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September 25, 2021

Liberals or Not?

The Romanian post-communist liberalism has had a contorted history. It started out with various factions that numerically dominated the political landscape, before the Socialists or Christian-Democrats, followed by a lengthy process of successive fusions that gathered them in the bosom of ‘mother’ National Liberal Party (PNL). The first authoritarian ‘rigidity’ came from Theodor Stolojan, a leader eager to be the trademark of a party which became the overnight leader of the right, following the Peasants’ shameful collapse. What happened next was the enigmatic episode in the run-up to the 2004 election, when Stolojan unexpectedly withdrew from the presidential race in favor of Traian Basescu. Enter Calin Popescu-Tariceanu: premier and new PNL leader, who, amid the unexpected war against the president and the new underground ties with former candidate Stolojan, got into an open conflict with his fellow Liberal.

Dreaming of definitively destabilizing the PNL, Basescu encouraged Stolojan to set up his own party, which only resulted in the Liberals closing ranks around their leader and premier and to what was to become the Social Liberal Union (USL), a Left-Right alliance seeking to dislocate the Democratic Liberal Party (PDL) (with the L coming from the  Stolojan fugitives). Somehow, Stolojan and Tariceanu prepared the ground for a PNL led in more authoritarian a fashion than that of the `90s, which means that Crin Antonescu, its current leader, is not exactly a trailblazer, but only added some personal touches. What he did was to subordinate the party policy to his personal project in more blatant a fashion than his predecessors and to cultivate his popularity with more support from his political partners than his own fellow Liberals, as the USL is perceived as a political construction with a marked identity, and not a merely circumstantial alliance. This is also why Antonescu no longer plays the card of the party leader or Liberal proud of his specific offer, but more that of a member of the ‘golden couple’ in the current Romanian politics. Obviously, his moral profile is that of a politician little inclined to tolerate criticism from his ’friends’, but tempted to punish any ‘rebel’ than co-opt them in the exercise of power, or to marginalize them. How fair is the criticism leveled against him by his enemies anyway? Andrei Chiliman accuses him of anti-Western leanings. While it is true that some of his speeches and statements last summer were ironic at what he viewed as the excessive political dependency to the EU, it was rather an example of circumstantial populism aimed at offsetting the Traian Basescu’s unexpected support from western leaders, a momentous knack., mainly that Antonescu lacks the charisma of a popular leader and sought to pass as a combative politician, even if the outcome was rather shriek.  The Liberal leader tried building a political identity for himself, as he lacks many of the elements of a politician’s personality: managerial talent negotiating abilities, vision, charisma, mass popularity. Antonescu is duller than Tariceanu or even Orban, lacks either the aristocratic veneer or the rough power. As Plato taught us about a tyrant’s typology, such personality conceals a high degree of vulnerability. All of the aforesaid aside, the association with Social-Democrats will also leave its mark, even if it’s difficult to assess now how much is the Social-Democratic Party (PSD) leaning to the left or the  PNL to the right. This is not about a strictly congruent ideological program, but a matter of style, a tendency to apply a certain type of measures, such as the ‘liberal’ health minister’s proposal, which, no matter how circumstantial, also shows carelessness to the type of political signals sent to an alternative private system. Irrespective of how ‘suitable’ a given measure could be, what’s needed is a bird’s-eye view relying on a couple of principles. To introduce an additional element of competence between the two health systems is not a liberal option by any means. In the long run, the PNL risks watering down its identity way too much, no matter how many positions would hold over time, and becoming a party constrained to find new political projects, in the absence of a general vision.

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