Romania after Iliescu: Prospects for Democratic Consolidation
November 19, 2004
Staff-prepared summary of the EES Seminar with Aurelian Craiutu, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Indiana University; Mircea Mihaies, Professor of English and American Literature, University of Timisoara and Editor in Chief of Orizont Magazine; and Vladimir Tismaneanu, Professor of Political Science, University of Maryland-College Park

With presidential elections scheduled for November 28, 2004, the inability of incumbent Ion Iliescu to run for a third term and a clear promise of EU enlargement in the near future, Romania seems poised to embark on a new chapter in its transition. In anticipation of this impending change, EES invited three prominent scholars to discuss the current situation in the country and where it should go from here.

Aurelian Craiutu asserted that the country's difficulty in transition to democracy and belated democratic consolidation was due to its mode of extrication from communism. The sudden collapse of the Ceausescu regime left the country with no established opposition group ready to take over power. The result was that the same unreformed communist-era elite became responsible for the democratic transition. The difference was they now had to compete in democratic elections to retain their positions of power. Throughout the 1990s, therefore, democracy in Romania manifested itself as radical contestation, in which parties had a winner-take-all mentality, causing them to overpoliticize every issue, to the detriment of democratic consolidation.

The post-2000 years reflected an attempt by the elite to remedy the system by de-emotionalizing politics. This was no doubt helped by the prospect of EU enlargement. Some positive developments were achieved during this period, most notably the constitutional amendments that gave greater scope for referral to the Constitutional Court and expanded property rights. Certain concerns remain, however, particularly the snail's pace of judicial reform, the ability of the president to invoke emergency powers almost unchecked and a highly corrupt governing elite.

Mircea Mihaies echoed these concerns, asserting that the root problem in Romania is that only the financially powerful hold political office. Corrupt officials have certainly fared better over the last four years, but the reforms and economic growth have not improved the situation of the general population. For most Romanians, the high tax rate does not promote entrepreneurship, leaving people highly dependent on the government. With no hope in the future of the country, people are leaving Romania at a very high rate.

In addition to corruption, Mihaies lamented the fact that Romanian politics is marked by a lack of vision of the public good. The highly competitive political sphere has brought back nationalist and populist tendencies, as well as attempts to curtail the media reminiscent of the Ceausescu regime. Mihaies asserted that the EU remains Romania's only chance to succeed, adding that the country has always done better under outside pressure.

Vladimir Tismaneanu agreed with the other panelists that the Romanian transition from communism can hardly be called a revolution. It was simply a reshuffle of the political elite. Nationalism has retreated from the political scene, as have other strong ideologies. This ideological vacuum means that populism is still a factor, given the country's paternalistic style of governance and highly-competitive party politics. Moreover, he sees the renaissance of the Romanian secret police to be very dangerous, particularly since the scandals that it creates distract from important policy debates.

Nevertheless, Tismaneanu asserted that Romania had indeed gone through a democratic transition and that it can be called a democracy. He urged comparisons with other European countries, such as Italy, which also have some deficiencies but must still be classified as democracies. Thus, the country is a democracy, "Romanian style." Moreover, it is part of NATO and will soon be an EU member state, which clearly locks it in course. Thus, the good news according to Tismaneanu is that the age of irresponsible governance is over in Romania.