Parties, Poles, Alliances and Romanian Pluralism, 1990-2000

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Parties, Poles, Alliances and Romanian Pluralism, 1990-2000

Maxmilián Strmiska
The genesis of the Romanian party arrangement represents a specific chapter in the evolution of post-communist party systems in Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans. The formation of the Romanian multipartism was influenced by specific, ambivalent features of the Romanian democratisation process in the early 1990s, such as the way Ceauşescu’s regime was overthrown, the form of post-revolutionary stabilisation and reproduction of post-Ceauşescu establishment, relative continuity of the bureaucratic apparatus, the eruption of manipulated mass violence, extensive occurrence of adversarial behaviour in the strife for power and in the profiling of the principal political options, etc. There is no wonder that in evaluating the post-revolutionary political developments the phenomenon of the Romanian exceptionalism was often underscored (cf. Tismaneanu 1997) and that, in this context, some researchers pointed out the elements of ”latinoamericanisation” of the Romanian political life (cf. Gallagher 1995; Ágh 1998a). However, the ”latinoamericanisation” thesis seems somewhat exaggerated and should not be heuristically used to justify excluding the ”Romanian issue” from the mainstream of European post-communist phenomena. Rather than suppressing the ”latinoamericanisation” thesis, the objective is to look at the different aspects of this phenomenon in a relevant context. This also applies to the study of the formation of the Romanian multi-party arrangement. A brief study like this cannot cover the issue to the whole extent. It is rather an inquiry into critical moments of the Romanian party pluralism and polarity evolution, moments which are important for its typology and for comparison with other post-communist party arrangements.
It is not necessary or useful to try and give a comprehensive description and evaluation of the evolution of the Romanian party and political scene in the early 1990s. Such more or less eloquent evaluations have already been made, anyway (cf. Tismaneanu 1997; Ágh 1998a; Mihut 1994; Szajkowski and Bing 1994). The only ambition of this short study is to refer briefly to some of the moments which influenced further development of the Romanian multipartism. The specific character of the Romanian post-communist transformation and democratisation has been mentioned above. Nevertheless, it should be taken into account that not all the above specific features were a long-term influence on the structuring of the Romanian party arrangement. This applies – in the first place but not exclusively – to the phenomenon of the temporarily dominating position of the National Salvation Front (FSN) at the beginning of the 1990s. This was undoubtedly a conspicuous and, in a way, typical aspect of the Romanian ”transition to democracy” whose impact was, in my opinion, far less crucial than it had been expected (cf. Tismaneanu 1997; Ágh 1998a; Mihut 1994; Szajkowski and Bing 1994). This aspect requires some attention, at least in two respects. First, the impact of the temporary predominance of FSN could have been huge or directly determining had the ”Mexican” model won in Romania (the model of a predominant, or hegemonic party), promoted by an influential sector of FSN including Iliescu himself, or, in other words, had the Latin American variant of semi-pluralist predominant party system with a limited party competition been established in Romania, and had the whole Romanian political community been ”adjusted” for the model to function and reproduce on a long-term basis. However, this was not the case, due to a strong opposition to the establishment of such model, consisting in a combination of endogenous and exogenous factors. The failure of the ”Mexican model” as a convincing and realistic alternative to the formation of Romanian party and political pluralism had far reaching consequences. Even though the democratisation process in Romania preserved some of its specific traits which in the context of a liberal democratic system making played the role of undesirable obstacles, the horizon of democratisation became clearer, which eventually reflected in the prevailing development trends of the Romanian party arrangement. The Romanian ”specifics” were still there, yet their significance changed with the changing context. Second, in spite of the changing context, nor the National Salvation Front (FSN), nor its actual major successor and heir born from FSN schism (the Democratic National Salvation Front, FDSN ant its successor, the Party of Social Democracy in Romania, PDSR), were deprived of all the advantages resulting from the privileged initial predominant position of FSN, even though they could enjoy the advantages at a much lesser scale than before. This was apparent in the case of FDSN (PDSR) which was bound to adjust – even though with growing success – to political trends without being in the position of controlling or dictating the nature and dynamism of such trends.
