The far-right Alliance for the Unity of Romanians (AUR) was the big surprise of the recent Romanian parliamentary elections. Against a background of low turnout (32%) it obtained 9% of the vote. Only two months ago, during the recent local elections, it had only 1%.
The increase took pretty much all commentators by surprise. Some were infused with a sense of panic. Where did this party come from and where will it take Romanian politics, they wondered? Others took a more down-to-earth approach. Sociologist Claudiu Tufiș expressed on Facebook the hope that social scientists would now (finally!) make a folder called ‘AUR’ to study the new party [and perhaps provide insight on how its rise can be stopped]. That same hope inspired the title of this article.
In the following piece I have tried to put together what we already know about AUR. Some things I know personally, having looked into the history and activity of the party. Some came from others who share my interest. And, finally, some insight came from a debate hosted by Global Focus Center under Chatham House rules.
The good news is that we know quite a bit. The bad news is that it’s more complicated than first meets the eye.
The party seems to draw from two main ideological groups. One is made of radical unionists gathered around George Simion. The other group is formed by neo-fascists or, to put it more precisely, people who deny the crimes of the interwar far-right.
What does AUR seem to want?
The full name (The Alliance for the Unity of Romanians) itself references nationalist tones and alludes to the possibility of a future union between Romania and the Republic of Moldova. The acronym also means “gold”.
The party seems to draw from two main ideological groups. One is made of radical unionists gathered around George Simion. Mr Simion is a former ultra (radical football fan) and a staunch promoter of unconditional unification between Romania and the Republic of Moldova. For many years his name was associated with the all-present graffiti around the country that said “Bessarabia is Romania”. Bessarabia is the name of the historical region of which the present-day Republic of Moldova is the biggest part.
His unionist views were so strong and expressed so unwisely that many believed him to be an agent of Moscow sent to give moderate unionism and Romania a bad name. According to at least two sources, this is also an opinion shared at least by some in the Moldovan secret service. In fact, by Mr Simion’s own account, he was once interrogated in Moldova and banned from entering the country for a while.
Another group is formed by neo-fascists or, to put it more precisely, people who deny the crimes of the interwar far-right. They are gathered around Claudiu Târziu, who leads an association called “Rost” (transl. “meaning”) that promotes such ideas. The association runs a publishing house and a website with the same name. Mr Târziu was a leading figure of the Coalition for Family, which advocated changing the Romanian Constitution to prevent any possible legalisation of gay marriage. Rost is the only association known to have been retired from the Coalition due to public outcry.
It is important to know that, in Romania, far-right ideas have been getting traction mostly through the discourse of mainstream parties. Both the liberals and social-democrats, while mostly keeping to a pro-European discourse, have ultra-conservative and nationalist elements among their rank and file and who will frequently voice such convictions freely, and with impunity from the party. Proper far-right movements have been notoriously unable to get traction ever since the dissolution of the much more notorious Greater Romania Party, and used to be a subject of jokes rather than concern. This explains, to some extent, why AUR came as a surprise even though the groups that formed the party have been known for a long time.
Also, the party did not run on a maximalist platform but rather on a lower-key, patriotic, pro-family platform. They were staunchly opposed to anti-COVID restrictions and held a sit-in in front of the Government building for days.
Who voted for AUR?
According to exit polls, AUR voters skew younger and less educated than the average. They also tend to live either in rural Romania or in small towns (CURS data, details below).
The electoral map shows four main areas of AUR success. Moldova (East) and particularly Northern Moldova is a known hub for ultra-religious feeling. The constitutional referendum for the (heterosexual only!) family also drew support from here. Even in the urbanised county of Iasi, the AUR vote was significant, possibly due to recent conflict over holding a traditional pilgrimage during the pandemic.
The second area is Banat, in the West, where evangelical-inspired Protestant churches have long been proselytising and trying to promote their social agenda. Like Northern Moldova, the area provided support for the referendum ‘for the family’ and continues to be a hotspot for the pro-life movement. The religious agenda is not limited to the protestant churches but it has also spread to the local Orthodox and Greek Catholic clergy.
We can also see a spotty picture of AUR support throughout southern Transylvania (roughly at the centre of the map). There is no obvious explanation for this but it is worth remembering that Transylvania is the home and beacon of anti-Hungarian nationalism.
Dobrudja (South-East), long considered a model of multicultural integration due to Orthodox Romanians and Turkish/Tatar Muslims living together ever since Ottoman times, is the new addition to the radicalisation map. The region “hosted” a heated dispute between the local archbishop and the authorities, due to restrictions on religious activities during the pandemics. The dispute recently included a row about holding a pilgrimage to the “cave of Saint Andrew”, the purported founder of Christianity in Romania. The lawyer of the Archbishopric, Diana Şoşoacă, is a COVID-denialist who ran successfully on the AUR electoral lists.
AUR has also made great strides in the Diaspora, where it got roughly a quarter of the vote. Note that the Diaspora includes a significant number of Moldovans with dual citizenship, who live either in the Republic or in Western Europe (thanks to their Romanian passport).
How bad is it?
As AUR was entering Parliament, two other parties found themselves unable to reach the electoral threshold (the Popular Movement and Pro Romania). These parties, while nominally mainstream and, in fact, led by a former president and a former prime minister respectively, have courted nationalist and ultraconservative discourse on several occasions, hoping to compensate for the dwindling popularity of their leaders. Thus, in a sense, wannabe radicals were only replaced with truer ones!
