Partide si societate
What’s right in Romania?
Explaining the failure of the Democratic Convention
This article explains the falling
causes of the Democratic Convention, an
anti-communist coalition that governed Romania
between 1996 and 2000. The conclusion is that the
Democratic Convention was unable to build an
identity strong enough to withstand the pressures of
government and the mobility of electoral support
because they failed to create a single party on the
centre-right. CDR leaders failed to craft a sense of
‘partyness’ within the alliance – they did not
develop the partisan loyalty that is a feature of
more successful formations.
Political parties are not permanent edifices guaranteed their share of success – especially in the context of a democratic transition, they regularly coalesce, merge, appear and disappear. But few ‘families’ of parties can have experienced such turbulent and varied fortunes as the centre-right in post-Communist Central and Eastern Europe. Founding elections in Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia followed a pattern of sweeping victories for civic opposition movements and humiliating defeats for the successors to the Communist parties. As the broadly drawn opposition formations faced the strain of managing a massive social, political and economic transformation, they tended to break up and by the mid 1990s, parties on the left had made startling recoveries in popular support. Political elites opposed to the former Communists responded in different ways to this development. In Poland, largely unsuccessful attempts were made to re-create the Solidarity-led coalition which had been in the vanguard of the overthrow of the former regime. The Slovak right was divided on issues of religion and its attitude to populist nationalist Vladimir Meciar. The Czech centre-right initially embraced Anglo-American neo-liberalism but eventually coalesced around a more particularist platform. In Hungary, the party at the head of the transition process – the Democratic Forum – was ultimately out manoeuvred and subsumed by more fleet footed political operatives in the rival Fidesz party.
Romania held resolutely to an exceptional transition path. The overthrow of Nicolae Ceausescu was marked by a level of violence not seen in neighbouring states (except, of course, in the former Yugoslavia which descended into a protracted civil war.) The repressive nature of the out-going regime contributed to a lack of pre-existing alternative power structures in the form of either domestic opposition movements or even independent civic society associations. As a result, former Communist Party apparatchiks emerged as the leaders of Romania’s democratic revolution. The self-styled opposition found itself divided, excluded from power and then defeated in early elections. The centre-right was unable to break the pattern of party competition which was forged in the earliest weeks of the democratic state. The Democratic Convention (Conventia Democrata Romana – CDR), the vehicle which was eventually formed to provide effective opposition to the left, remained fractious and weak. Although it finally won a victory of sorts in 1996, it fell apart under the pressures of leading Romania through its belated adjustment to a democratic society and a market economy in the second half of the 1990s. In the elections of 2000, the remnants of the Democratic Convention failed even to cross the electoral threshold to win seats in Parliament – a dramatic collapse for a former governing party.
The examination of the failure of the Democratic Convention that has taken place has tended to focus on the immediate causes of its electoral meltdown. Lazaroiu, for example, identifies five alternate explanations for the 2000 election defeat (Lazaroiu, 2004). The ‘sacrifice scenario’ sees the coalition as having set in train vital but painful reforms which led to a loss of public support in the short term. A second explanation asks whether the Democratic Convention created unrealistic expectations among the electorate which it was bound to fail to meet. Alternatively were they too divided as a coalition or simply incompetent in their role as government? Finally, the explanation favoured by ex-President Constantinescu is that the government was deliberately undermined by ex-Communists who continued to exert substantial power through their presence in the hierarchy of institutions and their control of substantial parts of the economy. Lazariou asks a further question – whether the centre-right really lost terminally in 2000 or whether lessons learned from the CDR’s defeat led ultimately to recovery via the victorious Democrat-National Liberal Alliance in 2004.
Michael Shafir suggests four explanations for the collapse of support for the CDR: that the Convention promised too much to too many; that its economic performance was disastrous; that it was the victim of a fluctuating protest vote; and that the Greater Romania Party became ideologically more attractive because of a growing idolisation of pre-war nationalist leaders (Shafir, 2001).
Any and all of these factors may account for the Convention’s spectacular election defeat in 2000, but they do not explain why the CDR failed to establish its position sufficiently firmly as an entity to be able to withstand the pressures of government or to achieve greater electoral success at an earlier stage.
