2023, dubbed “the year of government rotation” by journalists, was the year of silence before the storm. It could have been a year without history, were it not for the intriguing times we inhabit, that is, times when we transform simplicity into intricate challenges through our indomitable cultural penchant for complexity. As Mioritic people, we recoil from the ordinary, infusing every situation with drama, difficulty, or epic undertones. Themes are launched without substantive action, or we forge ahead without strategy or vision.
Yet, in the eleventh hour, the government’s last-ditch efforts and Ciolacu’s unwavering determination prevented us from marking a year of empty speeches about Schengen, leaving even the faintest trace of progress.
Despite our incessant discussions about the elections, we reached the year’s end without any officially announced candidate for the presidential elections. Mircea Geoană has stepped forward with a (civic, for now) project, which will require an intellectual reaction from all other contenders vying for the role.
Political competition has become increasingly visible. It was also the year when a sovereigntist current began to coagulate (albeit from a rather drizzled form). Alongside candidates, parties, blocs and internal controversies, the sovereigntists have also brought with them a not negligible press pool and a reflection club. While presented as a hazard, this current also plays the role of awakening political parties from their numbness. How they do in the elections remains to be seen. However, the biggest mistake that the ruling coalition could make would be to panic and solidify a so-called “democratic bloc”. Such a move would inadvertently strengthen the opposition and help legitimize an alternative that is likely to expand in a quest to counterbalance the wing in power.
The competition of the mainstream political parties was no less visible. The battle of NLP and SDP party members is less one with the sovereigntists, and more one with their own limitations. What the parties in power need are ideas, the courage to initiate projects, an intellectual debate about the Romania project and even an operationalization of the national interest through state reform and administration modernization. Essentially, an exit from inertia. For now, political competition has become increasingly visible, but not more substantial.
Power with a broken wing. The government struggled through the “Nicu & Marcel coalition” to keep its unity, the stability being almost exclusively the merit of the two party leaders. If the opposition is clear, the power is in a semi-conflict duality. The liberals are hesitating, discreetly sabotaging, blocking Marcel Ciolacu, dreaming of another decade of presidency and/or joint government with PSD or someone else. All with 15-16% in opinion polls!
This past year, demagogy has reached a peak. The liberals blocked the pension law, on the principle that there is no money, then sent to each pensioner, with the Romanian Post, next to the pension flyer, a printed ad in which they wrote that PNL had increased pensions. They should have had a quick look at TV audiences, where retirees are most present. But beyond this style of partial solidarity, the SDP and the NLP occupied the political center (center – left as well as center-right) and the great handicap of the opposition is that it is polarized, and extremes can hardly coalesce to overthrow power. But this also depends on the performance of the two parties in the next year.
Education broke down. The past year should have been the year of education, as seven years of debates about “educated Romania” had concluded by reviewing the two laws of education – pre-university and university. With a law that the liberals wanted to pass without debate, although Sorin Câmpeanu’s project had been seriously rephrased, and under the pressure that the President of Romania is the one who appoints the PM, we adopted laws that could be better. We have managed to change some things in Parliament, but there are still many flaws that will be highly visible in the coming years: there are no evaluation systems to assess performance in schools, no results-driven remuneration for teachers, no concrete measures for equity, instead, we have bureaucratization and politicization – two pitfalls in our society. It quickly became apparent how the ministry generates methodologies in which grade repeaters are offered merit scholarships, so a perfect triumph of incompetence, even after the PISA tests brought us very bad news about the increase in functional illiteracy (unfortunately, we are not alone, but this does not cheer us up). This year, the new budget was supplemented by 32.5 billion lei for teachers’ salaries, yet during the last 20 years we have lost 49,000 teachers and educators, and, given the age of most teachers who are now in the system (over 55), in a few years we will no longer have tutors. This does not worry anyone in our poorly educated Romania.
2023 was the European Year of Skills, but Romania did nothing, because in our country competence scares, it threatens trickery, nepotism, and other forms of promotion on kinship basis.
The state has again shown its weakness – I will not mention the areas in which it fails. The disasters at Crevedia or Tohani, the tragedies in 2 May or Botoșani show us that we have not learned anything from the catastrophe at Collective until today, even though eight years have passed. Ten more years will pass, we will be sincerely or just rhetorically indignant, some will take electoral dividends and death will continue to lurk around every corner. That is, we are no longer able to put a strategy into practice or carry out any social policy.
