BUCHAREST -- The support that propelled Romania's little-known, right-wing AUR party into parliament in its inaugural national race may have shocked many, including the more established parties of an ex-president and former prime minister that fell short.
But close followers of Romanian society say the warnings were evident ahead of the December 6 elections -- from unprecedented fear and frustration about the local handling of a global pandemic to the disenchantment that led to a record-low turnout of under 32 percent.
The result has been a 9 percent showing and parliamentary seats for the year-old Alliance for the Unification of Romania (AUR) -- a party that ran on a combustible mix of ethno-nationalism and anti-globalization, support for Orthodoxy and anti-LGBT sentiment, and an "anti-system" platform built on populist scorn for the political class.
The AUR's leader, 34-year-old George Simion, is a nationalist rabble-rouser whose stunts and outbursts have previously won him headlines and entry bans but never much success at the ballot box.
Now, having surprised most of Romania and the international community with the AUR's fourth-place finish, Simion is using his typically blunt language to declare Romania's continued membership in Western institutions cannot be at all costs.
Simion told RFE/RL's Romanian Service on December 8 his party wants Romania to remain in NATO, which it joined in 2004, and the European Union, where it has been a member since 2007. But not without its national pride.
"Do you know what I did not consider right with the EU and NATO? That we are on our knees instead of standing, as Poland does, and negotiating in our own best interest," Simion said.
"This is the feeling of what is happening right now -- that Romanian politicians did not represent us properly in these organizations," Simion told RFE/RL. "They did not pursue the national interest of Romania. The interest of the Romanian nation should come first in every alliance we are part of."
Preliminary results suggest a Pyrrhic plurality for the Social Democratic (PSD) inheritors of the communist mantle and daunting coalition talks for the ruling, center-right National Liberals (PNL) -- the key players in years of ongoing political deadlock.
Both are also part of the political mainstream that fueled support for the AUR's antiestablishment message since the party was formed last December on the flotsam of less successful appeals to nationalism among Romania's 19 million residents and millions more expatriates.
The AUR's leaders have vowed not to govern with any of Romania's main parties. That makes it an unlikely partner in any coalition that emerges from the coming political horse-trading.
The AUR's support flew almost completely under the radar of much of the Romanian and international media ahead of the vote.
And it elbowed aside parties led by former President Traian Basescu and ex-Prime Minister Victor Ponta that missed the 5 percent parliamentary threshold.
Analysts say the AUR echoed, but outperformed, similarly long-shot populist and Save Romania movements in 2012 and 2016 votes as the country struggled to balance expectations from recent EU accession with the need to reform and curb runaway corruption.
"It simply came to our notice now," Ovidiu Voicu, of the Center for Public Innovation, a spin-off of the Open Society Foundation Romania, tells RFE/RL's Romanian Service. "If we look back, we see that the signs were there. It's just that we didn't watch them."
The AUR appears to have harnessed support from voters with a similar profile to those who supported outsider efforts that came before: mostly younger voters, under 60, with a slightly higher share of under-30s, particularly in small towns from the Transylvanian and eastern parts of the country.
Many distrust the lockdowns, distancing, masking, and other efforts aimed at stemming the spread of COVID-19 – a pandemic that has officially infected more than half a million Romanians, killing 12,477.
Criticism of the pandemic response was thought to be an Achilles' heel for the ruling Liberals, who called for the election despite the country's soft lockdown.
Analysts suggest the AUR was willing to go further than the rest of the field.
"Everyone wanted not to look populist, not to look like they were climbing over corpses to get votes," said Barbu Mateescu, an independent political consultant in Cluj-Napoca. "That's why [other parties] avoided the anti-restriction, conspiracy, anti-mask, anti-vaccine discourse. The only party that could have done that consistently was the PSD, but it's currently engaged in a change of image and trying to avoid that kind of tone."
Simion has been an attention-seeking voice on Romanian nationalist causes for years.
He previously led the Action 2012 group, which agitated in Romania and neighboring Moldova for unification, prompting an expulsion and entry ban from authorities in Chisinau.
Simion led confrontational stunts before and during a run for the European Parliament in 2019 as an independent candidate under the slogan "Greater Romania in Europe."
He won just 117,000 or so votes, or 1.29 percent of the Romanian vote at the time.
That represents only about one-quarter of the 490,000 votes the AUR received in the December 6 national election.
The party's acronym, AUR, means "gold" in Romanian.
Officially formed in December 2019, the party's website says it was established in support of a unitary Romania.
That is seen as code for unification with linguistically and religiously similar Moldova, also historically known as Bessarabia, which Josef Stalin had made a Soviet republic after World War II.
Party leader Simion calls it the promotion of "a peaceful national reunification of Romania and Moldova," suggesting his aim is to save Moldova from its dictatorial leaders and from itself.
