BR ANALYSIS. Political battle in Romania reflects economic, cultural and historical fractures, but the future looks better than the past

Sorin Melenciuc 24/05/2019 | 13:24

Romania is again convulsed by a new election round and this is a good moment to reflect upon the roots of the country’s political structure and its strong links with the country’s historical, social and economic fractures.

Any society has its very own political structure and Romania makes no exception. But compared to its smaller and more homogenous neighbors, Romania is a big and complicated country.

Historical fractures

Historically, nation building in Romania was a long and difficult task as it meant bringing together three former countries with different histories and social backgrounds.

Transylvania, according to first historical documents, was a Hungarian province since the 11th century, and later an almost independent entity following the fall of the Hungarian Kingdom at the beginning of the 16th century.

The region fell under Austrian rule in the 18th century and was again part of the Hungarian half of the Austro-Hungarian Empire from 1867 until 1918.

The other major regions in Romania – Moldova and Wallachia – were formed much later, in the 14th century, following the retreat of the Mongols from these regions.

The two principalities were smaller and weaker than the neighboring kingdoms and empires and, after less than two centuries, fell under the rule of the Ottomans.

Historians in Romania say that Ottoman rule – and its control of the Black Sea – was associated with a collapse of trading routes opened mainly by the Italian city-state of Genoa and a collapse of resources and development in Moldova and Wallachia.

Transylvanian cities remained strong, and these different paths created a first fracture along the Carpathians: Moldova and Wallachia remained poorer and weaker than Transylvania.

The fracture was deepened in the 19th century, when Austrians begun to partially industrialize Transylvania – and Bucovina, annexed in 1775 from Moldova -, while Moldova and Wallachia, united since 1859 to create Romania, remained dominated by agriculture and severe social divide.

The social and political fracture grew at the beginning of the 20th century as the newly formed Romania failed to industrialize and remained a country owned by rich landowners, while 80 percent of population was formed by very poor peasants forced to work on huge latifundia.

Ironically, in 1907, when a violent peasant revolt broke out against the landowners in the Kingdom of Romania, the Austrians introduced the universal male vote in Bucovina.

Cultural and economic discord

In 1918, following the end of World War I and the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Romania and Transylvania united to form a large country but the divisions remained strong.

Transylvania and Bucovina were more urbanized and their population more educated and more prosperous than those in the former kingdom.

On the other hand, the historical fracture is often associated with a cultural one.

In fact, some experts suggest that the former Austro-Hungarian Empire ruled by the Habsburgs left some still visible traces in most eastern European nations that inherited its territories a century ago, including Romania, and this old legacy could explain why people from different sides of the former border vote, work and behave differently.

Empires that ruled over long periods of time, sometimes for centuries, might have had enough time to build up formal and informal institutions that have lasted to the present day, according to Sascha Becker of the University of Warwick (UK) and Luger Woessmann of the University of Munich.

In the context of Eastern Europe, the two experts point out that the Habsburg Empire is considered to have had better administrative institutions than the Ottoman Empire or the Russian Empire.

Poland and Romania are the best examples, according to the experts.

Poland’s western regions, which were part of the German Reich until 1918 and some of them until 1945, tend to support centrist candidates, while the east, once part of the Russian empire, votes for nationalist and populist leaders.

“In the Romanian presidential election of 2014, the “Austro-Hungarian” regions backed liberal Klaus Iohannis, while others were mostly in favor of Social Democrat Victor Ponta”, according to a Bloomberg article, which uses the findings of the two experts.

Around half of present-day Romania was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until 1918, including the provinces of Transylvania, Bucovina, Banat Crisana and Maramures.

These provinces were ruled by the Habsburgs for centuries before becoming part of Romania one century ago.

Current situation and perspectives

These economic, cultural, social and historical fractures are strongly influencing the political battleground and tend to create political conflict as well.

Currently, around 45 percent of Romanians still live in rural areas, a percentage much higher than in any advanced nations, and there are many differences between major cities, regions and even rural areas.

The major difference lies in the economic opportunities offered by regions or cities.

Many experts say that Romania has two very different sides – one sophisticated and modern and the other poor, isolated and increasingly frustrated due to the lack of opportunities.

Over the last couple of years, several studies tried to explain the persistence – or even the increasing gap – between the two very different “Romanias”.

“Romania’s transformation has been ‘a tale of two Romanias’- one urban, dynamic, and integrated with the EU; the other rural, poor, and isolated,” World Bank experts said in a recent report called “From Uneven Growth to Inclusive Development: Romania’s Path to Shared Prosperity”.

According to both historians and economists, Romania’s main historical burden is the partially unsuccessful attempt to become an industrialized nation.

