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East European Perspectives: August 22, 2001

22 August 2001, Volume 3, Number 14

By Michael Shafir

The November 2000 Romanian general elections and the presidential elections held in November-December that year were undoubtedly a landmark in the history of post-communist radical politics in that country. Corneliu Vadim Tudor, leader of the Greater Romania Party (PRM), managed to defeat all other presidential contenders but Ion Iliescu, leader of the Party of Social Democracy in Romania (PDSR), and his party was returned by the electorate as the second-strongest faction in the parliament. But Tudor was not the first radical continuity leader in East-Central Europe to have almost made it to the very top. Russian ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky may not qualify as a radical continuity leader, but Gennadii Zyuganov certainly does (see "East European Perspectives" ("EEP"), Vol. 2, nos. 9, 10, and 12, 2000). And Zyuganov by 2000 had twice managed to make the runoffs. Furthermore, his Communist Party of the Russian Federation preceded the PRM in being the strongest opposition faction in the parliament. In both Serbia and Croatia, radical continuity leaders had dominated politics for many years, and even if some may dispute former Slovak Premier Vladimir Meciar's fitting into the shoes of a radical continuity figure, that maverick politician had more in common with the PRM leader than with "mainstream" regional peers. And this brief comparative note leaves aside, of course, Transcaucasia and Central Asia in the former Soviet Union, as it does Belarus, Moldova, and Ukraine.

Tudor's performance surprised many "Romania watchers" and raised some pertinent questions concerning his country's chances to be integrated into Euro-Atlantic structures. A community based on democratic values, it was hinted in official reactions coming from Washington and West European capitals -- and more bluntly formulated in unofficial statements -- cannot possibly tolerate the existence in its midst of a state where a racist, extremist party of PRM's mold is freely endorsed by a considerable proportion of the electorate. Nor would this community tolerate the growing influence of a politician who had often in the past advocated dictatorial measures.

Worse still, the PRM and its leader's performance was the more striking as it came only short after the belated "October Yugoslav revolution." Slobodan Milosevic's ouster from power was considered by many to have crowned and ended the chain of events that began 11 years earlier. One by one, anachronistic political figures had disappeared from the political scene. Meciar had lost the 1998 elections and failed in his 1999 presidential bid. In Croatia, President Franjo Tudjman's death in December 1999 had also signaled the demise of his Croatian Democratic Community, which lost the elections held shortly thereafter. Was Tudor, as Hegelians would have put it, a "negation of the negation?"

Not quite. To start with, those still familiar with dialectics would remember that the "negation of the negation" is supposed to lead to a new and SUPERIOR stage of development, rendered by that untranslatable "Aufhebung." This hardly applied to the Romanian radical continuity leader. Second, the 2000 elections had marked a reversal only if one had in mind what the ousted Democratic Convention of Romania (CDR) and its coalition allies APPEARED to stand for back in 1996. As has been observed, however, there was a considerable discrepancy between appearance and reality when it came to the actual implementation of democratic values during the CDR's four-year mandate (See "EEP," Vol. 3, nos. 6 and 7, 2001).

The parliamentary map produced by the 2000 ballot was strikingly different from that of earlier electoral outcomes. Only five formations were now represented in the legislature, instead of 16 in 1990, eight in 1992, and seven in 1996. The 3 percent electoral hurdle that applied in 1992 and 1996 had been increased to 5 percent in 2000, and this partly explains the drop in the number of formations with a parliamentary representation. But it is precisely against this background that the PRM's success was graphically more evident. The party had managed to increase its representation fourfold -- from 4.46 percent in the Chamber of Deputies to 19.48 percent, and from 4.54 percent in the Senate to 21.01 percent ("Cronica romana," 8 November 1996 and "Monitorul oficial," 4 December 2000). The PRM was second only to the Social Democratic Pole in Romania -- PDSR, as the bloc formed by Iliescu's formation with the minuscule Social Democratic Party of Romania (PSDR) and the Romanian Humanist Party was now called. That bloc scored 36.61 percent for the Chamber of Deputies and 37.09 percent for the Senate.

