Populism and corruption – an update to the Rough Guide to Romania

There are two kinds of populism stalking the earth at the moment, both equally nasty (though the Trump version is far more dangerous), although they both depend on an ill-informed electorate. The traditional kind involves a corrupt pyramid of patronage, in which a mayor doles out contracts for vote-winning public works to contractors who pay him a generous backhander, and he pays off the guy above him who brings out the votes for him, and so on right to the top. In Romania this is how it’s been most of the time since the end of communism, with the former ruling party transformed into the party of patronage and power. When the latest edition of the Rough Guide to Romania went to print last year (mid-2016), the situation was that there had been massive public protests after a nightclub fire on 30 October 2015 that killed 63 due to corruption in the Bucharest fire inspection service; the prime minister stood down and was replaced by a technocrat. But by the time a general election came around in December 2016 this had changed to apathy and an absurdly low turn-out, which allowed the same old gang of crooks to turn out the vote in their rural strongholds and get back in to power. The PSD used the traditional populist promises: tax cuts for pensioners, a higher minimum wage, and free public transport; but they’ve also been emboldened by the successes of populist parties and movements elsewhere.

Almost at once the new government announced that it would decriminalize corruption (yes, you read that right, essentially), supposedly to reduce prison overcrowding but in fact because so many of its politicians are being dragged through the courts by the commendably dogged DNA or Anti-Corruption Agency. Cue more outrage and mass demonstrations (at least 150,000 in Bucharest, and as many again across the nation), and tut-tutting from the European Union and the like. As we pointed out in the Rough Guide, Romania’s justice system never met the standards for accession to the EU, and it is the EU taxpayer who has paid the price, with billions of euros plundered from EU funds. Thankfully, the president is on the right side and is taking a stand, and even the Orthodox church, usually a slavish follower of power, has come out against the government.

On 30 January 2017 the government swore that it would not force through the mass pardon it was giving itself, then the next day it did just that with an emergency government order (shades of Trumpism there), then after more massive street protests, withdrew it on 4 February. The government won a vote of confidence in parliament and tabled a parliamentary bill along the same lines as the emergency order. One of the strange things about the December 2016 general election was that the former opposition parties largely vanished and the third largest party (after the PSD and PNL, forming the ruling coalition) is now the Save Romania Union (Uniunea Salvați România), formed only in 2016 following the success of the Save Bucharest Union in local elections. It now has 30 seats in the Chamber of Deputies and 13 in the Senate; it seems promising but is still far too small and inexperienced to stop the government coalition from doing what it wants. The effective opposition comes from President Johannis, who told parliament that he respected the election results, but that now the government has to govern in the national interest; parliament did pass his proposal for a referendum (with a question to be decided by him), so now we’ll see what happens next. The corrupt politicians have far too much to lose, so no-one imagines they’re just giving up. And they genuinely can’t understand that there’s another way to do politics.

That other form of populism? That’s what happens when people who’ve been told that they’re growing up in a developed country and that they are ‘educated’ actually believe that and start to think that they can read rags like the Sun and the Daily Mail and alt.right sources like Breitbart and that this counts as news – and of course again they’re being lied to and believe the liars and elect the liars.

Argentina always used to favour the Romanian model of populist corruption – they voted for pieces of shit and got the government they deserved, alas, but the mantra was always ‘yes, but he’s my piece of shit’. Whereas of course the voters were being conned. Now, with Mauricio Macri as president there’s a chance they can turn it round – which would be nice, as I enjoy visiting, and writing about, Chile and Uruguay (I’ll post something about Uruguay in a few months, when the new edition of the Bradt Guide is published).

And I haven’t even mentioned Putin! Or Brexit. Or Viktor Orbán across the border in Hungary. But I can say that all this global nonsense makes the dirigiste style of government of Singapore (where I was a month ago) and Taiwan (where I’m writing this) seem far more attractive than it would have done a year ago.

No photos of beautiful Romanian mountains, sorry, it’s not that kind of post. Oh ok then, here’s one showing how they teach people to be nice in Singapore.