Why I keep calling it a coup when there are no tanks in the street



To begin with, I do want to thank the Romanians who have been in the streets over these past three weeks – I’ve met a few of them and I appreciate their courage in coming out and expressing their point of view (whatever that is). I also want to thank the Romanians who have come out to the rallies (for both sides of the referendum) for exactly the same reason. I also want to thank the people who have taken the time to write or call their senators, representatives and local officials as well as their ministers here in Romania and representatives in the European Parliament.

The rest of you? Well let me use a metaphor.

Frankly I don’t care about soccer (football). I really don’t care about other sports either, not who plays and not who wins. But I know a lot of my friends and neighbors are huge fans and they pay good money to go see those games. I had one friend tell me that his heart is in his mouth every time his team is about to score a goal and he cries with happiness when they win a championship game. Fair enough.

The reason why I, some Romanians and a whole lot of foreigners have been so concerned these past few weeks and call it a coup d’etat (lovitura de stat) is because we have a fundamentally different view on how democracy works. The entire theory behind democracy is that ideas on how society should be governed is like a series of competing teams playing matches. And as long as the rules are published and transparent and known to all and as long as the referee (arbitru) calls the fouls, then the correct outcome is that the best team wins. It may not be your team but for now, at least, it is the best team.

One idea might be that “government salaries should be raised” and one team (say USL) can claim that as one of their planks in their political platform. They go before the voters (the people of Romania) and say “this is our idea”. The voters then elect whom they elect (the “players” on the team) and then the team goes out and does their best to implement those ideas. A second team (say PDL) has different ideas and does the same. Romania has more than 10 different “teams” with a wide variety of ideas, including the restoration of the monarchy or Hungarian autonomy, and that’s fair. That’s how it should be.

What makes it a coup is when one of the strong teams kidnaps the referee and then threatens to kill his family if he doesn’t start ruling in their favor. Likewise, the strong team ignores all of the “red card” decisions the referee makes. This is exactly what the USL has been doing with regard to the judiciary. When you undermine the courts (the “referee” in this case) on one hand, ignore their rulings on the other hand and then threaten (stopping only when the EU intervenes directly) to replace them then that’s a complete violation of the rules of the game.

In Romania’s case, the reason there are no tanks in the streets is because the European Union, playing the role of FIFA (soccer’s governing body) in this metaphor, has heard about what’s been going on and is now at the stadium and watching intently. In other words, a higher power has now become involved and is actively arbitrating the situation. But if Romania were in Africa or were some isolated country in Europe and not part of the EU (such as Belarus) then yes, I rather imagine there would be some kind of martial law in place and riot police on the streets in some cities.

Romanians sometimes have a hard time understanding that the rules of the game are more important than the team who wins (or is currently winning). A lot of Romanians were upset when Emil Boc and the PDL in conjunction with Basescu (effectively PDL himself) were in control. It is absolutely incontrovertibly true that one team was dominating the “game” and steamrolling over their political opponents. But as long as this was done by the rules of the game, well that’s how politics works.

Likewise the USL, had they bided their time (and played by the rules), could’ve equally been in the driver’s seat by November of this year, sweeping both the local and national elections. As long as they respected the rules of the game, won their elections fairly and left the referees alone, well then there’s not much more you can do but complain, the same way you do when your favorite sports team loses a (fair) game against a competitor. It sucks but it’s fair. And sooner or later in politics (as well as in sports), your team will probably get stronger and have another shot at winning the championship.

I had one Romanian tell me that he literally “could not accept” the fact that one of the political teams was winning even if they had done so fairly and legally. We talked for quite a while and under no hypothetical situation, assuming the strictest adherence to rules, laws and norms, could he accept that an “enemy” team was in power. I have to assume other Romanians feel the same about their “teams”. Perhaps this is why one of the main sources of violence and civil unrest on a normal week in this country is at (real) football matches. Some fans just cannot handle the idea that their beloved team lost a game against a hated rival.

So yes, it is a coup, a coup d’etat that one team is only backing away from under the watchful eyes of a larger referee (the EU) but is clearly desirous to complete should they find some technical loophole.

Yesterday I published the text of Ponta’s letter to Barroso in which he promised that an ombudsman (Avocatul Poporului) would be chosen that’s amenable to all Romanian political parties. Later I saw Ponta’s ally say they would do so in November. They’re still letting several of their senators and representatives with ANI rulings against them sit in parliament and vote. And so on and so forth (seizure of ICR, TVR and Monitorul Oficial).