But he is unclear about how that can happen, particularly given resistance in Brussels to the idea and opposition in Chisinau -- which is already struggling to cope with a breakaway government in Transdniester and Russian troops on its territory despite long-standing UN and Moldovan demands that they be removed.
The AUR describes its "doctrine" as "four pillars: faith, liberty, family, and motherland."
"The party we've been waiting 30 years for," is among its slogans. That is clear criticism of just about every party in Romania since communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu's era.
It also campaigned as an antidote to the "depopulating" of Romania through decades of emigration.
"The Alliance for the Union of Romanians aims to achieve the unity of Romanians, wherever they are, in Bucharest, Iasi, Timisoara, Cernauti (now Chernivtsi, Ukraine), in Timoc (Timok in Serbia), Italy, or Spain, for our very existence as a nation," the party says on its website.
Striking A Chord
Its appeal to unite dispersed Romanians appeared to strike a chord within the diaspora, which traditionally contributes hundreds of thousands of votes in national elections and had boosted results for liberal, pro-Western parties for years.
The AUR won the most votes among Romanian expat voters in Italy, and ran a close second among those communities in Spain and France.
It organized a mostly ignored "parallel count" online "to ensure that our votes are not stolen."
The AUR also professes opposition to what it calls "policies of hatred" from previous successive governments.
But its leaders, including Simion, have gravitated toward inflammatory rhetoric on topics that touch on national ethnicity with respect to neighboring Moldova and Hungary.
The party describes the parliamentary Democratic Union of Hungarians in Romania as "extremist" and accuses ethnic Hungarians of persecution in parts of the country where they outnumber other Romanian citizens.
Simion and other AUR leaders have also whipped up anti-mask fervor and flouted anti-pandemic measures.
They've also vilified multinationals as peddlers of poisonous food.
"The party itself is a strange combination of former extreme nationalists groomed by the Ceausescu ideology and some Securitate plus the no-less-important traditional extreme right backed by extreme-right-wing intellectuals," said Michael Shafir, professor emeritus at Babes-Bolyai University in Cluj-Napoca.
"Against the background of what is ongoing in other East Central European countries -- like Hungary and Poland -- they propagate values such as the 'traditional family' -- read 'anti-gay' -- church, so-called 'sovereignism' -- anti-EU -- and antiziganism (anti-Roma sentiment), all with a good dose of implicit anti-Semitism. Of course, anti-Hungarianism, too, and here they will have trouble with [Hungarian Prime Minister] Viktor Orban."
Simion told RFE/RL on December 8 that neither he nor his party indulges in "fascist behavior."
"We are conservative, from the political point of view, and we are not against the EU," Simion said.
When asked about his party's liaisons with Russia, Simion said the AUR has no ties to Russia or the government of President Vladimir Putin, whom he characterized as "a murderer."
He said Putin's 20 years in power "means that he is a dictator, a plague, and a threat to Romania and democracy."
Simion called himself "a person who promotes the interests of our brothers from Bessarabia, for the Union" of Romania and Moldova into a single state.
He also said he was "a person who is on the front line against Russian propaganda, attacked by Sputnik," the Russian state-run news agency.
"They attacked us because we destroyed some of their banners in Bucharest," he said. "It's true, we vandalized them. I congratulate the authors, because those banners were Soviet propaganda."
"Russia over the centuries -- from the tsarist empire to the Soviet Union and Putin's Russia -- have done a lot of harm to Romania."
Simion also suggested that "Russia's influence" in neighboring Hungary was unhealthy from Romania's perspective, saying, "Hungary is a big friend of Vladimir Putin."
The AUR's more prominent members did not appear out of nowhere. Some, like Simion himself, have participated separately in various elections with marginal results.
But joining forces, particularly while bringing their online savvy with them, appears to have proved effective.
They include influential locals like Sorin Lavric, a philosophy professor and editor of a Romanian literary magazine; informatics and sustainable development expert Calin Georgescu; and Dan Tanasa, a blogger who has been accused of running a "fake news factory."
"They've gotten poor results so far," Voicu said. "It's not the first time they've participated in elections, but they'd only participated under this name before in local races.
"[But] each of these people has a bubble of supporters on Facebook. We don't see them if we're not from there, or it seems to us that it's something marginal."
In an atmosphere where the attention of more established parties has been directed at television and traditional media, social media have presented the AUR and its organizers with an opportunity.
In addition to pamphleteering and seemingly nonstop campaigning by AUR's unmasked officials to attract supporters, social media proved to be an effective alternative in a pandemic.
"The political class and the media are very attentive to television, but their strength is far inferior to Facebook," Mateescu said. "In areas of Facebook that are not necessarily very visible, AUR has been very strong. Within the groups of Romanian communities in the diaspora, the AUR did very well."
Mateescu likened the AUR's political surge to its use of the pandemic "with colossal psychological and economic impact" and strong resistance to COVID-19 restrictions.
"Something had to happen somewhere," Mateescu said. "The energy, the dissatisfaction had to be in one place."