The government scaffolding is in dire need of remodeling. We require a fresh ethos for public office – one rooted in a distinct sense of responsibility, expertise, and continuous evaluation. With a state that is just a political closet – an annex to government, a territory for political sinecures – we are slowly committing suicide as a nation.
The year of ritual sacrifice of the DUMR. After a long time, the DUMR joins the opposition. Surely, it kept its prefects and sub-prefects and I think all the directors in the central and local administration. And I think they’re participating in the underground power play, as they’re used to even when they’re formally in the coalition. Otherwise, I cannot understand how this extraordinary session of the Romanian Parliament is held between Christmas and the New Year just to reject the DUMR initiative of cultural autonomy for the Szekler land. A reheated soup, which had previously been rejected and which was not even assumed but by two DUMR representative, the “bad cops”, while others were unwilling to spoil their credentials as loyal Romanian citizens. I think they could have been allowed to lie in Parliament until February, as had previously been the fate of other such unconstitutional aberrations. My interpretation, albeit a little conspiratorial, is that this is how their effort to support an absurdity is made more visible, the ghost of a millennial dream, because their cultural autonomy is in place, complete and fully operational. But the DUMR had to show to the voting Hungarians, before the election year, that it tried, that it is active and that it fights for autonomy.
Foreign policy failures. In the realm of foreign policy, the President “has secured a place for Romania on Africa’s map”, as he put it, and we felt proud, because, since the time of Old Uncle Nicu no one had attempted to rekindle the movement of non-aligned countries. While the government remains firmly etched on Europe’s map, it effortlessly slides toward Africa due to the daily failure of the state machinery. The removal of the CVM went largely unnoticed as it had become just a merely bureaucratic tool wielded by the magistrate elite to exert pressure for additional funds and increased autonomy. All this exists now – Romania is constantly condemned at the ECHR, but also within our own courts – to satisfy the legal system’s perpetual hunger for more resources.
A dim light. The only dim beacon in foreign policy is the appointment of Anca Dragu to the leadership of the National Bank of the Republic of Moldova. Anca Dragu is a remarkable specialist and will have to guard the treasury from the Moldovan trickery. The unionist dream with the candidacy of Maia Sandu, as Cuza, is a mere utopia though. Maia Sandu is not well placed in her homeland polls and we can only hope that the referendum, at the same time as the election, will succeed. If not, it will be difficult for Anca Dragu to make any changes at the National Bank of Moldova so as not to drain European money in Moscow or tax havens. The European decision in favour of Moldova is truly a Romanian success as well, but what Romania cannot do is to strengthen the pro-European trend in Moldovan society. It’s only Maia Sandu and her team who possess the levers, responsibilities, and unwavering motivation to ignite such change.
Another success amidst a cluster of setbacks: Via Transilvanica won the Audience Award at the European Heritage Awards 2023 (Europe Nostra) in Venice. A project of the Tășuleasa Social Association, propelled by the Ușeriu brothers and started from Bistrița-Năsăud, it crafted over 1,400 km of tourist route, without public funds and has done for Romania more than all the tourism ministers across the 20th and early 21st centuries. This magnificent project stands as a testament to the diversity of Romania and proves, above all, that achievements are fueled by ideas, willingness, and perseverance.
The year of absolute depression for political institutions, practically for the democratic solution. In 2021 we believed that public opinion reached absolute pessimism, the institutions of democracy peaked in their level of mistrust, and the gloomy perspective about the future was at its darkest. In 2023 though, things creeped in. In over 30 years of public opinion research, we have not recorded such small numbers, regardless of the tense political climate. Without being the year of major tensions and confrontations, politics has fallen to the lowest level of confidence in the democratic period. In a survey conducted by IRES in December on a nationally representative sample, the confidence figures are at a historic low. Presidency 11%, Government 18%, Parliament 11%, and political parties 11%. Except for the political parties, which have long been at this level, the other institutions have fallen at a speed that calls into question the functioning of democracy and the existence of a democratic culture.
The consequence: there will be a need for more extensive elaboration of electoral programs, that is, ideas. To be more explicit: people will no longer be satisfied with adjustments, improvements, or just positive dynamics. They will seek to vote for those who promise a new order, whatever that may be. A fierce battle between two camps is looming: on one side, the opposition, poised to spearhead systemic change; on the other, the government coalition, with an opportunity to craft a program of social justice owed to all. If they refrain from descending into swearing, brawling and mayhem, this is where the future political war should be waged with intelligence and strategic acumen.