What is the centre-right
The origins of the CDRs weakness can be traced to each of the elements that should have made up its electoral appeal – what defined it as a formation of the centre-right. Notions of left and right familiar to students of West European politics have proved problematic when applied to parties in the newly emerged democracies of Central and Eastern Europe. This is not entirely surprising given the very different social and historical contexts in which the parties were formed. For the centre-right, the difficulty of transferring definitions is compounded by the breadth of ideological standpoints covered by the term and the fact that nationalism and conservatism had been characteristic features of the out-going Communist regimes.
Academics who have addressed the issue have tended to draw a distinction between ‘Communist conservatives’ who remain attached to the ideologies of the former governing regimes; radical traditionalists whose platform tends to be nationalistic and often harking back to a pre-war golden age; and the centre or moderate right (see, for example, Lewis, 2001 and Vachudova, 2001). Hanley identifies three ideological strands shared by centre-right parties in the region: anti-communism; conservatism (in which he includes nationalism and populism); and liberalism (Szczerbiak & Hanley, 2006). In the Romanian context, the Democratic Convention faced substantial challenges in monopolising each of these three key elements and the electoral constituencies which went with them.
The democratic deficit
Romania’s revolution of December 1989 has been one of the most widely investigated and written about events of the downfall of the Communist system. Yet, it remains among the most controversial, providing a critical fault line in post-Communist Romanian politics. Very rapidly after the fall of Ceausescu the surviving leaders of the dominant pre-war political formations, the Liberals and the National Peasants, re-activated their parties. They saw themselves as having been robbed of power by the Red Army forty years earlier and as having led the opposition to the dictatorship since that time. The re-formed parties claimed to have rapidly won the allegiance of large new memberships, although leadership was provided by former political prisoners and returning exiles of a wholly different generation from the young revolutionaries.
The leadership of what became the National Liberal Party (Partidul National Liberal – PNL) and the National Peasants (Partidul National Taranesc-Crestin Democrat – PNT-CD) misjudged the dynamics of the revolution. Popular protest had spread through the country and resulted in the Ceausescu clan fleeing Bucharest, but the power vacuum that was created was largely filled by former Party apparatchiks, excluded from influence in Ceausescu’s highly personalised dictatorship. In the confusion of a rapidly developing situation, it seems that Party Men such as Ion Iliescu and Silviu Brucan initially envisioned the retention of a Gorbachev-style reformed power structure with democracy existing through a single party. Nevertheless, the new leaders of the National Salvation Front (Frontul Salvarii Nationale – FSN) became the public face of the revolution and ultimately adapted their position to reflect popular demands for full-scale democratic reform.
One PNT-CD leader viewed the National Salvation Front as a form of Round Table – the equivalent of structures which had existed in other states to negotiate the exit from power of the Communist Party (Diaconescu, 2003). FSN leaders clearly had other ideas and the decision by the Front to register as a political party and contest the May 1990 elections came to be seen as the ultimate act of betrayal by Communists conspiring to stay in power. The provocations of the opposition parties may well have been intense1 but the break-down of any relationship between the Front and the opposition created a situation unique in the transition states where the centre right was unable to monopolise the pro-democratic/anti-communist narrative.
The problems this created for the opposition are apparent from polls which showed that most Romanians preferred to view the overthrow of Ceausescu as a popular revolution. Public confidence in the Government remained relatively high throughout 1990 and 1991 and even the reaction to the infamous ‘mineriada’ when student protests in Bucharest were violently broken up shows the extent to which the opposition was swimming against the tide – 84% of poll respondents disapproved of the students’ actions (Nelson, 1992). Most starkly of all, the opposition’s problem was highlighted by the huge vote achieved by Ion Iliescu in the first Presidential poll.
The Front exploited the opposition’s weaknesses in this area by contrasting the youthful energy and commitment of the revolutionary leaders with the aging opposition leaders who were accused of having spent years in comfortable exile while ordinary Romanians suffered at home. The Front was able to personalise the demonisation of Ceausescu and cast itself as having delivered Romania from his grasp. The opposition – and the National Peasants in particular – further distanced themselves from popular democratic aspirations by excluding younger supporters from leadership positions and by adopting a platform which, in the words of one analyst, looked backwards not forwards (Stan, 2005). Their policy prospectus included a commitment to a return to the 1923 monarchist constitution, a proposal backed by barely one in ten voters.2
Having opted for a narrative based on a stolen revolution, the parties which formed the Democratic Convention persisted with the approach of seeking to de-legitimise their opponents. Ultimately, it could be argued that this contributed to their own downfall. Opposing parties in established democracies gain from a shared investment in the legitimacy of the state – the notion that institutions beyond partisan governments exist and have a value that should be defended. The politics of opposition in Romania has so far failed to develop this approach, despite the peaceful transfer of power between governments on three occasions. By concentrating their attacks on the left so consistently in terms of perceived anti-democratic tendencies, corruption and links with the former regime, the centre right fed popular disenchantment with democratic forms of government and the institutions of state. As a result, the Democratic Convention rapidly lost public trust itself as it was struggling to deal with difficult policy choices in government.
