French Journal For Media Research

Antonio Momoc

Populism: from strategic communication style to political ideology of illiberal democracy
The Romanian Case

Full text

Many pundits believe that populism is a kind of rhetoric of the demagogue politicians. In this research, I verified the hypothesis that if we define populism as a communication style, all the political candidates that I monitored during the Euro-parliamentary elections in 2019 could be labeled as “populists”. In agreement with Takis S. Pappas’ theory, when populism is defined as an anti-liberal ideology, only the illiberal political actors would be “populists”.
Key-words: populism, ideology, illiberalism, liberal democracy, communication style

Plusieurs chercheurs théorisent le populisme comme la rhétorique des démagogues. Dans mon étude, je vérifie l’hypothèse selon laquelle, si on définit le populisme comme un style de communication, tous les compétiteurs politiques suivis lors des élections au Parlement Européen de 2019 peuvent être qualifiés de populistes. Au contraire, si on définit le populisme comme idéologie anti-libérale, en accord avec la théorie de Takis S. Pappas, seuls les acteurs politiques anti-libéraux sont des «populistes».
Mots-clés : populisme, idéologie, anti-libérales, démocratie libérale, style de communication


2According to Cas Mudde and Cristobal Rovira Kaltwaser (2017), populism appears to be in conflict with liberal democracy. My thesis is that, in order to measure how populism endangers the modern democracy and in order to better understand the conflict between populism and liberal democracy, it is necessary to develop an empirical research at country level for producing studies on particular populisms. In this study, my scientific objective is to verify the ways and techniques through which the Romanian populists represent a real threat for Western liberal democracy.

3Mudde (2004, pp. 543-544) stressed out that populism is “a rarefied ideology, considering that society can be divided into two antagonistic groups: the virtuous people versus the corrupt elite, arguing that politics should express the general will of the people”. Some experts still believe that populism is a kind of rhetoric of the demagogue politicians. The Greek author Takis S. Pappas (2019) noticed that one of the reasons for the theoretical confusions that generated “the lack of coherent criteria for deciding when political actors turn into populists” (p. 1-2) is the fact that populism was understood and described more as a political discourse and as an electoral strategy, and less as an ideology of certain political parties or of a regime (Pappas, 2019, p. 7, pp. 40-63). Hence, alongside a populism theory, what would be relevant for comprehending populism would be an analysis of “a long-lasting practice of populist politics” (Pappas, 2019, p. 5).

4As Pappas (2019) has already established, my thesis is that populism is a political ideology, not only a style or a strategy of discourse for winning elections. Authors like Koen Abts and Stefan Rummens (2007, pp. 405-424, p. 408) suggest that, since populism focuses on concepts such as “the people” or “democracy”, “populism provides a thin-centred ideology concerning the structure of power in society”. This is the reason why researchers like Takis S. Pappas (2014, pp. 1-23) or Leonardo Morlino (2004, pp. 5-27) consider that populism is not just a “thin ideology”, but they are describing the populist regimes (“populist democracy”, as in Greece and Hungary) based on the populist ideology.

5In this article, I verified the hypothesis on whether the Romanian candidates with Eurosceptic messages, conveying illiberal topics on social networks (hatred towards foreigners, migrants, refugees, minorities, NGOs, the Western businesspeople and multinational companies) were only using a populist speech during the 2019 Euro-parliamentarian campaign, or were promoting a populist ideology.

Liberal Democracy versus Etymological Democracy

6As Peeler (2009) observed, the term “democracy” has literally and originally meant “ruled by the people,” but after the Second World War it came to be synonymous with “liberal democracy”. “A liberal democracy is democratic insofar as it involves government by popular, competitive election, thereby providing democratic legitimation to the polity. But the people do not rule directly outside these periodic elections. A liberal democracy is liberal in that it limits governmental authority and protects individual rights, constructing dikes, as it were, against the supposedly sovereign people.” (Peeler, 2009, p. 1)

7As I have shown in a previous study (Momoc, 2018), according to Giovanni Sartori (1978), there are big differences between the literal sense of democracy and the political reality, which made it problematic for the supporters of democracy. The democracy etymologically defined as demos and kratos – “the power of the people” – is an “imprecise definition founded on a hazy premise” (Sartori, 1999, p. 45). To embrace the etymological definition of “democracy” and to define “the people” as everybody, points out that the literal definition is practically inoperable. Sartori (1999, pp. 47-48, pp. 55-55, p. 223) claims that modern democracy implies mechanisms and procedures by which the majority “governs limited by the respect for the rights of the minority” and defines it as “constitutional democracy”. Modern democracy is based on governing of the limited majority, on electoral procedures and on exerting the power via representatives, i.e. via “representative democracy”. To define democracy as “the power of the people” or as “the rule of the people” involves severe risks for the modern democracy to be contested by its rivals, such as populists, since the reality proved that the power has never belonged to the ordinary people (Momoc, 2018, p. 65).