As a result, the overall formative impact of temporary dominance of FSN should not be overestimated. Nevertheless, it is worth assessing the link between this phenomenon and the impact of elements of adversarial behaviour and inchoateness of Romanian party pluralism in formation. There is nothing surprising in the fact that interaction of political parties in early post-communist political arrangements was imbued with conflicts and adversarial behaviour (cf. Mair 1997). Generally speaking, adversarial behaviour initially made the profiling of the principal electoral and political options easier and apparently exercised influence on the early structuring of post-communist party and political arrangements. The above adversarial behaviour was mainly, but not exclusively, linked with the old versus new regime cleavage, and contradictions and conflicts thereof. In this sense, we can speak of a universal phenomenon in the post-communist contexts. The problem is, however, that its medium term consequences for the structuring of post-communist party systems were not as universal as that. While in some cases the initial differentiation (inevitably of a somewhat ”primitive” kind) of parties and/or alliances was soon subject to dramatic change resulting in new realignments – a fact which eventually influenced the profiling of the main poles of emerging party arrangements, in other cases the post-revolutionary adversarial attitudes and the related stereotypes continued to play an important, if not crucial, role in the profiling of the principal party and political poles, thus restricting the impact of other factors, more favourable to a more sophisticated political differentiation, and therefore also more sophisticated political party competition and co-operation patterns. As a consequence, the inchoate and ”primitive” character of post-communist party arrangements was perpetuated. Romania formed part of the latter group. This conclusion applies especially – but not exclusively – to the period of the evolution of the Romanian multipartism in the first half of the 1990s. This fact can also be seen in the way the party arrangements in question were differentiated and structured.
Describing the evolution of Romanian multipartism in the first half of the 1990s – preferring differentiation according to doctrines and self-identification of parties – Annellie Ute Gabanyi identified six ”points of crystallisation” or ”focuses,” i.e. social democratic parties (PDSR, DP, PSDR, PS), liberal parties (PNL, PL 93, PAC and other liberal groupings), Christian-democratic parties (PNŢCD), social-nationalist parties (PUNR, PRM, PSM), ethnic parties (UDMR, FDGR) and environmentalist parties (PER, MER) (Gabanyi 1997: 192-193). Later Gabanyi added distinction between ”bureaucratic” and ”non-bureaucratic” parties according to their relationship, or continuity of their links with the ”old regime” apparatus (Gabanyi 1997: 194-196). This was not a genuine symmetric differentiation based on two axis (ideological orientation and links with the apparatus of the ancient regime), as the distinction between the ”bureaucratic” and ”non-bureaucratic” parties in fact only applied to the social-democratic and, to a lesser extent, social-nationalist parties. Another moment complicating the evaluation of the pluralist character of the Romanian multipartism or the distribution of the different formation among specific party camps was the apparent heterogeneous nature of thus defined groups of political parties. This heterogeneous nature was both linked with political representation of the different party camps and the constituency base. Some dividing lines crossed individual political representations and the respective electorate sectors. This was not by far the only problem. The conceptions of the different camps (especially the social-democratic and social-nationalist) were in contradiction. First of all the ”crystallisation points” of Romanian pluralism defined this way were of little help in the effort to identify and characterise the actual operational units of the party arrangement, especially from the point of view of the sources of political legitimacy and mobilisation used by the individual operational units (eventually the whole party camps).
From the heuristic point of view, there was much more to Vladimir Tismaneanu’s attempt at describing the Romanian post-communist party and political spectrum. Tismaneanu’s approach differs from that of Gabanyi. Apart from considering the ideological orientation and self-identification of parties, he also included their placing in the political space. He ran the risk of applying the concepts of ”the left,” the ”right,” and the ”centre,” even though he admitted that the ”left” and the ”right” need not mean in the Romanian contexts an adequate and fully understandable categories and that the description of the actual spectrum must include the fast changes, the ambiguous character and the volatility of political and ideological denominations and affiliations in the ”transition period” (Tismaneanu 1997: 433). In spite of all these objections, Tismaneanu believed that three ideological ”orientations” and the corresponding party and political arrangements could be placed on the ”left”: traditional communists (PSM, PS), national populists (PUNR, PRM, PDAR, the nationalist wing of UDMR), and socialist populists (PDSR). The Romanian centre (left centre) has been represented by the Democratic Party (PD), the right-centre parties by PAC, PNL, PL’93 and the liberal wing of UDMR. The Romanian right was represented in his schematic by Christian Democrats (i.e. PNŢCD), AC and different right wing anti-communist groups within CDR, including the movement of former political prisoners and monarchist groupings. Tismaneanu considered as extreme right radical nationalists and religious fundamentalists, e.g. MPR, PDN and other chauvinist groups and movements (cf. Tismaneanu 1997: Table 10.6).