The spectre of nationalism
Nationalism in Romania, and in particular the phenomenon of Vadim Tudor’s Greater Romania Party (Partidul Romania Mare – PRM) has attracted considerable academic attention. Less focus has been placed on how the centre-right in Romania responded.
In the early days of democracy, Front politicians were keen to paint the opposition – and the National Liberals in particular – as anti-national promoters of Hungarian grievances (Mungiu, 1995). In turn, opposition politicians were western-oriented and more internationalist in their outlook. Indeed it appeared for a time as though this might develop as another critical policy fault-line between left and centre-right as Iliescu pursued a consciously ‘Eastern’ policy of maintaining close ties with the Soviet Union. However this effectively came to an end with the 1991 coup in Moscow and by the mid 1990s the Social Democrats (the political successors of the National Salvation Front) were committed to pursuing integration into NATO and the European Union as key policy objectives.
More successful centre-right formations in Hungary and the Czech Republic were able to assimilate nationalist aspirations within parties with a broader appeal but the Democratic Convention never succeeded in crafting an effective response to nationalist sentiment. The conventional approach has been to locate the strength of nationalism in Romanian politics in the dysfunctional legacy of Ceausescu’s national Communism.3 But nationalist parties remained relatively weak right up to the spectactular success of Tudor and the PRM in the General Election of 2000.4 A more complete explanation for the success of the PRM would appear to lay in the growth of anti-system sentiment which accompanied the breakdown of trust between the CDR and the electorate once the Convention was in power.
Whether or not the CDR could have developed a strategy which drew in moderate nationalist voters and thus neutralised the Greater Romania Party, it is clear that another barrier confronting the formation was the solidity of support among the ethnic Hungarian community for the Democratic Union of Hungarians (Uniunea Democrata Maghiara din Romania – UDMR). The UDMR shared many of the aspirations of Democratic Convention and the two formations effectively ran in tandem in the elections of 1996. But the success of the Hungarian Union prevented the CDR from establishing itself within a constituency which should have been fertile territory for the centre-right. This problem was highlighted after the demise of the CDR when the greater pragmatism of the UDMR in relation to coalition building led them to support a Social Democrat government after the elections of 2000.
Half hearted transition – Romanians and the market economy
The Romanian electorate has maintained a less than enthusiastic attitude towards the market economy. In part this derived initially from cultivated memories of pre-war exploitation of Romanian assets by foreign entities. It was clear, too, that loss making factories would struggle to compete and maintain employment levels when exposed to market forces. Romanians displayed a preference for collectivism drawn no doubt from a combination of decades of socialist conditioning and deeper cultural factors. And faith in the free market was undermined by early experiences such as the Caritas pyramid selling scandal which robbed thousands of ordinary Romanians of their savings. Gallup poll findings clearly illustrate the extent to which the market is viewed with distrust in Romania:
% of respondents holding a positive and a negative view of banks and private companies
Banks Mar 1997 Nov 2000 May 2004
+25 +12 +35
-59 -76 -54
companies Mar 1997 May 2001 May 2004
+31 +25 +30
-55 -66 -63
While the Social Democrats forged an alliance with those who had most to lose from economic transition – pensioners, civil servants and employees of crumbling state industry – the constituency of winners from the market economy was much smaller.
Corruption became conflated with economic reform as the public perceived the creation of a class of millionaires who gained their riches through connections and bribery as state assets were sold off. In June 1998 a CURS opinion poll showed that 66% of respondents thought that privatisations were most often dishonest (Pop, 2006). Yet here again the lack of confidence engendered in part by the weakness of state-crafting is exposed when the gap between the public perception of corruption is measured against actual experience.5
Once the CDR found itself in government it faced monumental economic challenges. The privatisation programme was accelerated but the underlying structural problems remained. Political instability combined with external factors such as the Russian financial crisis and led to a rapid loss of faith in the government’s ability to deal with the key issues. The economy contracted and inflation ran at over 150% through 1997 and by mid 1998, there had been a huge reversal in the level of public optimism about the future direction of the country (Economist Intelligence Unit Country Reports and Gallup Romania).
