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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