Using Tismaneanu’s classification, we can point out several major problems in the differentiation of Romanian parties according to their ideological orientation, historical traditions or legacies, and their placing in the ideological and political space.
As for the Romanian left, its principal representatives are the Party of Social Democracy in Romania (PDSR) and the Socialist Party of Labour (PSM). PSM could be called a neo-socialist party.1 PDSR is difficult to draw a clear characteristic, at leas for two reasons: first, it is the heterogeneous nature of this party, second, it is the somewhat contradictory link between this party and sources of political legitimacy and mobilisation it uses on the one hand, and the social-democratic identity it claims on the other. Speaking of PDSR, Tismaneanu underscored the ”Romanian Peronism” phenomenon able to draw advantage upon a somewhat defocused and unclear identity (cf. Tismaneanu 1997). A thorough explanation of such a complex issue as the identity of PDSR would require a detailed analysis exceeding the scope of this paper. Let us therefore only pinpoint the fact that in spite of systematic effort and manoeuvring until summer 2000 (when PDSR became an ally of PSDR within the ”social-democratic pole”) both FDSN and later PDSR failed to achieve effective monopolisation of social-democratic identity, which had a negative impact on its ”democratic” legitimacy as one of the two main poles of the Romanian party landscape. The weaker the social-democratic identity of PDSR, the more difficult it was for it to fight the suspicion that it is a non-reformed and somehow shapeless post-communist ”mammoth party,” thus being created more and more space for populist trends within the party, fostering different social and national elements of conflict and making wide use of the ”picture of enemy” (cf. Ionescu 1993). In this respect the denomination of PDSR as a socialist-populist formation was basically right, as long as the late 1990s. The conspicuous role of populist elements also pointed to a certain amount of familiarity between PDSR and nationalist-populist parties like the Romanian National Unity Party (PUNR) and the Greater Romania Party (PRM). The question is, however, how the ambivalent relationship between PDSR, PUNR and PRM should be defined and explained, and there is yet the question of whether or not PRM and PUNR have been leftist parties, or at least formations bearing some resemblance with leftist parties. Certain compatibility between these and PDSR, related with some boom and structural factors did exist, as can be seen in their co-operation (even though full of difficulty and only temporary) and support to the governmental PDSR (FDSN) in the period between 1992 and 1996, which also applied to PSM and to the Democratic Agrarian Party of Romania (PDAR). This constellation was referred to as ”the red quadrangle” (PDSR – PUNR – PRM – PSM), or the ”red Pentagon” (the above four parties plus PDAR), or even as a specific ”red-brown” alliance (cf. Ishiyama 1998; Szajkowski and Bing 1994; Ágh 1998a). In this context, we should rather consider the above formation as a groupings of populist parties whose values and ideology focused, to a larger or smaller extent, on the line of continuity or even ”radical continuity” with Ceauşescu’s national-communist patrimonial regime (cf. Szajkowski and Bing 1994; Shafir 1999; Shafir 2000).2 It is difficult to say whether PUNR and PRM could be at any stage of their existence called leftist. Left or right elements were not so important in their profiling.3 It would be safer to avoid simplifying generalisation and admit that the left sector of the political spectrum in the specific Romanian context was occupied by populist parties which, in the given conditions, may be viewed as kind of genuine left’s substitute. Leaving apart the neo-socialist stream, apart from neo-populist and neo-socialist orientation, PDSR (or at least moderate factions operating within this party) became receptive to some social-liberal trends in its inner evolution, especially in the late 1990s. An example of this was a temporary expansion of influence of the new social-democratic oriented party, the Alliance for Romania (ApR), whose core was formed by reformist groups which split from PDSR. It is in this context that the chances for a credible and effective ”social-democratisation” of PDSR should be assessed.
