A member of my family is a professor and thus paid to be an expert in all things relating to Ancient Greece, that strange little experiment in history which so influenced the later Romans that they copied much of it wholesale and thus set the standard for much of modern day Europe from Britain to Romania. And yet, as I’ve written about before, the idea of what democracy means in practice and spirit is a rough melange of New World concepts of equality hidden under the veneer of Roman institutions of senate and republic, having almost nothing to do with what was in ancient Athens a kind of job lottery involving a couple of thousand men.
Winston Churchill once said that democracy is the “worst form of government except all the others that have been tried from time to time.” I happen to disagree with his conclusion but whatever your own opinion on this social ritual we call democracy here in modern Romania, today is the day when the citizens go to the polls and act out their roles in this tale full of sound and fury.
It’s been a rather miserable and bombastic affair, this year, with verbal bombs hurled from all sides via the media and nary a single debate that I’m aware of between any of the candidates. One of the closest races in the country is here in U City between the USL (red and yellow) candidate and the PDL (orange team) former mayor, who left his post years ago to become the Prime Minister and then resigned in disgrace earlier this year.
A debate was scheduled and organized between these two old white men in suits, both former Communist lackeys, to be televised locally. One man claims that he got there on time but his opponent never showed because he went to a party at a disco instead. The other man claims that he arrived on time but his opponent fled “out the fire exit” upon learning of his arrival. The debate was never held and as far as anyone knows, the two men were never in the same building at the same time, much less the same room.
These elections are set up so that whomever receives the most votes wins the office with no run-off elections even when none of the candidates manages to receive a majority of the vote (50% + 1). That looks to be the case this time here in Cluj, meaning that the mayor will most likely be elected by a minority of the voters (themselves only a fraction of the population as some people do not vote and tens of thousands of students cannot vote here in Cluj because their official residency is elsewhere). And whomever this man is who “wins” has already shown that he is unable or unwilling to sit down with anyone outside of his own party and conduct himself in a civilized manner. And this is how the third most populous city in the country will be governed.
There’s an old truism in journalism that when a dog bites a man, this is not a story worth reporting but when a man bites a dog, this is a newsworthy event. This year’s “man bites dog” story is about an widow from Dolj, aged 72 and bitterly poor, who went to her local police after being given 50 lei cash in exchange for her vote. Although not stated in the article, I certainly would wager that many people reading that would judge her to be a fool for doing that.
The ossified remains of Roman statecraft plus the imported ideas from America that all people are fundamentally equal is an imported plant that does not put down deep roots here in this soil. It is not, I fear, a system that does well in either respect – it does not adequately reflect the needs and desires of the ordinary people nor does it function well on an administrative level. Social order in Romania is largely being held together today because it is still coasting on the coattails of Communism.
Whether it was praised or loathed, Communist here in Romania provided a unified voice, a single idea, a One Right Way to do everything. On matters of conscience and policy and rule-making and law enforcement, there was the One Right Way and no space or ability to contradict it.
And this unified sense of purpose and being gave all Romanians a chance to play the national sport, not in defiance of the Communist party but with its tacit acceptance, the game of You and Yours versus The State, in which every kind of trickery, influence peddling, loophole, paperwork shuffle or any other means to defraud, cheat, bribe or get slightly around, over or through was your birthright. The rules of the One Right Way were hung on the walls and framed with iron and anyone who dissented too far from the path was punished but the common man and woman were expected and allowed to bend and wiggle and have fun getting away with the “little” crimes that “hurt nobody”.
But that glue is beginning to weaken and fray and the bonds that held the population together are fraying at the ends. The clans are rising, whether the clan of the elite hierarchy of the Orthodox church, the clans of the criminal underworld, the clans of the “barons” or the clans of the political parties whose leaders hurl invectives and venomous barbs on a daily basis against their enemies but haven’t learned that the first rule of politics is that you act civilized and smile and sit down to meet with your mortal enemies when the occasion calls for it.
No. Politics and politicians in Romania are simply men and women in suits who are the public faces of the competing clans and warlords who hold all of the power over a feudal population that toils endlessly in the fields while their masters grow rich from doing nothing. And it is a strange and newsworthy event when a serf fails to gratefully take a crumb from her lord’s table.