The promised land? The partial victory of 1996
So, the Democratic Convention faced profound challenges in respect of each of its core values: it was unable to monopolise the position of defender of democracy; nationalism became a radicalised issue ruling it off-limits for the centre-right; and the electorate showed little enthusiasm for the rigours of the free market. These elements helped to weaken the CDRs electoral appeal and even when it finally won power the nature of its victory was so partial that new problems were generated.
Democratic Convention presidential candidate Emile Constantinescu was elected in the run-off ballot against Ion Iliescu in 1996 but in Parliament the CDR victory was far from clear-cut. A little over a third of deputies elected were CDR representatives. The UDMR returned 25 members in the 343 seat chamber, necessitating the creation of a three-way coalition with the Social Democratic Union. This latter formation was itself an alliance between the reincarnation of the pre-war Social Democratic Party and former Frontists in the Democratic Party.
The fundamentalist outlook of many CDR politicians with regard to collaboration with ex-Communists was bound to create strains in the coalition. The Democratic Party was led by Petre Roman, Iliescu’s first Prime Minister who broke with the President as a result (in Roman’s analysis) of fundamental differences over the pace of reform. The views of CDR leaders polled by Roper in 1994 indicate the level of distrust shown towards the Democrats – less than 18% favoured the inclusion of the party in the Convention (Roper, 1998).
Throughout the CDRs term in office, the Democrats were viewed as problematic coalition partners. The inability of the CDR leaders to deal with the manoeuvrings of their junior coalition partner is most clearly illustrated by the dismissal of Prime Minister Victor Ciorbea in 1998 and his replacement with a candidate viewed as more favourable by the Democrats. Instability remained and difficulty was created in particular in relation to anti-corruption measures and attempts to investigate the activities of former governments. Soon the Democrats were threatening to desert the coalition again. Even one of the party’s own leaders came to the conclusion that the Democrats needed to shoulder some of the blame for government failings rather than attempting only to claim credit for the successes.6
The failure to build a party
Why was the Democratic Convention unable to build an identity strong enough to withstand the pressures of government and the mobility of electoral support?
A partial answer may, of course, lie in the failure to create a single party on the centre-right. Most commentators, and indeed most of the CDR elite, agree that the differences between the National Liberals and the Peasants on matters of ideology were negligible. There were undoubtedly clashes of personality but differences over strategy also seem to have played a part in preventing fusion. Elements in the National Peasants maintained strident opposition to collaboration with those who they saw as tainted by the Communist regime – contributing to their earning the soubriquet of Romania’s Taliban (Stan 2004). The National Liberals, however, proved more pragmatic in their approach to coalition building and this greater flexibility may account for their continued survival as a political force.
However, creation of a party structure alone isn’t a guarantor of success or survival. CDR leaders failed to craft a sense of ‘partyness’ within the alliance – they did not develop the partisan loyalty that is a feature of more successful formations. Indeed, they adopted strategies which consciously rejected party building. First and most notable among these strategic choices was the adoption of Emile Constantinescu as their presidential candidate in 1992 and 1996. Constantinescu was chosen because of his lack of partisan links and as such it is hardly surprising that he did not prioritise the deepening of party-like structures and loyalties. The CDR followed this by placing the appointment of thousands of non-party technocrats to get the country moving at the centre of its 1996 programme. It later opted for National Bank Governor Mugur Isarescu as Prime Minister and Presidential candidate.7
The CDR was not unique in reflecting perceived low public trust in politicians but these choices reflected the weakness of party structures on the centre-right and discouraged their development.8 It is likely that they hampered the process of institutionalisation which promotes loyalty among party supporters despite the absence of clear short term rewards. The CDR failed to demonstrate the benefits it offered beyond the tangible gains available to office holders. Just as elites rapidly lost faith in the Democratic Convention to deliver benefits, so too did the voters: by November 2000, just 4% of voters believed that the Government could tackle corruption compared to 63% who had faith in their ability to do so in March 1997 (Gallup Romania). By the end of 2000, half of the National Peasant parliamentarians had left the party, in this context it is hardly surprising that voters, too, chose to turn elsewhere (Stan, 2004).