Compared with PDSR, the Romanian right wing, and by definition, anti-communist parties had far less trouble in profiling their ideological patterns and sources of political legitimacy, even though this did not solve their initial difficulty in an effective integration of their patterns and sources of ideological and political legitimacy with an adequate electoral potential. Two moments were of critical importance in this context: the fact that the leading role in the anticommunist right wing sector or Romanian politics was grasped by the ”historical” parties, especially the National Liberal Party (PNL) and the National Peasant Party (PNŢ; soon after transformed in, or rather renamed to Christian Democratic National Peasant Party, PNŢCD), while the new ”civic” parties and movements failed to assert themselves as the main political actors, and the fact that several strategic and tactical errors of liberals and their subsequent diaspora allowed for a relatively painless hegemonisation of the Romanian right wing and the respective roof alliance (the Democratic Convention of Romania, CDR) by PNŢCD (including a significant part of the right centrist parties). Even though the Christian Democratic National Peasant Party (PNŢCD) is usually characterised as a Christian-democratic formation (cf. Tismaneanu 1997; Gabanyi 1997), this denomination can really be used just in the ”weak sense” (cf. Ionita 1997). However, this had no actual impact, especially because PNŢCD – unlike its main rival, PDSR – was not (or had not been until the late 1990s) forced to take part in any exhausting and long lasting competition for its identity and the related sources of political legitimacy with any strong external rival. Similarly to PDSR, also this Romanian political formation is a heterogeneous formation oscillating between a moderate conservative, but reformist and pro-European party, and a traditionalist conservative ”patriotic” party with a strong linkage to monarchist legacies and political patterns from the inter-war period. Other genuine right wing formations, both inside and outside CDR, were marginalized to the position of satellites of PNŢCD, even though in the course of time the trends to establish an independent alternative to the right wing pole of CDR grew stronger (cf. Cartarescu Ilinca 1998).4
As for the Romanian extreme right wing parties, this sector remained in the background, without giving rise to any relevant party so far.5 Several explanatory notes should be added here. The above statement can be applied only to extreme right as it has been defined in this article. The same applies to extreme right parties of the ”radical return” embodied by the Movement for Romania (MpR) or the Party of National Right (PDN), but not to populist parties of the ”radical continuity,” such as PRM or PUNR which nevertheless share some important traits with extreme right, especially xenophobia (cf. Szajkowski and Bing 1994; Shafir 2001; Shafir 2000; Shafir 1999) In this context, a key role is played by the concept of ”radical return,” pointing to the profiling and key importance of the linkage with authoritarian or totalitarian heritage and patterns dating from Romanian history between the wars. The problem of tracing a clear limit between the right and the ultra-nationalist, fascist-like extreme right in the Romanian context resides in the fact that certain manifestations of trends towards ”radical return” could be recorded also in the proper PNŢCD, as well as in certain circles of CDR, especially within the monarchist factions of PNŢCD and groups of CDR which are far from being classified centrist or moderate liberal conservatives and whose adherence to democratic principles and values is somewhat dubious.6 On the other hand, this circumstance (together with the constitutional ban on fascist party foundation and activities) is most likely to have prevented extreme right from monopolisation and political valorisation of its rich inter-war period heritage. The expansion of extreme right parties was indirectly prevented also by the presence of populist parties of the ”radical continuity,” at least in the sense of restricting their capacity to accumulate protest votes.
What has been said about Romanian left and right wing parties allows for characterising the party and political ”centre” as a domain of moderate centrists. However, the Romanian centre equally lacks ideological and political homogeneity. It is necessary to distinguish between the left and the right centre whose curricula are quite different. The left centre was formed by the Democratic Party (PD; the former National Salvation Front-Democratic Party, FSN-PD) together with the ”historical” Romanian Social Democratic Party (PSDR) and eventually other social-democratic parties (especially the Alliance for Romania, ApR).7 However, the end of alliance (called the Social Democratic Union, USD) of PD and PSDR in 1999, and the inclination of PSDR towards PDSR before the 2000 elections created favourable conditions for a major re-alignment and a change in the profile of the Romanian left centre.
The Romanian right centre was formed by diverse social-liberal or civic-neoliberal (but not conservative) groupings, originating from the National Liberal Party (PNL) diaspora and/or from the centrist circles of CDR (PL’93, PAC etc.). However, the greater part of the above groups was in the late 1990s reabsorbed by PNL, which thus strengthened its position inside – and eventually also outside – CDR as opposed to PNŢCD. After local and parliamentary elections in 2000, the National Liberal Party strengthened its position of an independent minor pole within the Romanian party arrangement.