Are the USL then following the rules of the game? Only just barely. And if it hadn’t been for the foreign press and the EU chiefs, we all know damn well that the answer would be “hell no”. This is why we are upset, not because “our team” is losing “the game” at the moment.

Can you understand that?

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6 Responses »

  1. First off, I have no favorite team (i.e. I don’t have political sympathies). In the context of your analogy, I think that soccer is a brutal sport played almost exclusively by lying, cheating SOBs. We’d be better off being governed by rugby teams, but there aren’t enough of them to be taken into consideration.

    Secondly, what you forgot to mention is that, for as long as soccer has been played in Romania, the referee was almost always paid off by one (or both) of the teams. That means that big matches have never been won fair and square. The FIFA saw this and told us to stop the practice, so the teams made a big show of stopping it, and started to blackmail them instead of directly paying them off.

    The championship had been dominated from start by this not very good, but very aggressive team, which split into more teams, lost for a while to a crappy, but relatively fair-playing team, then made a comeback.

    So this pretty good team came along (they said they were a new team, but, in fact, they were one of the splinter teams from the Big Old Team) and they had this fantastic soccer player. He was very good at dribbling and shooting and eventually, everybody started taking advice from him. His only problem was that he couldn’t get along will guest players from other teams, especially when they didn’t blindly listen to him. Then he was made goalkeeper but couldn’t sit between the goal posts, he kept running onto the field and shouting orders.

    The Grand New Team had a good run, but as all good teams, they ran out of steam eventually, some players left for other teams, their star player committed some fouls, some sponsors retreated, but all this time they kept pretending they were still the best and fairest and that their star player was some kind of Maradona or Pele. They were still better than the other teams, but not by much, and as for fairness, they weren’t fairer, they just were better at twisting the rules (playing by the letter, not the spirit) and at hiding it.

    So the BOT (Big Old Team) pulled together and took the lead. The GNT (Grand New Team) was livid. The next match, the BOT wanted to score many goals but the star player of the GNT was catching all their shots on goal, so they decided to make the referee expel the star player from the game. Problem was the GNT had some dirt on the ref so they weren’t sure of him. So what did they do?

    Well, wouldn’t you know it, they stole the ref’s whistle. It wasn’t against the rules, because the people making the rules hadn’t thought of that so there was no rule against taking the ref’s whistle. They also committed some other fouls (like all the others teams did at one point of the game or another). But this whistle thing was new.

    So what was the GNT’s response? They went ballistic! The started yelling about snipers on the roof, that the ref’s family had been kidnapped, that hitmen had been hired to break the legs of the players. The people in the BOT weren’t too bright, they said: “No, no we haven’t done these things, and besides, the whistle was ours, we just lent it to the ref, now we need it back (it wasn’t true, BTW). And these aren’t fouls, we did this in self defense”. And everybody was crying mayhem and acting like a bomb was going to be dropped on the stadium any minute.

    And then FIFA showed up and said: “Give the ref his whistle back and stop it already with the fouls”. And the GOT said: “OK, we’ll give it back, but only after the match”. Because, you see, they weren’t so good players to begin with. And because they (like all of the teams) were sore losers.

    That’s as far as the game has progressed for now. I believe that, although the BOT has done some exceptionally nasty things and they will pay for it, soccer will be played as usual (with all the fouls and fund embezzling and influence trafficking) for a long time from now on, just as it has been for the last 22 years, slowly improving perhaps, but it will still be soccer.

    And now you know how they play soccer (i.e. politics) in Romania!

    Thanks for reading.

  2. But again Sam, you’re making the fatal error of assuming that anyone in Romania cares about the rules.

    During all those years of Communism, they had to break the rules to survive. But apparently they haven’t noticed yet that they’re now living under a parliamentary democracy (or are supposed to be).

  3. Always the optimist aren’t you Sam? Your reasons should have been obvious from the very beginning to anyone willing to let go of the “Base is evil” mantra.
    Hang in there! Those of us who agree with you wholeheartedly are just less vociferous, that’s all.

  4. Sam,

    It is unfair to say that all people who haven’t gone to the streets to protest or haven’t written a letter to their local representatives or EU representatives are people who are caught in this “mind trap”, and can’t bare the thought that their team is losing.

    I haven’t written letters, and haven’t gone to the streets because I’ve very busy working in the last few months, and simply couldn’t find the time to do these kind of things.

    But I WILL do my part, my “civic duty” at the referendum, and I will do my part at the elections in November. And I think this is what matters the most, wouldn’t you agree?

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