The parties that participated in the 1996-2000 coalition lost about one-quarter of their seats. In third position, and at a considerable distance from the two leading formations, the Democratic Party, with 7.03 percent in the Chamber and 7.58 percent in the Senate, had suffered substantial losses: in 1996, running on joint lists with the PSDR, that party had scored 12.93 for the Chamber and 13.16 for the Senate. In fourth place was the National Liberal Party (PNL), with a representation of 6.89 and 7.48 percent, respectively. In 1996, the PNL had run on the joint lists of the CDR being that alliance's second main component after the National Peasant Party Christian Democratic (PNTCD); it had then elected on the joint lists 17 deputies and 25 senators. The number of senators representing the PNL in 2000 was nearly halved (13), but the party managed to have more deputies (30) in the Chamber than four years earlier. Finally, due to the fidelity of its electorate, the Hungarian Democratic Federation of Romania (UDMR) was the only member of the outgoing coalition not to pay a toll from one ballot to the other. In 1996, the UDMR had garnered 6.64 percent in the Chamber ballot and 6.81 percent in the Senate contest, being represented by 25 deputies and 11 senators; in 2000, the party received a slightly higher proportion of the valid votes cast for both houses (6.80 and 6.90 percent, respectively) and slightly increased its representation in the parliament to 27 deputies and 12 senators ("Adevarul," 1 December 2000).

The main loser of the contest was obviously the PNTCD, which was transformed from the major partner in the outgoing coalition into an extraparliamentary formation. Deserted by the PNL, the PNTCD obviously had to suffer most of the blame for the failures of the coalition. Having nominated two (Victor Ciorbea and Radu Vasile) out of the three premiers between 1996 and 2000, (the third, Mugur Isarescu, was politically independent), the PNTCD was clearly -- though perhaps unfairly so -- viewed by the electorate as the main culprit for the dismal situation of state, economy, and society. It had come to power promising to radically transform Romania. Four years on, it had achieved very little of what it had promised, and was quite incapable of electorally "marketing" those few achievements. Running in 2000 as the main component of the Democratic Convention 2000 (CDR 2000) alliance that included several other minor parties, the PNTCD was unable to pass the 10 percent hurdle that the alliance needed to jump over to gain parliamentary representation according to the new electoral regulations. In fact, the CDR 2000 barely managed half of that requirement -- 5.04 percent and 5.29 percent of the ballots cast for the Chamber and, respectively, for the Senate.

There are two main possible approaches to analyze the PRM's 2000 electoral success. Both are right and therefore both are also wrong, inasmuch as only a combination of the two approaches renders the picture in its complexity. Emphasizing the failures of the previous governance, the first approach perceives the large proportion of votes cast for the PRM as reflecting mainly the "performance (or rather non-performance) criteria" applied to those in power. In other words, one is mainly dealing with a protest vote. Viewed from this angle, the PRM's electoral success had little, if anything, to do with its ideology and its extremism. The second approach, on the contrary, concentrates on precisely that ideology, taking the outcome of the 2000 electoral contest as proof of the Romanian society's lack of democratic maturity. Putting it differently, one could summarize the two approaches as emerging from different "cleavage perspectives." The former gives more weight to the "classic" cleavages of divisions caused by social stratification and gaps between "haves" and "have-nots," generational divisions, rural and urban divisions, etc., whereas the latter proceeds from the assumption that the civic vs. ethnic cleavage (see "EEP," Vol. 1, no. 1, 1999) renders the clearest explanation to the electoral outcome.