As for the Democratic Union of Hungarians in Romania (UDMR in Romanian or RMDSZ in Hungarian), its position in the Romanian party arrangement can be characterised as ”eccentric.” Also the ideological orientation of UDMR is dubious. One of the reasons is its apparent internal heterogeneity. It is not a coincidence that Tismaneanu in his schematic placed the radical nationalist wing of UDMR in a different position that its moderate liberal stream. Inner heterogeneity of political parties manifested in the occurrence of different factions is nothing exceptional in the Romanian context. The fact that UDMR included parties with different ideological orientation and historical traditions is therefore of little significance. What does matter is the ethnic-regional character of UDMR which is of critical relevance in the definition of its position in the Romanian party and political arrangement and which makes it a different sort of actor in the given cultural and political framework. Hence the little importance of attempts at its exact localisation in the political spectrum; the existence of UDMR is simply an expression of the ”compounded” nature of the political space of post-communist Romania.8
The above brief outline is far from covering all issues of Romania political party differentiation based on their ideological orientation, and with regard to sources of political legitimacy and electoral mobilisation they used. However, it is sufficient to illustrate some of the important links between the above differentiation and the process of formation of party interaction patterns. We must naturally point out that parties and party alliances representing the different ideological and political orientations or party camps were far from being equal electoral and political options or equal operational units of the system. From this point of view, it is quite clear that the profiling of the two main poles of the Romanian party arrangement so far, represented by PDSR and - until 2000 – by CDR, or the ”core” of this alliance, PNŢCD, is an extremely interesting problem. In other words, the principal interest resides in the consequences of the profiling (the consequences of the specifics of the profiling process) in the context of the evolution and reproduction dynamism of the Romanian party system.
As far as PDSR is concerned, we must take into account its initial failure to effectively grasp or monopolise social-democratic identity. There was a direct link between this failure and the establishment of social-democratic and ”pro-Western” oriented Democratic Party (PD) as a minor, but centrally and strategically well positioned pole, which had a major impact on the functioning and reproduction of the whole party system.9 In the first place, the use of dualism of the main poles (PDSR and CDR, or PNŢCD) as the key element of Romanian party system was somewhat restricted.
By the spring of 2000, the Democratic Convention of Romania (and its core party, PNŢCD) was more successful in this respect than PDSR – at least in the sense of not allowing for establishing another independent right-wing pole.10 From the general point of view, also the ”compounded” character of CDR as an alliance-pole with a discernible leading party also seemed rather an advantage than a disadvantage. In any case, generalisation may be dangerous, as CDR went through an extremely dramatic evolution, its structure changes repeatedly depending on the changing relations between its different components and last, but not least, also on the changing ideas of the different parties – components of the alliance, as to what the future development of CDR should be (cf. Roper 1998; Roper 1994). Nevertheless, the experiment with anti-post-communist opposition with the Democratic Convention (CD) in local elections (in 1992) and the subsequent creation of CDR before parliamentary elections in 1992 represented an important step in the process of structuring of the Romanian party landscape.11 This step eventually proved to have a major impact on the change of polarity and mechanical predispositions of this party arrangement. However, political and electoral expansion was not trouble-free. Apart from obstacles connected with permanent friction between the components of CDR, there was also the potential danger that subsuming the different party and political identities in the framework defined by CDR had not fully eliminated the potential use of the different identities and the respective sources of legitimacy and mobilisation by actors independent from and external to CDR. Between 1997 and 1999, this danger increased as a result of escalation of internal conflicts and the subsequent splits of the different factions from PNŢCD (factions lead by Victor Ciorbea, Radu Vasile and Viorel Lis),12 as also due to the separation of some parties from CDR (which was the case – in the period before the departure of PNL - of PAR, then transformed into UFD). The ambitions of new parties using the sources of political legitimacy which had been ”in circulation” or trying to combine those with new elements represent a potentially destabilising element and is a proof of the continuing ”semi-structured character” and a certain vulnerability of the Romanian party and political pluralism.
