The Struggle of Forging New Identities across Eastern Europe: Romania’ far-right AUR case

Codrin Ghidiu

In the picture: AUR protesters during an anti-government and anti-vaccination protest.

or the longest time, Romania’s political landscape has been dominated by clientelism. Parties don’t run on ideological platforms, but rather on vague promises and generalities that appease the short-term needs of their traditional support bases. Political ideology is traded for immediate benefits in the form of voters’ support. Yet, this is about to change.

Last year’s parliamentary election saw the flying ascent of a new party, the Alliance for the Union of Romanians, or AUR (an acronym that means “gold”). Established in September 2020 by a number of conservative urban intellectuals, the newcomers rallied an impressive 9% of the electorate by December the same year. Their staunchly conservative, antiziganist, anti-immigration, homophobic and xenophobic agenda secured the party 47 seats from a total of 466 in Romania’s bicameral Parliament, with recent polls indicating an upward popularity trend. This makes AUR the most powerful far-right presence in Romania’s post-communist politics since the older Great Romania Party last entered the country’s legislature in 2004.

Such a result for a young party is remarkable if one thinks that AUR’s ideological rival, the Save Romania Union (USR), only reached 80 seats in its fourth year of existence.

Many of AUR’s leaders have come into public attention for racist and misogynistic comments. Current President of the Senate of the AUR Sorin Lavric wrote in his book “Decoction of Women” that “no man seeks in women cleverness, depth, or lucidity,” while George Simion, the party’s leader, referred to the LGBT community as “engineers against human nature.” In the absence of identity politics, it is quite baffling that such a large number of Romanians should vote for a party that resembles the 30s fascist pro-nazi Legionnaire movement. The answer then lies much deeper.

In 1989, the Eastern Bloc saw the collapse of its soviet-backed dictatorships. Historically, police states used instruments of repression, most notably large-scale surveillance of the population through extensive networks of informers, complete press censorship, and total control over the states’ institutions.Most importantly, however, dictatures have come to and kept themselves in power by quashing the intellectual elites. Romania alone counted over 50 forced labour and re-education camps, where millions of the highly educated and intellectually influential found their end. As a result, even today most of the literature and historical figures Romanian highschool students learn about stem from the pre-communist period. Under the communist regime, guiding intellectual forces are exterminated and people lose their sense of identity in a monotonous, grey mass of fear of repression and party slogans (the locally famous “the light comes from the East” or “vote for the Sun”) . Creativity is suffocated and intellectual enterprises stalled.

Accordingly, transition democracy presents a confusion for people that experienced life under communist police states. They possess vague ideas about what politics in a free state should look like and are predominantly clueless about what they should achieve. Immediate euphoria in the face of the long-wished freedom is gradually replaced with reclusion. Election after election, voters grow increasingly disappointed with what democracy has to offer and choose to distance themselves from political processes, unless they have direct incentives to vote. Parties run on nominally ideological platforms that conceal their real clientelistic ties and prosaic interests. Until as early as three years ago, running parties in Romania were allowed to support their propaganda with on-the-ground electoral “gifts” consisting of a myriad of products ranging from cooking oil to clothing items, so as to incentivize poor voters’ support.

Add to this dystopian landscape one last ingredient. We’re talking about a party with impeccable morality in regards to corruption scandals that follows through on its electoral promises. Admirably, it also upholds its ideological base with values such as Christianity (whatever form of it is closer to a majority of the population’s heart), support for the “traditional family”, nationalism, and a promise to defend the fatherland against anti-humanist, communist and sorosist foreign conspiracies. Such a party is a force to be reckoned with and, in some cases (see Hungary’s Fidesz or Poland’s Law and Justice Party), even becomes a dominant political force. Their only real ideological opposition consists in a palette of populist, catch-all tent, mildly economically liberal and socially progressive parties (see Slovakia’s SMER, HLAS, OL’aNO, SaS, Sme Rodina, Progresivne Slovensko et. al.).

In a landscape of political clientelism, the emergence and success of far-right parties does not indicate democratic backsliding, as observers of older, more robust democracies might argue. Instead, they and their just as young ideological adversaries might be the forerunners of an awakening national identity that’s struggling to reunite with the past it was torn apart from and channel a vision for the future.

For all the challenges it poses, the popularity of right-wing extremism across Eastern Europe seems to mark a shift away from the post-communist trauma. The question is: does the road to democracy have to go through the extreme right?

References:

  1. AUR party website, https://partidulaur.ro/

2. Rezultate exit-poll alegeri parlamentare 2020. December 2020, Mediafax, https://www.mediafax.ro/politic/rezultate-exit-poll-alegeri-parlamentare-2020-sondaj-curs-avangarde-19770226

3. 2020 Romanian legislative election, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2020_Romanian_legislative_election

4. Răsturnare de situaţie: Partidul AUR a depăşit USR-PLUS în sondaje. June 2021. Ziarul Financiar, https://www.zf.ro/eveniment/rasturnare-de-situatie-partidul-aur-a-depasit-usr-plus-in-sondaje-20190270

5. Parliament of Romania, official website, http://www.cdep.ro/pls/parlam/structura.fp?idp=6&cam=2&leg=2004&prn=0

6. Lavric, Sorin. 2019. Concoct de femeie. Editura Ideea Europeana.

7. “Inginerii împotriva firii.” Ce au spus George Simion şi un preot despre LGBT aduce amenzi la Realitatea Plus şi România TV. Derapaje despre parada Bucharest Pride, September 2021. Pagina Media, https://www.paginademedia.ro/cna/realitatea-plus-romania-tv-amenda-cna-parada-lgbt-bucuresti-20410332

8. Istoria gulagurilor din Romania. December 2015. Adevarul Slobozia,

https://adevarul.ro/locale/slobozia/istoria-gulagurilor-romania-fost-infamul-lider-trimis-moarte-20000-anticomunisti-catalogati-elemente-deosebit-periculoase-1_567be25537115986c6c6c4bd/index.html

Photo credits:

https://apnews.com/article/coronavirus-pandemic-health-pandemics-europe-bucharest-eb391dd357407737eb10431efcf0558e/gallery/d91079966b8545aab6beb2099e08ae83

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