Another result of their demise is that, in the current Parliament, it is close to impossible to build a governing majority without the parties that represent the ethnic minorities in Romania, and in particular the Hungarian minority. For obvious reasons, these minorities are expected to reject any government that would include the radical nationalists of AUR. The presence of minorities in the government could also moderate nationalist tendencies within the government parties.
We must keep in mind that this is not the first time when a brave new party, representing the younger and less educated population takes Parliament by storm.
The predecessor is PP-DD (People’s Party – Dan Diaconescu). It was created by… well, Dan Diaconescu; the charismatic owner of a tabloid TV-station and it represented populism in its purest form: it promised people a good life, easily obtained.
PP-DD got 14% percent of the vote in the 2012 elections, following the global crisis. It is not usually considered far-right as such, since it directly addressed economic hardships and showed far less interest in identity politics. But there is at least a similarity in constituencies.
PP-DD was put together hastily. Reportedly, eligible seats were bought and sold. Most analysts predicted that would impact the cohesion of the party. And indeed, it imploded during its first and only term.
AUR comes from a stronger organisational base, but needed more than that for a win. One recruitment tool were “mystery” ads that invited citizens to change the local mayor. The link (now leading to the party website) brought the one who clicked it to an anonymous web form where they were invited to leave their data for further contact.
Also, at least one member of the AUR “Senate” (its ‘elders’) claimed that he had never joined the party in the first place. With such improvisations it seems likely that not only true-and-tested hard unionists and defenders of fascism entered Parliament, but also opportunists. Or maybe even well-meaning people who wanted to play politics a bit and were not bothered by pompous nationalist discourse.
Why did people vote for AUR?
This is, if I may, the golden question. Like in other cases of populist/extremist rise, multiple explanations are possible.
Social causes and lack of representation. It is almost a consensus that Romanian parties have lately broken much of the bound that connected them to the electorate. Governance has been negligent under both right- and left-wing parties and the voter hit by the economic downturn associated with the pandemic does not seem to find an interest in their problems from political leaders (for example, the pandemic does not appear in the short version of the electoral program, which the top three parties have been circulating).
Various kinds of dissatisfaction seem to have boiled into a protest vote. If you check out the demographic structure once more, you will see that the younger, less educated people, living in smaller communities that are less connected to prosperity, seem to be more inclined to vote for AUR. Also, it is interesting to see the results in Spain and Italy. It is generally considered that Romanians in Spain are generally better integrated; indeed, the vote for AUR, while still excellent, was 10 percentage points lower there than in Italy.
Ideology / local groups. Narratives about Romanian exceptionalism are commonplace in Romania among both politicians and voters. Going back to the map, we see how all four regions carry histories of fringe ideas and in three out of four cases, these are not recent. This is not to say that these narratives are dominant locally – in fact AUR did not win elections in any county. On the other hand, it remains entirely possible that these regional narratives do not drive the vote directly, but rather that narratives are there because they are pushed by local groups, and it is in fact the local organisers who get out the vote.
Anti-lockdown feeling. Romanian lockdown was harsh on the economy, somewhat inconsistent, and, some would say, incompetently implemented. One could also argue that the anti-lockdown protest in Romania, though powerful, was severely underrepresented among mainstream parties. If this is the case, then AUR, even without knowing it, is an anti-lockdown party that will disappear once the epidemic is over – just as UKIP waned after Brexit.
Far-right unity. AUR seems to come out of nowhere, but it really does not; there was a nationalist vote in 2016 also. At the time, the top three nationalist / far-right parties totalled ca. 5%. These have neither disappeared, nor massively lost votes. The increase in far-right voting is still worrying, but it seems a bit less incomprehensible now, especially given the factors above.
Naturally, all four hypotheses could be simultaneously true. The pandemic breeds fear. Fear increases the search for simple solutions and authoritarian leaders. Such simple solutions can be taken from the wealth of far-right ideas that are tolerated within Romanian public debate.
Fear for one’s own health can lead and, in fact, seems to have led, to COVID-denialism as a strategy for mental welfare.
So, a party makes its appearance, bringing together existing groups, but now in better organised form, promising both salvation from exploitation from the outsiders / nefarious elites and a life without masks. Given the high degree of dissatisfaction and low turnout, it more than doubles the share of far-right votes expressed and enters Parliament.
Further analysis will tell us what combination of factors was actually involved. But it is worth noting that some of these factors allow for future growth. COVID cases may still rise after the holidays and a vaccine for the general population will likely not be available until spring at the earliest. The far-right is prone to factionalisation but, once in Parliament, may acquire a taste for unity. More local groups with their own identities could theoretically join.
It now comes down to the mainstream parties and civil society to not only make a brute cordon sanitaire but also to address legitimate grievances and be seen to care about the will of the electorate; to keep at bay ideas and leaders, but win back the populace. AUR might make us the favour and implode on its own, but we should not count on it. For now, they plan on making a Thank You tour to 43 different places (cities and counties) across the country in their brightly coloured bus (again, not something other parties have done!).
 Official data for county council vote. Does not include Bucharest.
 Local intellectuals dispute this, saying that opinion polls show less anti-Hungarian feeling in Transylvania than elsewhere in the country. However, at least two nationalist parties – ther National Unity Party of the Romanians and Greater Romania Party – drew votes from there. Also, Cluj, the historic regional capital is home to more insidious nationalists as Ioan Aurel Pop, current president of the Romanian Academy.