Winning big: What was the secret to success for Romania’s centre left?
Having the confidence to appeal beyond the party's core vote helped propel the Romanian Social Democrats in this month’s parliamentary elections
With 45.5% of the vote and only 13 seats short of the majority under a proportional electoral system, the victory of the Romanian Social Democrats (PSD) in the parliamentary elections held earlier this month could be seen as a European oddity. At a time when centre-left parties are struggling in the United Kingdom, France and Germany, and are threatened with becoming an irrelevance in Hungary and Greece, has the PSD found a magical electoral formula, or is it the beneficiary of the whims of the electorate?
The short answer is ‘both’. So, what lessons should those on the centre left take from Romania 2016 parliamentary elections?
First off, it’s that Blairism is alive and well in Eastern Europe. The PSD bet not only on increased investment in public services and in key sectors such as education and healthcare, but also sought to attract middle-class voters and SME owners with generous tax cuts. The ideological upgrade, and the economic triangulation, came in the form of tame economic ‘patriotism’, with proposals of setting up a national sovereign fund and favouring local businesses and products. Whether the new executive will follow the region's trend of becoming more nationalistic or design a path of its own remains to be seen. Looking at previous Romanian elections, normally rhetoric does not automatically translate to policy once in government.
Second, when your political foes lack strategy, this should be seen as an opportunity to execute your own to the last detail. The rightwing opposition, made up of President Klaus Iohannis's PNL plus the USR, a new party coalesced around supporting the incumbent technocratic prime minister Dacian Cioloș for a full term. Attacking the PSD as a corrupt and unreformed party, they tried to emphasise the common sense and competence of Eurocrat Ciolos, the former EU agriculture commissioner. Unfortunately for them, that was their only visible piece of strategy. It proved insufficient to drive the Romanian electorate – and particularly young people – to turn in large numbers for them at the voting booth. Instead, the centre left focused on its economic narrative and stuck to an apparently dull but efficient message for different socio-demographic groups. No potential prime minister was designated on the social democratic flank, so the official standard bearer was Liviu Dragnea, the PSD president. This strategy avoided a clear choice between two proposals for prime minister, thus allowing personal negative campaigning targeting Ciolos, who seemed only seemed fully committed to the electoral campaign at the last minute.
Third, it is noteworthy that the PSD took advantage of the lack of political acumen of the technocratic government. On the one hand, the centre left – an economically progressive party with obvious socially conservative ideas – offered comfort to those who are afraid of dramatic and sudden changes. On the other hand, by showcasing inherent mistakes and by forcing the inexperienced government to say no to tax cuts and wage increases, the PSD succeeded in portraying the Ciolos executive as a gang of bureaucrats ‘manoeuvred from abroad’. Negative campaigning always works in Romanian, as in most places.
Forth, it’s clear that being anti-corruption is no longer the jolly joker of the right. Romanians still heavily support the anti-corruption fight, but the last years of scandals and high-level prosecutions have shown that no party is immune to the virus. USR, the anti-political establishment party, made progress mainly because of its “new faces”, not due to its rule-of-law message. It is no longer enough for those on the right to say the PSD is more corrupt, since even PNL's former co-president is standing trial.
Finally, we should beware of the limits of Facebook mobilisation. In 2014 it seemed to be a key tool in uniting the right, but this time the Facebook elite learned the hard way that when national emotion is missing, social media is no more than a bubble. The PSD opted for an offline strategy - for the ‘muddy’ door-to-door - while gaining important ground among the young and the well-educated who are disappointed with the performance of President Iohannis and his party.
Economic focus, a disciplined organisation, a mild Social Democratic message with a nationalist-branded-as-patriotic twist, and contrast with the uncoordinated right – these are some of the ingredients of the PSD success.
Costin Ciobanu and Radu Magdin are Romanian analysts and consultants and served as former advisers to PSD leaders