of the politicians to the protests should be viewed from the other side of the double edged knife – if some of them resigned now, it means that citizens are able to shake the political scene and make more resign later. Thus, Romanian voters are gradually becoming aware of their power to hold their representatives accountable for their decisions (or lack of decision-making as such).  And this power is gradually turning into responsibility and hopefully, into increasing the quality of political representation in Romania.

Nonetheless, while still stuck in between religious and non-religious orthodoxy, we shall bear in mind the political opportunities instability within the state apparatus pose, by creating an extensively legitimate context of urgency. This is not even the end of the first battle, but the official beginning of the war.

[1] http://www.digi24.ro/Stiri/Digi24/Actualitate/Politica/VICTOR+PONTA+DEMISIONEAZA

[2] Stéphane Courtois, Mark Krame, The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression, Harvard University Press,  USA, 1997

[3] Juan J. Linz and Alfred Stepan, Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation: Southern Europe, South America and Post- Communist Europe (Baltimore & London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), pp. 344-365.

[4] Stéphane Courtois, Mark Krame, The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression, Harvard University Press,  USA, 1997

[5] Vladimir Tismăneanu (editor), Revoluțiile din 1989. Între trecut și viitor, Polirom, București, 1999 (G.M. Tamaș, Moștenirea disidenței)

[6] Kenneth Jowitt, “The Leninist Legacy,” in New World Disorder: The Leninist Extinction (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1992), pp. 284-305.

[7] Kenneth Jowitt, “The Leninist Legacy,” in New World Disorder: The Leninist Extinction (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1992), pp. 284-305.

[8] Mark Blyth and Richard S. Katz, “From Catch-all Politics to Cartelisation: The Political Economy  of the Cartel Party” in West European Politics, Vol. 28, No. 1, 33 – 60, January 2005, Frank Cass

[9] Guillermo O’Donnell, „Illusions About Consolidation” in Journal of Democracy, 7.2, 1996, pp. 34-51, National Endowment for Democracy and the Johns Hopkins University Press, p.39;

[10]Charles Tilly, “Does Modernization Breed Revolution?” in Comparative Politics, Vol. 5, No. 3, Special Issue on Revolution and Social Change (Apr., 1973)

 

Resources

BLYTH Mark and KATZ Richard S., “From Catch-all Politics to Cartelisation: The Political Economy  of the Cartel Party” in West European Politics, Vol. 28, No. 1, 33 – 60, January 2005, Frank Cass

COURTOIS, Stéphane, KRAME, Mark, The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression, Harvard University Press, USA, 1997

Institutul Național de Statistică, România în Cifre – Recensământul Populației și locuințelor – 2011

JOWITT, Kenneth, “The Leninist Legacy,” in New World Disorder: The Leninist Extinction (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1992), pp. 284-305;

KATZ Richard S. and MAIR Peter, “Changing Models of Party Organization and Party Democracy – The Emergence of the Cartel Party”, in Party Politics, Vol.1. No.1 pp. 5 – 28, Sage Publications, 2005;

LINZ Juan J. and STEPHAN Alfred, Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation: Southern Europe, South America and Post- Communist Europe, Baltimore & London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996

MOSCA, Gaetano, The Ruling Class, McGraw-Hill Publishers, New York, 1939, p.167

O’DONNEL, Guillermo, „Illusions About Consolidation” in Journal of Democracy, 7.2, 1996, pp. 34-51, National  Endowment for Democracy and the Johns Hopkins University Press;

TILLY, Charles, “Does Modernization Breed Revolution?” in Comparative Politics, Vol. 5, No. 3, Special Issue on Revolution and Social Change (Apr., 1973);

TISMĂNEANU, Vladimir (editor), Revoluțiile din 1989. Între trecut și viitor, Polirom, București, 1999

www.digi24.ro

 

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