From Historical to "Dialectical" Populism: The Case of Post-Communist Romania

By Shafir, Michael | Canadian Slavonic Papers, September-December 2008 | Go to article overview

From Historical to "Dialectical" Populism: The Case of Post-Communist Romania


Shafir, Michael, Canadian Slavonic Papers


Abstract:

This article begins with a brief discussion of the differences between "historical populism" and "neo-populism" in the post-communist context. The second part concentrates on "neo-populism from below," exemplifying the category of neo-populist politicians aspiring to power, with the case in point being George Becali and his New Generation Party (PNG). The third part turns to "neo-populism from above," that is to say, to populist policies employed by incumbent politicians for the purpose of preserving power and enlarging support. The example chosen here is that of President Traian Basescu and the role played by intellectual elites in making possible "neo-populism from above." The fourth examines successes and failures of the two categories of neo-populists in two electoral contests, namely the 2007 elections for the European Parliament and the 2008 local elections. It is pointed out that the latter electoral contest produced a prospective "populist dialectics," namely, a symbiotic mergence of the two Romanian post-communist populisms. Finally, the fifth and last part turns to theoretical considerations of a general and comparative nature.

Populism is again a "trendy" topic in East Central European political developments. In October 2007 the highly prestigious Journal of Democracy carried a number of articles under the heading, "Is East-Central Europe Backsliding?" The question would have raised interest in any other scholarly journal but nowhere more than in that publication - which Ken Jowitt once described as the only successful transition from [Problems of] Communism to consolidated democracy. One month later, me impressive building of the Czech Foreign Office in Prague hosted a symposium on populism in Central Europe in which 1 was privileged to participate. Several papers presented there made one wonder whether democracy in the region had suffered defenestration. Or was it the location of the symposium that influenced the presentations?1 In 2007-2008, Eurozine (a network linking 70 European cultural journals and just as many associated magazines and institutions from nearly all European countries) carried a series of articles on the surge (or resurgence) of populism in the former communist countries of Europe and its implications for EU enlargement and post-enlargement prospects. Soon after, a symposium similar to the one held in Prague was organized at the Institute for Public Affairs in Bratislava. If Poland's Solidarity once signaled the light at the end of the communist tunnel, the Kaczynski twins once again sounded the alarm about a possible return of the populist tunnel at the end of the light. But is this really the end?

Not that Poland spearheaded the "democratic deviation." Elsewhere in the region doubts have been voiced not only concerning democratic consolidation, but even democratization. Those uttering "fantasies of salvation"2 were speaking Serbian, Croatian, and Romanian. And their fantasies had been aired considerably earlier from the Poles. But as Jacques Rupnik had pointed out back in 1989, Poland was likely to become a test case, because the question arose whether the "mix of Catholicism and nationalism that prevailed in Polish society"-one that "had made it particularly resistant to communism"-might not rum into a obstacle to "the establishment of democracy after the collapse of dictatorship."3 Though the French-Czech political scientist warns us that such conclusions would be rash, his Bulgarian colleague Ivan Krastev minced no words: "The spectre of populism," he writes in Marxian prophetical idiom, "is haunting Central Europe."4 Inspired by Krastev, I titled my article "From historical to 'dialectical' populism," in a (evidently) cynical attempt to remind readers of times when there was no escape in East Central Europe from courses on Marxism (these, of course, were divided into two parts: "Scientific socialism" and "Historic and dialectical materialism").

Yet Krastev immediately qualifies his Marxian spectre. …

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