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Politics in Romania - Early Developments

After the collapse of communism in the rest of Eastern Europe in the late summer and fall of 1989, a mid-December protest in Timisoara against the forced relocation of an ethnic Hungarian pastor grew into a country-wide protest against the Ceausescu regime, sweeping the dictator from power. Ceausescu and his wife were executed on December 25, 1989, after a cursory military trial. About 1,500 people were killed in confused street fighting. An impromptu governing coalition, the National Salvation Front (FSN), installed itself and proclaimed the restoration of democracy and freedom. The Communist Party was dissolved and its assets transferred to the state. Ceausescu's most unpopular measures, such as bans on private commercial entities and independent political activity, were repealed.

Over 200 new political parties sprang up after 1989, gravitating around personalities rather than programs. Typical of Romania was the refoundation, shortly after the collapse of the Ceausescu regime, of the two historical parties which had dominated the interwar political life - the National Peasant Party and the National Liberal Party - which were outlawed by the communist regime in 1947, as well as the establishment of a party according to ethnic criteria: the Democratic Union of Ethnic Hungarians in Romania (UDMR). All major parties espoused democracy and market reforms, but the governing National Salvation Front proposed slower, more cautious economic reforms. In contrast, the opposition's main parties, the National Liberal Party (PNL), and the National Peasant-Christian Democrat Party (PNTCD) favored quick, sweeping reforms, immediate privatization, and reducing the role of the ex-communist elite.

Ion Iliescu, a former Communist Party official demoted by Ceausescu in the 1970s, emerged as the leader of the NSF. Presidential and parliamentary elections were held on May 20, 1990. Running against representatives of the pre-war National Peasants' Party and National Liberal Party, Iliescu won 85% of the vote. The NSF captured two-thirds of the seats in Parliament, and named a university professor, Petre Roman, as Prime Minister. The new government began cautious free market reforms such as opening the economy to consumer imports and establishing the independence of the National Bank. Romania has made great progress in institutionalizing democratic principles, civil liberties, and respect for human rights since the revolution. Nevertheless, the legacy of 44 years of communist rule cannot quickly be eliminated. Membership in the Romanian Communist Party was usually the prerequisite for higher education, foreign travel, or a good job, while the extensive internal security apparatus subverted normal social and political relations. To the few active dissidents, who suffered gravely under Ceausescu and his predecessors, many of those who came forward as politicians after the revolution seemed tainted by association with the previous regime.

Unhappy at the continued political and economic influence of members of the Ceausescu-era elite, anti-communist protesters camped in University Square in April 1990. When miners from the Jiu Valley descended on Bucharest two months later and brutally dispersed the remaining "hooligans," President Iliescu expressed public thanks, thus convincing many that the government had sponsored the miners' actions. The miners also attacked the headquarters and houses of opposition leaders. The Roman government fell in late September 1991, when the miners returned to Bucharest to demand higher salaries and better living conditions. Theodor Stolojan was appointed to head an interim government until new elections could be held.

Parliament drafted a new democratic constitution, approved by popular referendum in December 1991. The FSN split into two groups, led by Ion Iliescu (FDSN) and Petre Roman (FSN) in March 1992; Roman's party subsequently adopted the name Democratic Party (PD). National elections in September 1992 returned President Iliescu by a clear majority, and gave his party, the FDSN, a plurality. With parliamentary support from the nationalist PUNR and PRM parties, and the ex-communist PSM party, a technocratic government was formed in November 1992 under Prime Minister Nicolae Vacaroiu, an economist. The FDSN became the Party of Social Democracy of Romania (PDSR) in July 1993. The Vacaroiu government ruled in coalition with three smaller parties, all of which abandoned the coalition by the time of the November 1996 elections.