Liberal Democracy and Populism

8Populism, as well as the etymological democracy, starts from the idea of “popular sovereignty”. The populists “fight” to give the power back to “the people”. The populists speak as if “democracy means the power of the people and only the power of the people” (Mény & Surel, 2002, p. 9). The People is described as a “homogeneous unity” (Canovan, 1999). “People-centrism”, the concept of “the will of the people”, anti-elitism, homogeneity of the People, direct democracy, simplistic language, direct communication style, polarization, demonizing the outsiders or foreigners, and the charismatic leadership are prevailing in several definitions of populism (Pappas, pp. 27-28). If we focus only on these external variable characteristics, we would conclude that populism could be defined “as the idea that sovereignty belongs to and should be exercised only by the <<people>>, without regard to institutions” (Pappas (2019, p. 33). “The weakening of representation” (Morlino & Raniolo, 2019, p. 5) in contemporary democracy helps the populists to pretend they are the true “voice of the people”. The establishment is attacked by the populists for its alleged privileges and because may be “corrupt”. Populism favors the direct democracy forms, such as the domination of the majority, or majoritarianism, the plebiscite or the popular referendum aiming to replace the institutions of representation and mediation. (Momoc, 2014, p. 176)

9In fact in the contemporary world, liberal democracy means “the fundamental human rights and the rule of law in everyday life as part of an open society” (Pappas, 2019, p. 3), the equal protection of human rights, civil rights and civil liberties. Liberal democracy was also described as “the political system marked not only by free elections, but also by the rule of law, separation of powers, the protection of basic liberties like speech, assembly, religion and property” (Zakaria, 1997, p. 22).

10As opposed to that, populist parties consolidate power by grabbing top state administrative positions and depriving key liberal institutions of autonomy, especially the judiciary, state authorities and the media (Pappas, 2019, p. 8). Populism is highly majoritarian in that it speaks in the name of the people; in doing so, it disrespects the minorities and their rights; it is ready to sacrifice constitutional legality and to violate the rule of law to serve the “general will of the people” (Pappas, 2019, pp. 45-46). Thus, Nadia Urbinati (1998, pp. 110–124) defines populism as “a dangerous threat to constitutional democracy”. Populism might seem democratic (etymologically), but is illiberal (Pappas, 2019, p. 3). Populism seeks to institute a new form of democratic politics that is antagonistic to established liberal democracy and opposes the political liberalism (Pappas, 2019, p. 1).

11When economic inequality becomes strong and political legitimacy shows its weakness, liberal democracy is in trouble. The middle class, the one that supported the liberal democracy, feels that it is losing it when it is facing the economic crisis, decreasing incomes, market stagnation, migration, demographic changes, globalization, and technological revolution. This may cause the loss of trust in the institutions of liberal democracy and the rise of populism. “When liberalism goes into crisis, populism stands as an alternative type of democracy.” (Pappas, 2019, p. 51)

Minimal Definition of Populism as “Democratic Illiberalism”

12Remove its “democratic ethos and populism will turn into authoritarianism” (Pappas, 2019, p. 3). Not all the contemporary democracies are liberal; moreover: some of them are illiberal (see Peeler, 2009). When trying to define populism, Pappas (2019, p. 39) describes the constant properties of populism: democraticness & illiberalism; and the variable properties of populism: the strategic use of polarization (“us versus them”, they are “the enemy of the people”), populist discourse (“appeal to people”), particular communication style, charismatic leadership. “Democratic illiberalism becomes synonym for populism.” (Pappas, 2019, p. 3, pp. 31-33).

13Authors like Leonardo Morlino (2004, p. 23; 2009, p. 212) or Takkis S. Pappas (2014, 2019) recognized the distinction between “liberal democracies” and “populist democracies”. Liberal Democracies means defending the peoples’ general will, the principle of citizens’ equality before the law, defending the Constitution, protecting the fundamental civil rights, respecting minorities and minority rights despite the differences, defending the individual rights, and the rule of law. Populist Democracies or Illiberal Democracies means defending “the peoples’ general will” against individual fundamental rights and against the independence of justice. Populism or illiberalism is willing to restrain the law and violate minority rights to serve the majoritarianism. “Populism is always democratic, but never liberal.” (Pappas, 2019, p. 35, p. 38). Populism is a democratic illiberalism, and is not political liberalism or autocracy.

The Romanian Case. The Context

14The 2019 European elections in Romania featured an impressive mobilization to the polls, especially in the diaspora. (BBC, 2019) The voter turnout was 49,09% in May 2019, compared to 32,44% in May 2014 (European Parliament & Kantar, 2019). The Social Democratic Party, which was the dominant party, originating from the former Romanian Communist Party, ranked second with 22,5% (Neagu, 2019), at an insignificant distance from a new entry party, the USR PLUS Alliance that got 22,4% of the votes. The winner of the elections was the main opposition party, the National Liberal Party, gaining 27% of the votes. These parties have occupied most of the seats in the European Parliament in 2019: PNL – 11 seats, PSD – 9 seats, USR PLUS – 8 seats, while the other three parties that slightly passed the 5% electoral threshold (PRO Romania, UDMR and PMP) got 2 mandates each.