One of the best analyses produced by partisans of the "performance criteria" approach was a brief article authored by two "non-Romania" specialists. Looking at the elections from a comparative perspective, Mudde and Siskova (2000) consider the "Romanian scenario" to be one that could possibly apply to countries such as Slovakia, Croatia, and post-Milosevic Serbia, in a not too distant future. They point out that, like in Romania in 1996, in these countries "large coalitions of pro-Western parties have recently ousted authoritarian leaders and are struggling to meet great public expectations." And they predict that, as in Romania, "they might fail and be succeeded by their authoritarian predecessors." The authors obviously consider the return to power of the PDSR, rather than the success of the PRM, to be the most significant aspect of the 2000 ballot contest. To argue whether or not the PDSR qualifies for being described as "authoritarian" would lead away from the main thrust of the "protest vote" perspective. As has been earlier pointed out (see "EEP," Vol. 2, no. 19, 2000), that party combines both elements of radical continuity and elements of "mainstream" politics, and its four years in the opposition might (but it remains an open question whether it did) have tipped the balance from the latter in favor of the former.

More important is to note the "performance criteria" angle from which the two authors analyze the 2000 electoral outcome. In their view, "rather than expressing support for the extreme-right" PRM and for Tudor, the Romanian electorate had "rejected the 'democratic project' of the former government -- and, at first sight, for good reason." For the post-1996 coalition had failed to keep its promises, chief among which "was the restructuring of the economy in such a way that everyone would get richer and accession to the European Union would become possible within the foreseeable future." The CDR, they write, had "promised too much to too many people" but, worse, despite its claim to embody "Western-style democracy," the coalition "soon turned governance into continuous bickering over personal and financial details." Once the electoral victory over Iliescu was achieved, the parties that set up the post-1996 alliance "started to fall apart" despite a "lack of fundamental differences." This is indeed so. I have elsewhere argued (Shafir, 2001, p. 84) that the Victor Ciorbea cabinet had been a "coalition of coalitions" that proved incapable of compromising due to both historical legacies, petty party interests, and inflated personal egos. The same applied to the Vasile and Isarescu successor cabinets, thus exacerbating the government(s)'s negative image. Having earlier predicted that post-Meciar Slovakia's future might be that of Romania (Shafir, 1999), I have every reason to endorse the Mudde-Siskova comparative approach.

But it took a lot more than endless coalition bickering for the dismal image of the ruling coalition to become so entrenched. The economy not only stagnated, but continued to deteriorate. It was only in the last year of the Isarescu cabinet that a modest growth of 1.5 percent could be generated after three consecutive years of negative growth. It was too little too late, the more so as this growth could not in any way find its way into the electorate's pockets. Upon coming to power, the CDR has promised "15,000 experts" to quickly heal the wounds caused by the PDSR governance. Instead, on taking over the premiership, Isarescu inherited a legacy of a 14 percent drop in the GDP, an 11.5 percent unemployment rate, and a 54.8 percent rate of annual inflation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 October 2000). He managed to cut inflation to 40. 7 percent by the time he left office (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 January 2001), and to drastically improve the country's hard-currency reserves, but could do little else in his brief 10-month tenure. Privatization between 1996 and 2000 had made some progress, but its results were very far from having created a viable market economy. In fact, a large part of its thrust was geared at transferring assets into the hands of political clientele, with suspicion of corruption, some of it obviously justified, dominating the process and driving away foreign investors. The actors had changed between 1996 and 2000, but the play had very much remained the same. Furthermore, the 1996-2000 governments had been scared off from privatizing the main state assets, and these communist-era mammoths continued to produce the bulk of increasing budget deficits, creating a vicious circle, out of which there seemed to be no breaking. On the eve of the electoral ballot, some 40 percent of Romanians lived below the poverty level, according to World Bank statistics (see "The Financial Times," 8 February 2001).