At the National Convention of FSN, of March 27-29, 1992, the party split up into the Democratic Party - FSN and the Party of Social Democracy of Romania (PDSR). Following the parliamentary elections of September 27, 1992, 13 political parties shared among themselves the seats in the two chamber Parlament. The Party of Social Democracy of Romania - the leading political party in Parliament - formed the government with the support of left-wing parties: the Romanians' National Unity Party (PUNR), the Greater Romania Party (PRM), and the Socialist Labour Party (PSM). The opposition was represented by the Romanian Democratic Convention (CDR) - an anticommunist election alliance consisting of several political parties and civic organizations, headed by the Christian Democratic National Peasant Party (PNTCD) and the National Liberal Party (PNL) - the Democratic Party-National Salvation Front (PD-FSN) and the Democratic Union of Ethnic Hungarians in Romania (UDMR).

The 1992 elections revealed a continuing political cleavage between major urban centers and the countryside. Rural voters, who were grateful for the restoration of most agricultural land to farmers but fearful of change, strongly favored President Ion Iliescu and the FDSN, while the urban electorate favored the CDR (a coalition made up by several parties -- among which the PNTCD and the PNL were the strongest -- and civic organizations) and quicker reform. Iliescu easily won re-election over a field of five other candidates. The FDSN won a plurality in both chambers of Parliament. With the CDR, the second-largest parliamentary group, reluctant to take part in a national unity coalition, the FDSN (now PDSR) formed a government under Prime Minister Nicolae Vacaroiu, with parliamentary support from the PUNR, PRM, and PSM. PRM and PSM left the government in October and December 1995, respectively.

Romania's successful application to and subsequent membership in the European Union (E.U.) encouraged all the main political players to accept shared democratic standards. In 1993, the Copenhagen European Council stipulated that candidate nations for E.U. membership must have achieved "stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights, and respect for and protection of minorities." Because an overwhelming majority of Romanians favored membership, a number of significant reforms followed. These reforms restrained significantly the ex-Communists' ability to bend the rules in their favor, and helped explain why they agreed to turn over power peacefully after their electoral defeat in 1996.

The 1996 local elections demonstrated a major shift in the political orientation of the Romanian electorate. Opposition parties swept Bucharest and many of the larger cities. This trend continued in the national elections that same year, where the opposition dominated the cities and made steep inroads into rural areas theretofore dominated by President Iliescu and the PDSR, which lost many voters in their traditional strongholds outside Transylvania. The campaign of the opposition hammered away on the twin themes of the need to squelch corruption and to launch economic reform. The message resonated with the electorate, which swept Emil Constantinescu and parties allied to him to power in free and fair presidential and parliamentary elections. The coalition government formed in December 1996 took the historic step of inviting the UDMR and its Hungarian ethnic backers into government.

The coalition government retained power for four years despite constant internal frictions and three prime ministers, the last being the Governor of the National Bank, Mugur Isarescu.

In elections in November 2000, the electorate punished the coalition parties for their corruption and failure to improve the standard of living. The PDSR (renamed PSD - Social Democratic Party at June 16, 2001 Congress) came back into power, albeit as a minority government. In the concurrent presidential elections, former President Ion Iliescu decisively defeated the extreme nationalist Greater Romania Party (PRM) leader Corneliu Vadim Tudor.

After ten years of democracy, small parties lost relevancy at parliamentary level and five main parliamentary forces gained shape.

One revealing comparison is between the electoral dynamics of Moldova and Romania. The comparison is justified by their shared culture and history, as well as by their comparable levels of socio-economic development at the outset of the post-communist transition. Moreover, the two countries had (at least superficially) comparable trajectories, with the early 1990s dominated by reformed ex-Communists, who were eventually defeated by broad center-right coalitions, first in Romania (1996) and later n Moldova (1998). While these defeats marked important milestones in each nation's democratic development, the euphoria was short-lived as the center-right coalitions were undermined by deep economic crises and political infighting. Each suffered a crushing defeat in 2000-01.

However, this is where the parallels end. In Romania, a reformed ex-Communist Party continued economic and political reforms, made significant progress towards European integration, and achieved European Union membership. Moldova became the first European country to return unreformed Communists to power through democratic elections. While the Moldovan Communists moderated their initially shrill anti-market and anti-imperialist rhetoric, their eight years in power nevertheless marked a significant erosion of democratic freedoms. By contrast, the influence of international expectations and the demands of domestic civil society groups significantly contributed to Romania's more rapid progress in transitioning beyond elections into post-election good governance.

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