Andrei Tiut

Andrei Tiut

Andrei Tiut is a political consultant and advocacy worker (on Romanian electoral laws) with a background in domestic politics and online research. He has extensive experience on political campaigns, both at home and abroad.

Let’s make a folder. What do we know about AUR, the new golden party of the Romanian far right?

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%[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.

At an AUR electoral meeting held indoors nobody keeps the distance or wears a mask. From the party Facebook account.

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.

Source: Alexandru F. Ghiță, interim data

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[2]

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. 

Comparative profile of the PP-DD voter in 2016 vs. AUR in 2020 based on exit poll data from the Centre for Urban and Regional Sociology. Note that in 2020 the exit poll underestimates the total result almost by half.

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. 

“Mystery” ads run by AUR. Source: Facebook.

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[3]. 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!).


[1] Official data for county council vote. Does not include Bucharest.

[2] 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.

[3] https://www.facebook.com/bogdan.t.enache/posts/2787979928111195

It’s a tough choice to hold elections during the pandemic

There is little doubt, by now, that the novel coronavirus pandemic is a threat not only to health and the economy, but also to some of our democracies. In order to fight the spread of the virus effectively, governments have to restrict civil rights. Some are becoming excessively good at it.

Emergency powers sometimes fit into the plans and desires of would-be autocrats in search of an opportunity to grow stronger. This is done at a rapid pace and is creating growing concern. To give just one example, calling Mr. Viktor Orban a dictator, once an expression relegated to informal conversation, is now becoming mainstream (see The Economist coverage on April, 2nd vs. April, 23rd).

But there is another problem that plagues even countries that remain committed to liberal democracy: how to hold elections. Elections can be quite robust: polls have taken place during wars, famines and civil unrest. But this kind of crisis is peculiar. Elections bring people together in various ways and bringing people together will surely bring about disease.

Let us walk through the options.

Business as usual

This one is the most clear-cut case. Running elections during a pandemic increases the health risks for participants and society at large. Since people will realise that, they are likely to come to the polls in smaller numbers, undermining to an extent the very legitimacy of the process. France played brave and saw it happen.

Delay the elections

An obvious strategy would be to delay the elections until a better moment arrives. Mostly, such plans suppose that the virus would be less… viral during the summer months. But this is just untested theory yet.

Also, playing with the elections date can be politically and constitutionally complicated.  Some constitutions require elections to happen before a well-defined moment.

Even where it is constitutionally possible, delaying elections at will may still give governments the power to pursue improper political gains. Even when they do not give in to temptation, opposition parties may feel that they do.

Multi-day elections

One easy way to lower the risk posed by elections seems to be to keep the polls open during more than one day. Thus, there will be greater social distancing, especially if people are advised to come to the polls in different days, according to their name or any other random characteristic.

But other problems remain. People will still need to be in close proximity to those who are part of the elections committee, will still use pens and stamps.

Those who handle the pens, stamps and ballot boxes will be particularly vulnerable. Keeping the polls open during more than one day might actually have a discouraging effect on these people, even though, statistically, they are at no greater risk.

Multi-day elections would also be relatively novel since, typically, countries are more than happy to close the polls the same day they open them. Romania has tried this approach a few times, particularly when referenda required a quorum to be considered valid and people were reluctant to meet that quorum.

Vote by (physical) mail

In such a scenario, postal workers would deliver the ballot papers to the citizens, making sure that everybody who has the right to vote gets one authenticated piece/ set. Then, so to speak, the mailbox would become the ballot box. (Multiple similar arrangements are possible)

Mail voting is regularly done in the case of citizens who live abroad, or who are unable or sometimes unwilling to come to the voting booth on election day. It is considered safe in the United States (though president Trump recently disagreed). But in the UK a judge ruled in 2005 that “the system is wide open to fraud and any would-be political fraudster knows that”, adding that he could find “evidence of electoral fraud that would disgrace a banana republic”, according to the BBC.

Scaling up such a system would create major logistical and security problems. Can postal companies and services cope with such pressure? After all, they are continuously losing market share to more agile competitors. Supposing the deed can be done, the mail worker may choose not to deliver the postal sacks from areas where people tend to vote “the wrong way”.

Americans have voted by mail in record number in the recent US elections. The same was also planned to take place in Poland, already arousing suspicions of a familiar combination of authoritarian slide, ill-prepared policies and malevolent intentions. The same was also planned to take place in Poland, already arousing suspicions of a familiar combination of authoritarian slide, ill-prepared policies and malevolent intentions.

However, even if postal voting were possible and secure, it may be unconstitutional in many countries. After all, nobody wrote a constitution with a pandemic in mind.