The above mentioned vulnerability became quite apparent during the 2000 parliamentary and presidential elections. Prior to the elections, the Romanian party system was arranged around two major (PDSR and CDR) and some minor poles (especially PD; other actual or potential minor poles being represented by PRM, ApR, and PNL, while UMDR represented an additional ethnic and regional pole). The prevailing trends in the development of the Romanian party arrangement did not favour the reduction of the above multipolarity. The more or less unchanging structure of party identities and the respective dispositions of the different parties or alliances to play the role of major or minor poles corresponded to the above multipolar character. In spite of some attempts to characterise, in the case of Romania, the party arrangement as a two-party system (cf. Ionita 1997), such characteristic did not hold water. The existence of two major poles cannot be confused with a two-party system. Let us only remind the phenomenon of pre-electoral alliances and mainly the role of coalition governments in Romania, all of which were confirmations of multipartism. The weakening and the subsequent transformation of the Democratic Convention of Romania (CDR) into the Romanian Democratic Convention 2000 (CDR 2000) in summer 2000 changed nothing in this trend. Local elections in June 2000, and even more so public opinion and electoral preference of parties and/or poles pointed to significant shifts in the ratio of political power of individual Romanian parties. The prestige and electoral potential of the reduced CDR (CDR 2000) and its core, PNŢCD, suffered from the tendency of a large sector of Romanian electorate to ”voting against the incumbent party.” This tendency brought direct benefit to opposition parties, especially PDSR and later – quite surprisingly very extensively – also to PRM. The change in electoral preferences was not the only issue, though. Party options were reconfigured and the strategy of building pre-electoral alliances, reflecting also the increase in the barrier for entering the parliament from 3% to 5% (and to 10% for alliances) of votes, was changed.13 The formation to suffer most from electorate’s dissatisfaction was CDR 2000, an alliance built on the axis PNŢCD – UFD – ANCD – FER - PM,14 which was pushed to the extra-parliamentary sphere. This meant a complete destruction of one of the two major poles and subsequently a major change in the party polarity. The only major pole was PDSR (co-operating with two minor parties, PSDR and PUR within the so-called Social Democratic Pole alliance) which not only recorded an influx of protest votes, but also reinforced its sources of political legitimacy. The former governmental parties PD and PNL (this party operating yet before the summer local elections outside the framework of CDR) confirmed or won their positions of minor poles in both the local and parliamentary elections. The Alliance for Romania (ApR) failed to gain such position. A remarkably stable position of a minor ethnic pole was that of UDMR. However, the biggest surprise was the rise of the electoral potential of the Greater Romania Party (PRM) in the parliamentary and presidential elections. The medium and long term impact of the expansion of PRM in view of the evolution of the Romanian party arrangement is difficult to assess yet. In my opinion, the electoral success of PRM was a product of protest voting and did not bring any reconfirmation of the sources of PRM’s political legitimacy. The Greater Romania Party is certainly a minor pole with a significant blackmail potential, but has no potential to become a viable second major pole or to monopolise opposition to PDSR. The Romanian party landscape is after this last wave of re-alignment characterised by pentapolar configuration with one major (PDSR) and four minor poles (PRM, PD, PNL, UDMR), whose predispositions and systemic properties will only be defined in the course of time.
Table n. 1: Results of Romanian Parliamentary Elections of 2000

Votes (%) / Chamber of Deputies

Number of Mandates / Chamber of Deputies

Mandates (%) / Chamber of Deputies

Votes (%) / Senate

Number of Mandates / Senate

Mandates (%) / Senate




































CDR 2000





















* Including parliamentary representation of PSDR and PUR (allied with PDSR within the Social Democratic Pole).

** The mandates are those of ethnic minority formations.

Source: Elections for Chamber of Deputies, November 26, 2000; Elections for Senate, November 26, 2000 (, (

Table n. 2: Results of Romanian Parliamentary Elections of 1996

Votes (%) / Chamber of Deputies

Number of Mandates / Chamber of Deputies

Mandates (%) / Chamber of Deputies

Votes (%) / Senate

Number of Mandates / Senate

Mandates (%) / Senate


















































* The mandates are those of ethnic minority formations.

Source: Elections for Chamber of Deputies, November 03, 1996; Elections for Senate, November 03, 1996 (;


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