For the electorate to apply the "performance criteria" is not only natural, but also democratic. The famous saying, attributed to Winston Churchill, that the opposition never wins elections, the government, rather, being the one that loses them, is applicable to the 2000 Romanian elections as well. Yet what geared a large proportion of the protest vote to the PRM has never been satisfactorily explained. One reason is the failure to grasp the core-nature of the protest. It has not been, as Mudde and Siskova would have it, a protest against the "democratic order of things," for the simple reason that back in 1996 it was not a choice in favor of that order of things that brought the CDR to power. Rather, that vote had also been a protest vote directed, as it was then natural, at the PDSR. This "fluctuating protest," exit polls conducted by the Institute for Market and Social Analysis (IMAS) showed, worked to Tudor's benefit. No less than 29 percent of voters who in 1996 had backed outgoing President Emil Constantinescu cast their ballot in the first presidential round for the PRM leader, as did 23 percent of those who four years earlier had opted for Iliescu. Even among voters who in 2000 voted for the CDR 2000 in the parliamentary ballot, 6 percent opted for Tudor in the first round of the presidential contest, as did 11 percent of PDSR voters, and 16 percent of voters who opted for the Democratic Party. As for those who wasted their ballot in opting for the Alliance for Romania (APR) -- a party that failed to pass the electoral hurdle, but was viewed by most analysts as "mainstream" � options for Tudor were 5 percent higher (27) than for the party's own presidential candidate, former Foreign Minister Teodor Melescanu (22 percent) (see "Adevarul," 28, 29, and 30 November 2000, 5 December 2000).

Not only its leader, but also the PRM itself managed to carry a substantial part of the "fluctuating vote." Exit polls conducted by the Center for Urban and Rural Sociology (CURS) and broadcast on the private Pro TV channel on the 26 November election night indicated that no less than 23.2 percent of former CDR supporters voted for the PRM in 2000, as did 17 percent of former PDSR supporters and 12.9 percent of former Democratic Party backers. These results quite clearly invalidate the assumption that the 1996 vote had been one for "the democratic order of things," for having nearly one quarter of the 1996 CDR electorate move to the PRM is a clear indication of an extremely exacerbated electoral volatility. In contrast, almost four in five voters who in 1996 had cast their ballot for the PRM (78.8 percent) did so again four years later. This performance is second only to that of the UDMR (97.5 percent). And if one adds to it the high proportion of votes (44.4 percent) cast in favor of the PRM by former supporters of the now largely disintegrated Party of Romanian National Unity (PUNR), one begins to understand the nature of the PRM's performance which combines BOTH elements of a protest vote and elements of ideological stability. In other words, the PRM largely manages in 2000 to establish close to a monopoly over the nationalist radical continuity electorate and to draw to itself the fluctuating "protest vote."

A combination of factors accounts for Tudor's personal success and the success of his party. Constantinescu's decision of July 2000 not to run in the elections -- a decision prompted by public opinion polls that had been showing him trailing Iliescu for over one year (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 June 1999), as well as the refusal of the PNL to endorse him for a second term -- had left the CDR in disarray. The 1996 alliance was obviously falling apart. The PNL ran separately from the CDR lists in the June 2000 local elections. Yet at that stage, the PRM did not seem to have positioned itself into a viable political alternative. True, it had managed to elect slightly more mayors than in 1992 (66 vs. 60); and did far better than four years earlier in the elections for local councilors, electing 2,105 councilors countrywide, which was almost nearly twice as many as four years earlier (1,068). More important (because of the similarity with the parliamentary ballot of the electoral system employed), in the election to county councilors the PRM in 2000 more than doubled the number of its councilors -- from 68 four years earlier to 143 now. But even this success was far from heralding the November 2000 outcome, since the PRM had merely increased its representation from 4.04 percent to 6.62 percent (see "Monitorul oficial," 12 June 1996 and Mediafax, 8 June 2000).

