Romania: New government, old policies

The need for a socialist alternative

The Romanian general elections on Sunday 11 December were won by the Social Democratic Party (SDP) with over 45% of the votes, more than double the votes of the main right-wing opposition, the National Liberal Party (NLP). However, these elections also recorded the lowest turnout in parliamentary elections in Romania since 1989 – a mere 39.5% of eligible voters, which means that the SDP, despite its clear win, has been voted for by less than a fifth of the Romanian electorate! Just like in other parts of the world, nothing explains this sheer disillusionment with the political establishment but the growing disillusionment with capitalism itself, which has dramatically failed to deliver on the promises it made in the early 1990s following capitalist restoration.

Similar to the other countries in the region, almost three decades of neoliberal policies imposed by Western powers and implemented by corrupt national elites have brought about a hugely divided society. A tiny upper-stratum of new capitalists and oligarchs (often the descendants of the former Stalinist bureaucracy), who control most of the mainstream parties and media; a very small and fragile urban middle-class, incapable of offering a credible and inclusive political alternative to those parties; and millions of workers and peasants who cannot find work, or do work in precarious and extremely low-paid jobs, either at home or abroad.

Therefore, 2016 Romania looks very bad:

  • 40% of the population lives on the verge of poverty, with 30% of the population suffering from severe material deprivation;
  • hourly payment is on average 5 times lower than the EU average, while pensions are the lowest in the EU, with over 600,000 people on a €20 euro per month pension;
  • 20% of the population suffers from severely inadequate housing;
  • 136 individuals own as much wealth as the poorest 6 million Romanians.
  • 3 million people, amounting to 17% of the population, have left the country to work abroad.

And yet, despite being the poorest and most unequal country in the European Union, Romania has no significant political Left. These elections provided no alternative to the new right-wing consensus that, superficially, seems to be emerging across Central and Eastern Europe. Economically, we see a hybrid between neoliberal and populist-protectionist measures, which partly reflects the developing cleavage between transnational capital and national oligarchs, as well as the establishment’s attempt to contain the growing popular mood against capitalist globalisation. Socially, on the other hand, we see an ultra-conservative agenda that is increasingly hostile to individual freedoms and to the secular state, as illustrated most clearly by the Polish and Hungarian governments.

Even the winning SDP – the only supposedly left-wing party in Romania – has endorsed this right-wing agenda. They gave their support, for instance, to the initiative of a social movement called ‘Coalition for the Family’, which calls for the revision of the Constitution in order to make impossible a potential legalisation of gay marriage – a typical example of a “false problem”, meant to distract the attention from the real, social and economic problems of the system. The petition for this initiative has been signed by over 3 million people, which arguably says less about the spread of homophobia within Romanian society (which clearly exists and has to be countered) than the lack of a Left force providing genuine forms of expression to people’s disillusionment.

Most significant though is the SDP’s fiscal policy, which is more to the right than those of the main parties of the right: decreasing the flat corporate tax from 16% to 10% – a policy clearly aimed at appealing to middle-class voters, traditionally hostile to the SDP. Thus, with a 10% flat tax, Romania will have the lowest corporate tax in the EU together with its southern neighbour, Bulgaria – a perfect illustration of the ‘race to the bottom’ that tries to attract foreign investment at any cost. The social measures promised by the SDP, such as the increase in the minimum wage and pensions, will not be possible as the new tax cut will further impoverish the public budget, which next year – even without the tax cut – will be at the lowest proportion of the GDP in the country’s history!

Nevertheless, the false promises of social measures proved enough for the SDP to secure the vote of its traditional working class base, precisely because of the lack of any credible alternative, as also shown by the low turnout. The current technocratic prime-minister Dacian CioloÈ™, who with proverbial technocratic ‘neutrality’ endorsed the right-wing NLP, proved unable to appeal to the masses of impoverished Romanians. His exclusive focus on reforming the administration and “fighting corruption”, which he solely blames for the country’s socio-economic problems, are simply secondary if not irrelevant concerns for the millions of people confronted with chronic poverty and unemployment. The same can be said of the Save Romania Union (SRU), a new liberal-populist party composed of urban middle-class representatives of civil society and small businesses. They claim to be the first ‘genuine alternative’ to the compromised political elites, but they too fail to provide any structural solutions to the deep social and economic problems of Romanians.

Of course corruption is a real problem and the Left needs to address it, but the fight against corruption – which itself is narrowly understood in a liberal-legalist way, for the most fundamental form of corruption is capitalist exploitation itself, which is nothing else but a systematically organised theft of workers by their bosses – becomes a problem too when is instrumentalised politically to serve the interests of capitalist elites. This happens in at least two significant ways: firstly, by justifying austerity, particularly cuts in social welfare for the unemployed and the disabled, who are accused of ‘cheating the system’. Secondly, like CioloÈ™ and SRU do, by obscuring the more fundamental causes of poverty and inequality, which have less to do with “corruption” as such than with the distribution of wealth in Romanian society.

It was inevitable that the recent situation in Romania would lead to a steady but clear shift in consciousness, if not yet for socialism, then definitely increasingly against capitalism. This shift was reflected in the mass protests of 2012 and 2013 against neoliberal measures and corporate projects, although not articulated along clear political lines, mainly due to the absence of a genuine Left, socialist political alternative. Moreover, following the regional trend illustrated by the birth of the likes of the United Left in Slovenia, Razem in Poland or the Left Party in Hungary, a new left formation was created this summer in Romania. It is called Demos, a name which stands not only for the Ancient Greek term for ‘people’ but also for democracy and solidarity. However, the Demos leadership (in the process of gaining party status) does not aim to challenge capitalism, but merely to try and ‘humanise’ it by building a modern version of Keynesian social democracy (which is a product of a specific historical context that has little in common to the current systemic crisis of global capitalism).

Given this vacuum to the left of the SDP and the prospects of ever worsening living conditions under the new SDP government, there will be – against the background of the wider disillusionment with capitalism – more potential than ever since 1989 for building a socialist alternative. That is why in May this year, with the support of the CWI, a new socialist and anti-capitalist group was formed in Romania. We are called Mâna de Lucru (‘work/labour power’ in English or ‘mano de obra’ in Spanish). We fight, among other things, for the immediate increase in the minimum wage, the building of social housing, the fundamental revision of the labour law and the renationalisation, under democratic control, of the key sectors of the economy including the banks. We openly reject both capitalism and old Stalinist regimes, and make the case for the creation of a new left mass party that would fight for a genuinely democratic and socialist society. At the present time we have members in three major cities, including the capital Bucharest, and we are confident that, with the help of the CWI, Mâna de Lucru can play a key role in building that party, the first of its kind in Romania in decades

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December 2016