As a consequence, Romania’s prosperity is not equally shared, as the bottom 40 percent is largely disconnected from the drivers of growth.

“Close to half of the people at the bottom 40 percent of the income distribution do not work, and another 28 percent remain engaged in subsistence agriculture,” according to the World Bank report.

However, development spreads rapidly from big cities in Romania to other regions expanding middle-classes in the country and reducing poverty – and this changes political bases as well.

As in many other societies, economic development in Romania seems to increase the support for new alternative, democratic movements and to weaken the attraction for extremist and autocratic leaders.

Moreover, Romania is now the only country in the region that still has an independent press and a vibrant civil society, and that is a major advantage for the country, according to UniCredit chief CEE economist Dan Bucsa.

Political situation

This is strongly reflected in the Romanian political arena. The major political competitors have different voter bases.

PSD

The Social Democratic Party, formed by the former members of the communist elite following the collapse of the Communist regime, has been the main ruling party during the last 3 decades.

It is seen as the party of the state employees, pensioners and poor regions – and these are still its main voter bases.

Geographically, most of its voters are in Wallachia and parts of Moldova, while it is much less attractive in Bucharest, Transylvania, Banat or Bucovina.

Socially, it is still an attractive party for the generations that lived under the Communist regime and moved from poor rural areas to towns and cities – and this was largely seen as a “social elevator” by many.

But despite strong GDP growth during the last couple of years, the party is seen by many as being corrupt and having autocratic tendencies.

According to the latest polls, PSD is losing ground but it still has the advantage of a good mobilization of its voters across the country.

PSD’s strategy for the upcoming EU elections was rather confusing to many as it included anti-EU and nationalist messages. As a result of these recent strategies, the party is now officially considered a bête-noire among pan-EU socialists.

PNL

The National Liberal Party has a strong voter base in Transylvania, Banat, Crisana and northern Moldova, while it is weaker in other regions.

Many of its voters live in big cities or developed regions but it has also a strong presence in many rural areas.

Its current electoral campaign has been mainly based on highlighting PSD’s corruption – and PNL mayors’ success in developing cities like Oradea, Cluj, Alba Iulia, Suceava or Timisoara.

Socially, PNL voters are mainly from the growing middle-class cohort, but there are also many farmers or state employees from regions in which PNL mayors have performed well.

Some polls suggest that PNL has a chance to win the EU election on Sunday.

PNL is a member of the EPP, the strongest political group in the European Parliament.

2020 USR-PLUS Alliance

These newcomers to the political arena benefit from the PSD’s controversial decisions and corruption. Seen as a grassroots, anti-systemic movement, they try to capitalize on many Romanians’ distrust in the old, traditional parties.

They are supported by many middle- and upper- class professionals, entrepreneurs, freelancers, living mainly in big cities like Bucharest, Cluj, Timisoara or Iasi, as well as in the diaspora.

As a bottom-up movement, USR lacks a strong leader, a problem it has partially solved by allying with PLUS, the party of Dacian Ciolos, a former EU commissioner and prime minister.

Their electoral base is growing and the alliance is now the third largest party in Romania.

2020 USR-PLUS Alliance has announced that it will be a founding member of a new political group in the European Parliament, together with Emmanuel Macron’s movement En Marche.

ALDE

The party of the former prime minister Calin Popescu-Tariceanu, a strong ally of the PSD. Claims that is liberal but has lost the support of the European ALDE group, whose leader Guy Verhofstadt is due to attend a rally by the USR-PLUS Alliance on May 24 in Bucharest.

Many experts see ALDE as a PSD-backed move to weaken the PNL and to ensure a reliable coalition partner for the social democrats.

Pro Romania

The party is led by the former PSD leader and prime minister Victor Ponta, and capitalizes on PSD’s declining support.

Many of its voters are former PSD voters who are not pleased with the current policies of the party, and it has even attracted a significant number of MPs who had been elected on PSD lists.

PMP

The party was founded by former president Traian Basescu, and is seen as a party that depends on its leader – even more than other parties like ALDE or PRO Romania.

Its voters are from various regions and social origins, sharing an admiration for the controversial former president, who was in office between 2004 and 2014.

UDMR

The party of the Hungarian minority in Romania during the last 3 decades. It now appears to be losing voters, especially among the educated Hungarians living in big cities, due to its close ties with PSD, but still popular in the 2 counties populated mostly by Hungarians – Harghita and Covasna.

On Thursday, its leaders announced that the party would stop supporting the PSD-ALDE coalition’s policies citing a scandal in Harghita county, but many believe that the real reason why the UDMR is distancing itself from the coalition is of an electoral nature, as the minority party could see PSD’s recent issues as the reason for its own low levels of support.

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