The disintegration of the CDR and the intensification of the war waged by the ruling coalition partners against one another, however, changed that picture radically. Supporters of parties in the outgoing coalition had no less than four presidential candidates to choose from: CDR 2000 backed Isarescu, who nonetheless was running as an independent; the PNL supported former Prime Minister Theodor Stolojan; the Democratic Party had its chairman, Petre Roman, contesting the presidential election; and the UDMR had Gyorgy Frunda representing it in the ballot. Had the four coalition partners been able to bridge their differences and back one candidate, that person might have ended up facing Iliescu in the runoff. Unable to do so, the outgoing coalition's candidates (Frunda excepted) spent more time in mutual attacks than on focusing on Iliescu, and by-and-large neglected Tudor altogether. Only Petre Roman attempted to score points against Tudor during the televised debates (Romanian Academic Society, 2001). Consequently, from among these contenders, the best performance -- produced by Stolojan's 11.78 percent -- was still a considerable distance from Iliescu's 36.35 percent and Tudor's 28.34. Isarescu was placed fourth (9.54), Frunda fifth (6.22), and Roman sixth (2.99 percent). No less than six other candidates, one of whom was an illegitimate grandson of King Carol II, had scored between 1.91 and 0.29 percent, with Melescanu's being the best performance among them ("Cronica romana," 1-2 December 2000).

Romanian electoral analysts mainly agree that in televised debates Tudor could make the most of his oratorical skills, much in contrast to Iliescu's other competitors. They also agree that the pro-Tudor trend had taken off in the last two weeks of the campaign. Previous to that, although some polls had shown Tudor as possibly coming in second, it was largely believed that he would not make it that far. And there are grounds to agree with the -- again widely shared perception -- that Tudor has managed to "pull" the PRM wagon beyond what the radical continuity formation would have been otherwise able to score. A highly innovative poll conducted by CURS and the Romanian Academic Society (SAR) to observe the impact of the electoral campaign polled a sample of 1,230 people twice -- at the beginning and at the end of the campaign. The poll established that the media and above all televised debates and Tudor's performance in them had the highest impact on opinion shifts, the highest score (23 percent) being marked by Tudor among those who at the first (5-7 October) stage intended to vote for the PDSR and by the second stage (21-22 November) declared they would vote for the PRM. Accompanying questioning indicated that social issues (poverty, inflation, economic decline) were scoring highest among the sample's concerns. This finding once more confirms that the PRM managed to enlist the support of the "discontented," and, furthermore, that the "protest vote" cast in 1996 against the PDSR and for the CDR did not, in 2000, return to the PDSR. In fact the above-mentioned CURS exit poll showed that only 67.9 percent of those who voted PDSR in 1996 did so again in 2000. It is also relevant to mention that this Tudor/PRM performance is mainly registered among urban dwellers with a secondary education, confirming that Iliescu and the PDSR continue to have close to a monopoly in small settlements and the countryside, where the "word of mouth" and local "opinion makers," rather than the media, have the largest impact on electoral behavior (RFE/RL interview with SAR Director Alina Mungiu-Pippidi, and Mediafax, 8 February 2001; "Ziua," 9 February 2001).

However, this is only part of the story, and not its most important. Demagogy and the simplistic solutions offered by the PRM leader would have hardly worked against a background of relative prosperity. More important, Tudor's "righteous" ("justitiar") postures would have been hardly convincing if corruption would not be imbued in the Romanian "political class." Claiming to have never had any share of the spoils (a claim obviously unjustified, bearing in mind the PRM's participation in the coalition headed by Nicolae Vacaroiu), the PRM leader was able to capture for himself and his party that segment of the "fluctuating electorate" that had neither forgotten nor forgiven the PDSR for its own share in the post-communist debacle.

