>Romania on my mind

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Had an interesting conversation with one of my PhD students who is doing some research on local level participation by young people in Romania. Apart from the fact, that as in the West ‘participation’ seems to be a tale of non-participation. Indeed Guardian journalist Gary Young astutely argues in a recent commentary that behind all the hype about Barack Obama, the real story to report in US politics is that of a non-voting disengaged poor and disempowered America. A local level parties apparently in Romania are mainly vehicles for business interests and local oligarchies with no real relation to local society. This actually sounds rather like the Czech party system, which is generally considered to have proper parties and to be more open and more ideologically based. I guess it could be merely a question of degree; an indication that local politics doesn’t matter and is simply detached from national electoral politics; or a by-product of over stable parties and consequent lack of the ‘robust competition’ which seems to have replaced path dependence as the new flavour of the month in comparative research on CEE.

She also pointed me towards an interesting online article on the Romanian centre-right by Ed Maxfield. This develops a few ideas some collaborators and I sketched out a few years ago in a collection for Routledge by applying them to the case of Romania’s electorally rather weak civic anti-communist pro-market centre-right parties. Skating (as we did) rather unevenly between rival explanations such as the demands of electoral constituencies, available ideological themes, and problems of party organization it argues that the weakness of Romania’s first centre-right reformist vehicle, the Democratic Convention (CDR) was rooted its lack of credibility as a successor party to anti-communist opposition (mantle claimed by the National Salvation Front (FSN) and later ‘social democratic’ mutations); inability to make a credible nationalist appeal (again captured by the FSN and later the Greater Romania Party (PRM); or put together a convincing pro-market discourse to overcome deep rooted populist and etatist inclinations. It also seems to have fluffed the need to build stable party structures although the article is a bit vaguer here.

In Romania, the unusual character of the National Salvation Front (and later incarnations) as nomenklatura vehicle that could present itself as a revolutionary and democratic force, rather than a successor party is clearly the key to understanding much of the country’s post-1989 politics. This is conventionally understood as a legacy of the personalistic or neo-patrimonial character of the Ceausescu regime, although the way and the force with which such legacies play out is less deterministic and fixed than often assumed. As the article interestingly argues, the rise of the Greater Romania Party – CEE strongest far right grouping – is less a product of atavist nationalist traditions stretching back to the Iron Guard as filtered through Ceausescu, than a populist crisis of the party system (perhaps akin to that that produced the rise of the Simeon II National Movement at about the same time in neighbouring Bulgaria). The question as ever is how is structured and legacy driven (centre-right) party develop is and what scope there is for political choices to overcome there. Here perhaps for Romania the obvious comparator is Bulgaria and the Union of Democratic Forces (SDS) – later United Democratic Forces (ODS) which seemed an impressive example of centre-right party building against the odds, but has since fragmented. A researcher called Duncan Brown at the University of Keele has just completed a PhD on the SDS/ODS, apparently, but seems academically rather elusive and hasn’t published much on this very interesting case, which is a pity.

There’s also the question of whether creates large anti-market constituencies determine the weakness/failure of the pro-market right or vice versa. I remember Czech opinion polls in 1990, that despite the ‘liberal’ and ‘pro-market’ tag attached to the Czechs, showed huge scepticism about the specifics of mass privatization, sale to foreigners, so I wonder whether public preferences on the market are set more by early post-transition politics and perhaps early experience of economic reform than preset ‘interests’, living standards or ‘traditions’. It’s pleasing to see our framework being taken up – the collection that emerged from it has just received the backhanded accolade of being reviewed by doyen of European Comp Pol. Herbert Kitschelt (Slavic Review) where I’m told its gets a predictable battering for lack of grand theory etc – but I couldn’t help wondering whether the Romanian case did highlight more interesting strands in the story of the CEE centre-righ less evident in the dull old Visegrad cases. I was a little surprised that Ed Maxfield, in non-academic life an organizer for Britain’s Lib Dems, doesn’t pick up on the Romanian National Liberals (PNL) as fellow liberals, rather than part of the spongy ‘centre-right’ category we were grappling with. They are, after all members of the ELDR Euro-party, which recently held a congress in Bucharest and also part of a diverse but detectable ‘lost’ party family historic liberal parties with clear organizational links to late 19th century cleavages that Lipset and Rokkan famously wrote of can be found in a number of European countries, although party system development and varying competitive pressures have pushed them in various directions: the pro-market ‘right-wing’ Dutch VVD which developed as part of the pillarization system; the British Lib Dems (part rural non-conformist Celtic fringe, part intellectual and metropolitan elite and leafy suburban salaria)t; the Venstre parties in Norway and Denmark and so on.

Interestingly, the National Liberals’ historic rivals (and uneasy post-1989 allies) the National Peasant Party also belonged to another ‘lost’ party family, that of Agrarian parties, although Nick Sitter and Agnes Batory rediscovered it in an excellent article in the European Journal of Political Research. This is part of a wider conundrum of and the survival and adaptation of (some) ‘historic parties’, whose death was generally rather exaggerated in early writing on the region – the Czech Social Democrats and Polish Peasants come to mind. A further strand the article highlights is the role of social-liberal and social-democratic forces in the (eventual) formation of the pro-market centre-right, in this case Petre Roman’s social democrats turned Democrats. As a look at the Portuguese, Slovenian or indeed US case shows – Social Democrats of the USA being a key waystation for some neo-con in the early 1970s – anti-communist Social Democracy can generate some very robustly right-wing politics.

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