The One Land Where Populists Aren’t

There may be poverty and corruption, but at least the politics are predictable

Populism Takes Over the World

Laura Kovesi is really tired of TV. All she sees, every night, are personal attacks. On her.

Kovesi, 43, is the assertive prosecutor in charge of Romania’s anticorruption organization, and she’s rarely been busier than now. About 3,500 officials have gone on trial here in recent years—including a sitting prime minister. This year alone, that’s led to the seizure of some €292 million ($310 million) in cash and property so far.

Her checks on the establishment are one of the biggest reasons why Romania may be the largest European country where the elites are least at risk of falling to a populist revolt in elections this year, the kind that have scored victories or mounted serious challenges in recent elections in Italy, Germany, and Austria. Next year in France, National Front leader Marine Le Pen is trying to pull off an upset victory in the presidential election.

But Romania is missing some of the key ingredients for populism, including an untouchable political elite. Instead of an angry populace screaming to drain the swamp, Romanians just want some stability and a focus on issues like health care and education, after years of political upheaval.

They’re happily enjoying the best economic growth in mainland Europe, a love affair with the European Union and a yearslong check on the powerful. At the same time, Romania has taken in relatively few refugees and migrants, while its own citizens reap the benefits of EU policy allowing citizens to work throughout the bloc.

“It looks like more of a normal country, whatever normal is nowadays,” said Paul Ivan, a senior policy analyst at the European Policy Centre in Brussels. “Like an island of regular politics.”

Romania's chief anti-corruption prosecutor Laura Codruta Kovesi speaks after receiving the French Legion of honor during a ceremony in Bucharest, Romania, on June 7, 2016.

Romania's chief anti-corruption prosecutor Laura Codruta Kovesi

Photographer: Vadim Ghirda/AP Photo

On Dec. 11, the country’s dominant Social Democrat party—known as the PSD—is expected to win a plurality in parliamentary elections, despite the fact that its previous leader, Victor Ponta, was indicted last year by Kovesi's office. He is fighting the charges.

The leadership in the year since then hasn’t inspired the population with big goals or visions for the future, and the party’s ready for a comeback.

“It was very easy for the PSD to recover in one year and present itself as the party of stability and the party of future growth,” said Radu Magdin, a political consultant who has worked for Ponta.

That’s exactly what many Romanians say they want. They don’t want to take a chance on an unknown, like voting to split from the European Union, or electing a businessman with no political experience and unorthodox diplomatic practices. 

“Actually, what I’m looking for, I’m looking for normality,” said Gabriel Istoc, 47, general manager of B-Team, a group of companies in industrial products and services. “That’s all. Nothing else.”

Istoc said he wants to be able to make plans for his business for the next five, 10 years. He envies his business partners in Germany, who know what to expect from the government. Even Brexit, the biggest shock to the U.K. in decades, will take a few years to unfold. In Romania, change can happen overnight, he said.

gdp

Hilde Brandl, 41, a first-time candidate for Romanian Senate, praised the work of the National Anti-Corruption Directorate, known locally as the DNA. She said the country’s politicians keep citizens happy by delivering small but tangible handouts.

But Brandl, who founded an architecture firm, said she believes this obscures the larger picture: that corruption is preventing even more economic growth, wasting taxes and allowing politicians to get away with selling government businesses to the private sector on the cheap. The nation ranks 58th on Transparency International's corruption index, just below Greece but up from 69 a year earlier.

“They keep their people poor, because it’s much easier with 50 euros to bribe people who are poor,” she said.

corruption-total

Romania isn't immune to populist urges. Lawmakers are trying to give big raises to state workers including teachers, doctors and nurses. The current government is challenging the move, however, saying it risks jeopardizing the country's fiscal outlook for the next few years.

Georgiana Vintila, 29, supports the Social Democrats and Ponta because salaries have risen. In college, she studied environmental protection and natural resources but abandoned plans for a career in that field after the government offered a starting salary then of only 800 lei ($190) a month.

She calls former Prime Minister Ponta “a nice guy.” And what about the corruption charges? “Everybody has corruption charges,” she said.

Indeed, “corruption fatigue” has begun to set in, Magdin said.

“In politics you don't play [up] that much the anticorruption game,” Magdin said. “You don't think people care about it.” Instead, people want to hear about ideas, education, roads and health care, he said.

corruption-figures

Prosecutor Kovesi said there have been attempts to set up her parents and friends as a way of discrediting her. She was accused of plagiarizing her thesis. She’s accused of being unpatriotic. And she has spent three years in a legal fight against what she said were false public statements, but she can’t combat everything.

“It’s very difficult to fight,” she said. “I tell the public, ‘No it’s not true.’”

But Kovesi said she can’t be on television day in, day out, fighting incremental accusations. Trust in her institution remains high, but the attacks have gotten through to people like Vintila.

Vintila said she believes Kovesi’s actions are politically ordered hits, and that her personal circle is corrupt. She compared it to the plot of the Showtime series “Billions,” about the tangles between a U.S. attorney and a hedge-fund billionaire.

“It’s exactly the same thing in Romania right now, just as it happened in ‘Billions,’” she said. “[Kovesi] I think is blackmailed, somehow.”

Kovesi said her results speak for themselves. More tips are coming from people and public institutions all the time.

— With assistance from Andra Timu

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.
LEARN MORE