But he did much better than that. First, the PDSR and the PRM were able to enlist the support of those who in 1996 had stayed away from the polls. According to the CURS exit-polls, over one million voters in 2000 had not participated in the elections held four years earlier (Mungiu-Pippidi, 2000). Of these, 28.8 percent opted for the PDSR and 26.4 percent for the PRM. Other political formations proved far less attractive to this segment of the electorate, with the PNL scoring highest (12 percent) among it, followed by the Democrats (11.6), the APR (6.6), the CDR 2000 (5.6), and the UDMR (4.9 percent). Turnout, however, was substantially lower in 2000 than in 1996: for the Chamber of Deputies, for example, 65.3 percent of eligible voters participated in the 2000 elections, while 76.01 percent had done so in 1996. Since the age population structure had not radically changed between the two ballots, what this adds up to is a simple equation. A significant segment of PDSR supporters in 1996 had expressed their "protest vote" by staying away from the ballot. That segment either returned now to support that party, or opted mostly for the PRM. Other parts of the "fluctuating protest" vote had opted in 1996 for the CDR. That segment, as demonstrated by the exit polls, had not returned to the PDSR in 2000, but moved on to the PRM (Mungiu-Pippidi, 2000). Obviously, this segment encompassed many of those who were not ready to "forget" the PDSR's own dismal performance when in power. Furthermore, the core-electorate of the CDR being substantially smaller than that of the PDSR, absenteeism -- reflecting disenchantment with politics and the "democratic game" in general -- hit the outgoing coalition (the UDMR excepting) harder than it had hit the PDSR in 1996. And CDR 2000's failure to garner the required 10 percent that would have granted it parliamentary representation, as well as that of other formations to meet the new 5 percent threshold, meant that considerably more seats would be allotted to the main winners -- the PDSR (65 seats in the Senate, 155 in the Chamber of Deputies) and the PRM (37 and 84 seats in the two chambers, respectively) (See "Adevarul," 4 December 2000 and Mungiu-Pippidi, 2001, p. 238).

The PRM, however, also benefited from the electoral campaign conducted by the PDSR and its presidential candidate, Iliescu. As Mungiu-Pippidi shows, the main winners "constantly criticized the ruling coalition in the last year using...terms like 'catastrophe,' 'national robbery,' 'constant decline,' 'famine' and even 'genocide.'" And as she points out, this "drift in the public discourse...strengthened 'social fear' issues (corruption, dissolution of authority, xenophobia)...and thus played into the hand of their 'natural' owner, C.V. Tudor" (Mungiu-Pippidi, 2001, p. 236). It was only one week before the ballot, when polls began showing a much stronger than expected PRM performance, that PDSR first deputy chairman and declared candidate for the premiership, Adrian Nastase, launched a harsh attack against Tudor, which proved to be too little and particularly too late (Romanian Academic Society, 2001).
*An earlier and shorter version of this article was presented at a seminar at RFE/RL 's Washington bureau on 27 February 2001. I dedicate this article to the memory of Professor Ivan Volgyes, who tragically died in a plane crash in Hungary on 14 June 2001.


"Adevarul," (Bucharest), 2000.

"Cronica romana" (Bucharest), 1996, 2000.

"The Financial Times," (London), 2001.

Mediafax (Bucharest), 2000-2001.

"Monitorul oficial al Romanei" (Bucharest), Part 1, 1996, 2000.

Mudde, C., Siskova, A., 2000, "The Romanian Scenario," in Transitions Online,, 15 December.

Mungiu-Pippidi, A., 2000, "Adevarul despre alegerile 2000" [The Truth on the 2000 Elections], in "22," no. 49, 5-11 December.

Mungiu-Pippidi, A., 2001, "Return of Populism--The 2000 Romanian Elections" in "Government and Opposition," Vol. 36, no. 2 (Spring 2001), pp. 230-252.

RFE/RL interview with SAR Director Alina Mungiu-Pippidi, 2001, 8 February.

"RFE/RL Newsline," 1999-2001.

Romanian Academic Society, 2001, "Political News and Forecast from the Romanian Academic Society (SAR)," no. 4,

Shafir, M., 1999, "Is Romania the Future of Slovakia?" in "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 June.

Shafir, M., 2001, "The Ciorbea Government and Democratization: A Preliminary Assessment," in Phinnemore, D., Light, D. (eds.), Post-Communist Romania: Coming to Terms with Transition (London: Palgrave), pp. 79-103.

"Ziua" (Bucharest), 2001.