Analysis of party development in post-Communist Europe has tended to be framed by debate over the competing influence of historical legacy, institutional structures and the role of individual political agents. None of these factors are necessarily exclusive and each no doubt played a role in the development of Romania’s party system.9 The fate of Romania’s Democratic Convention warrants further research but this brief analysis suggests the formation was severely hampered by weaknesses in each of what should have been its core constituencies as a centre-right entity – democracy, nationalism and economic reform. Party leaders appeared to compound the problems by failing to build a strong party identity while having to forge coalition links with partners which had developed much stronger party identities.
Uniquely in the region, Romania’s centre right found itself competing against the civic revolutionary formation which was seen as leading the overthrow of the former regime. The narrative it developed in response to this situation excluded many potential supporters and although it went on to overcome this barrier, Democratic Convention leaders chose not to invest in the kind of state building that might have protected it from cynicism and anti-state sentiments when it faced difficulties in government.
The radical nature of nationalist politics made it difficult for the CDR to assimilate the narrative of nationalism into its appeal and the strength of nationalist parties in the majority and minority communities gave rise to viable alternative homes for voters. The electorate was nervous of the impact of economic reform and when the CDR government failed to deliver policy benefits in terms of economic growth and the tackling of corruption, the electorate rapidly lost faith with the coalition.
CDR politicians were divided more on questions of strategy and personality than on matters of policy and some found it difficult to adjust to working in a coalition setting with more pragmatic and fleet-footed partners. Democratic Convention leaders failed to invest in party-building measures with the result that voters and members felt few constraints in seeking exit options when the benefits of loyalty began to dissipate.
Ultimately, the Democratic Convention collapse appears due to its failure to both broaden and deepen its support base and structures. It is telling that the mantle of the centre-right has been taken up by an alliance between the National Liberals and the arch political entrepreneurs, the Democratic Party.
1 Another National Peasant leader, Corneliu Coposu, claims Iliescu refused him entry to the Central Committee building (the hub of the revolution) as early as 22nd December 1989 – see Gallagher 2005 – and offices of the opposition parties were attacked following protests against the Front’s registration as a party.
2 An IRSOP poll in August 1991 showed just 11% support for restitution of a monarch as head of state compared to 78% support for a republic (Nelson, 1992).
3 Katherine Verdery offers the seminal work in this area but the approach is generally followed by most commentators. Shafir, for example, seeks to identify a growing constituency for ideological nationalism as part of the explanation for the PRMs success in 2000, see Shafir, 2001.
4 Even in the local elections of that year, PRM candidates polled a fraction of Tudor’s tally in the later election.
5 Pop (2006) quotes a World Bank report showing only 11% of households based their views of corruption on direct experience with public officials and research by Alina Mungiu-Pippidi that showed 79% of Romanians thought most or all officials were corrupt while only 14% always bribed to get things done.
6 Comments made by Traian Basescu (transport minister at the time) and quoted in Gallagher (2005) which provides a full narrative account of the CDRs time in office.
7 Isarescu was backed as Presidential candidate in 2000 by the National Peasants, the lead party of the Democratic Convention. By that stage the decay of the Convention was well advanced and no fewer than four candidates entered the field backed by parties which were part of the governing coalition.
8 One study found that 56% of municipalities reported having a PSD organisation in their area with a penetration of close on 100% in urban areas. This contrasted with 37% of municipalities having a Democrat Party organisation, the National Liberals having a presence in one third and the National Peasants in less than 20%. Soos, Toka and Wright, 2002
9 As has been mentioned, the influence of the Ceausescu legacy has been widely explored by academics. The role of charismatic political leaders such as Ion Iliescu in building enduring political vehicles would appear significant. And, although constitutional crafting has been relatively uncontroversial in Romania (outside of the field of inter-ethnic relations), it is ironic that changes made by the CDR government contributed to its own downfall when a rise in the electoral threshold led to the exclusion of CDR2000 from parliament.
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ED MAXFIELD -
holds a Masters Degree from Birmingham University’s
European Research Institute and is currently carrying
out doctoral research into centre-right parties in
Central & Eastern Europe and Sussex University in the