Mass demonstrations in Romania against the new government’s proposed rollback of anti-graft measures have thrown a spotlight on the political scene in Bucharest. As protests continue and the center-left government now walks back its plans to weaken corruption laws, the opposition is smelling blood and has taken to the streets. The New York Times sees the protests as a fundamental struggle between the forces of democracy and European illiberalism:
“We have this tradition in Romania of mass movements,” said Cristian Pirvulescu, the dean of the political science department at the National School of Political Studies and Public Administration in Bucharest. “And this was not just a movement against corruption. It’s a fight in defense of democracy.”
The wave of populist election victories in recent years, which has now reached as far as the White House, arguably had its start in Eastern Europe, where leaders like Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary advocated a new form of so-called illiberal democracy that rejected the liberal democracies of Western Europe in favor of a strong, centralized government that swept aside foreign interference and domestic dissent.
The populists came from both ends of the political spectrum — from the right in Hungary and Poland, from the left in Slovakia and the Czech Republic — but shared this vision.
“We are the last country in the region that has resisted this illiberal movement,” Mr. Pirvulescu said.
The Times’ frames the Romanian protests as an uprising of the decent, Westward-leaning masses against a corrupt and backwards ruling party. What this narrative fails to mention, of course, is the sweeping victory of that very same corrupt party just two short months ago. The Social Democratic Party (SDP) won December’s parliamentary elections with 46% of the vote, trouncing its nearest competitors by over 25 points. Moreover, it did so despite a tainted history of corruption, including two former prime ministers indicted on charges of graft, electoral fraud, tax evasion, and money laundering.
If corruption was a primary concern for Romanian voters, in other words, the Social Democrats would not be in power today. But they did indeed win, in what was largely judged to be a legitimate election, the results of which suggested to observers at the time that most voters were primarily motivated by pocketbook issues—corruption didn’t rank high in their preferences. The Social Democrats’ platform of left-wing economic populism—increased social spending combined with tax cuts—clearly resonated with many Romanians, helping the party turn out its older, poorer voting base, while many younger voters who oppose the party stayed home.
The Times, in contrast, frames the protests as a groundswell of broad-based opposition to an unpopular, and even somehow illegitimate, government. To be sure, the scale of the protests against the government is impressive, and the controversy might erode SDP’s support even in its rural strongholds. But there is little evidence to show this so far, and it is more likely that the protests are a manifestation of an urban-rural divide, a dynamic that has shaped politics around the world for centuries.
This is not to say that the new government should be given a free pass on corruption, nor that the protesters are wrong to exercise their rights to civil disobedience. But in eliminating crucial context—casting the anti-corruption crusaders as the sole defenders of democracy in Romania, and failing to explain the appeal of populists like the Social Democrats—outlets like the Times impede a deeper understanding of what is going on.