Even if constitutional, postal voting is not necessarily safe from the coronavirus. Citizens would have to be identified by the postal workers and few institutions in Eastern Europe would accept identification without some form of handwritten signature. That makes postal workers potential super-spreaders. It also makes them potential victims. It is worth remembering that in some East-European countries postal workers are essential for delivering pensions, utility bills, and generally keeping remote places connected to the world.

Voting by Internet

Large scale Internet voting is logistically easier (possibly, maybe, we do not really know). But all the other problems of postal voting come back to us with a vengeance. People would still need to identify themselves when they get some form of “electronic right to vote”. The process would be ripe for spreading the virus. It also could be unconstitutional in many countries.

On top of this, there are a whole host of ways to defraud internet voting. And, very importantly, voting fraud is much easier to scale than in pretty much any reasonable elections scenario.

E-voting may be the future, but, realistically, the technology is not here yet.

Are there any ways out?

Earlier this year Singapore revised electoral districts and promoted measures to ensure that voting was possible during a pandemic. This was read by some as a sign that the government is considering snap elections to capitalise on the success of containing the virus. As the number of infections increased, plans seem to have been abandoned. However, speculation about snap elections were not a cause for public outcry, suggesting that the population is generally willing to trust that the government will be able to organise elections safely (voting is mandatory in Singapore).

Can we, in Eastern Europe, or Europe generally, copy that model? Not really. Singapore is a strong state, some say authoritarian, inhabited by a compliant population that is well familiarised with social distancing from previous epidemics. Europe, and especially Southern and Eastern Europe, are nothing like that. The case of Singapore suggests, nevertheless, that, if the pandemic persists, we might eventually learn to competently live with it to the point where relatively safe elections become possible.

Another theoretical option is sortition, which is randomly selecting people for office. Such means of selecting magistrates was a staple of ancient Athenian democracy and was used later in some Italian Republics. Nowadays it is used sparingly in “citizen juries” selected to advise politicians on issues.

Given a large enough elected body or simple enough responsibilities, it can be argued that sortition ensures representation of relevant opinions at least as accurately as elections, if not better.

However, such a solution precludes the citizens from giving a mandate to elected leaders. It also results, sociologically speaking, in diminished legitimacy and trust. In Romania, for example, after each major election the number of people who believe that the country is heading in the right direction increases. Such moments of optimism would be lost.

Last, but definitely not least, only very few – if any – constitutions in Europe would allow it.

What next?

It may well be that the actual response to the electoral challenges of the virus will come, like the virus itself, in waves.

We experience now a wave of confusion. Governments are under political or constitutional pressure to hold elections. But the science about the coronavirus is in flux and new ideas are untested. So, decision-making will include a certain degree of randomness.

And there is ample room for bad decisions. In Poland voting by mail was deemed impossible at such short notice. So, elections were postponed de facto – but not necessarily de jure, because it was too late in the process (it’s complicated).

Next comes the mix-and-match wave. Various means of voting described in this article could be used simultaneously. And each country might have its own combination. Inclusive electoral democracy will pay off: countries that already have more inclusive voting options will have it easier, both from a legal and a logistical perspective.

At least in summer, good mixes stand a chance to deliver good elections. But it will take a while to get everything in good order. After all, for Singapore, which was first to consider holding elections despite the virus, this is not its first epidemic.

And then we hope for an effective vaccine to come.

*

The considerations above are far from exhaustive. They aim not to be a study in electoral alternatives, but to illustrate the challenges that any such alternative would face.

Not to mince words, we are at a point where democracy kills, because elections kill. When calling an election, governments will know that they are sending people to death just as surely as they know it when they send troops into the fight. But, at least, modern troops are volunteer-based rather than conscripted. Army members choose to risk their lives. But, in an epidemic, citizens who go to vote will implicitly risk the lives of those who do not vote.

This will undoubtedly impact the legitimacy of elections and, by extension, of democracy itself. But resilient democracies can move on. Failed elections are not a proof of failed democracies, but rather of failed public health planning. Once the crisis is gone, democracies can fully recover.

Except where democracy is already plagued by “pre-existing conditions”.

PS When I wrote this article, I said that we were living a period of confusion on what safe alternatives to traditional elections looked like. In a certain sense, we are still there.

According to the Council on Foreign Relations, more than 60 countries have postponed elections from the start of the pandemic. But those who did hold them largely abstained from innovation. Behind the plethora of public health measures the same-old same-old kind of action took place: in-person, single-day, come-when-you-like (exceptions exist).

Did it work? For some countries it did but for some others it did not. As the virus will continue to roam among us for months (at least), the discussion is still valid: are governments doing everything to protect the voters? Or are they trying to make choices that are safe for themselves, adhering to the conventional wisdom more than necessary.

An inflexion point may be brought about by the US elections, where extended mail-in voting seems to be the solution of choice. A successful, reasonably uncontroversial process may give the world a signal that alternatives are possible. Anything less may scare government away from electoral innovation.