15The elections in May 2019 happened within a special internal and international context. A German ethnic, part of a minority, had won the 2014 presidential elections in the second run, defeating Victor Ponta, the Social Democratic Party candidate. The leader of the National Liberal Party, Klaus Iohannis, then became the first European politician with 1 million fans of Facebook (Momoc, 2016a). The EU crisis followed next year, with the massive refugees’ wave in 2015 (Momoc, 2016b) and the Brexit referendum on June 23rd 2016 (Cowburn, 2016). In 2015 the Social Democrat Prime Minister, Victor Ponta, assumed that Romania would “request admission to the EU’s Schengen borderless area if mandatory quotas to accept refugees were decided” by the European Union (Gotev, 2015a).

16After the fire from the Colectiv Club in Bucharest, when 64 young people died, after huge protests against the socialists’ corruption, a technocratic government was installed (Creţan & O’Brien, 2019). Nevertheless, the Social Democratic Party (PSD) easily won the parliamentary elections in December 2016 (Volintiru & Stefan, 2017) with a series of electoral promises that they would raise the salaries of the state employees, the pensions, the social assistance and public expenditure (Marinas & Ilie, 2016).

17However, in January 2017, the first measures taken by PSD concerned the amnesty, pardon and canceling certain corruption facts by changing the law (Associated Press in Bucharest, 2017). Substantial anti-corruption protests (#rezist Movement) took place in Romania in February 2017 against the ordinance bills that were proposed by the Romanian Ministry of Justice regarding the pardoning of corruption crimes and the amendment of the Penal Code of Romania, especially regarding the abuse of power (Momoc, 2017; Momoc et al. 2019). All through 2017, the ruling party tried to pass the amnesty and pardon law. A year later, in August 2018, a violent protest of the Romanians from the diaspora arose in Bucharest against the PSD Government (Barberá, 2019).

18On October 6th-7th 2018, the Romanians were invited at a Constitutional Referendum for the traditional family, aiming to block the marriage of LGBT persons (Euractiv, 2018). The populists wanted to change Article 48 of the national Constitution so that it would stipulate that the family was founded on the marriage between “a man and a woman”, not between “spouses”, as it currently states. The national debate for “defending the traditional values” determined some observers to argue that “Romania <<turns illiberal>> with moves against gay marriage.” (Ciobanu, 2017). The PSD leader, Liviu Dragena, (Nine O’clock, 2018) and the Social Democratic government became the main supporters of the Referendum by which they had hoped to cancel certain fundamental human rights by constitutional norm, thus “trying to make the voters forget about the governmental failings” (Paradis, 2018). Despite the endorsement announced by PSD and PNL together with the Orthodox, Catholic and Neo-Protestant Churches, only 20,41% of the voting population took part in the referendum meant to limit the constitutional definition of marriage. The threshold for the referendum to be binding was 30%. The Liberal leader, Ludovic Orban, was “a strong supporter of the referendum, but some of his colleagues thought differently” (Marian, 2018a). Still, in 2016, Alina Gorghiu, former president of PNL, signed a protocol supporting the Coalition for Family. The Save Romania Union (USR), was the only political party to boycott the referendum The Romanians did not show up at the polls, therefore invalidating the referendum of the conservative populists represented by the Social Democratic Party and the National Liberal Party. (Gillet, 2018)

19Later on, the President of Romania, Klaus Iohannis, called the nation to a referendum for justice in the same day as the voting for the Euro-parliamentary elections (Marinas, 2019), asking questions related to the anti-corruption fight. The ruling Social Democrats (PSD) called on their voters to boycott the referendum for justice (RTE, 2019).

20Having a governing conservative, nationalist, ex-communist party, labeled as Social Democratic, Romania took over the Presidency of the European Union Council on the 1st of January 2019. According to the government, the foreign countries, the EU, multinational companies, George Soros, the “parallel state” or the “deep state” formed by an alliance of secret services and prosecutors (see Modeste Schwartz, 2018), and the Romanian President were to blame for the economic situation of the country (Robert Schwartz, 2018). This was the background of the European elections in May 2019 that registered a record turnout driven by young people (Corlett, 2019).

Research Method

21Using the qualitative method of the content analysis (as explained by Mucchielli, 2009), I verified the extent to which the official Facebook pages of the Social Democratic Party (PSD, the direct successor of the Romanian Communist Party), the National Liberal Party (PNL, a historical Romanian party and the main Opposition party), the Save Romania Union (USR) allied with the new-comer party called PLUS (forming USR-PLUS) reflected the antagonism of the “virtuous” people versus the “corrupt” elite (Mudde & Kaltwasser, 2015, p. 27, 332). Also, I have revealed which of the main parties were using a “populist discourse” style during the 2019 European campaign.

22In order to monitor the electoral messages conveyed via the official Facebook pages, I used an analysis grid to measure the extent in which the political parties referred to “enemies of the people” (factual or imaginary), blaming them for the economic disaster or the political crisis: Foreigners; Refugees/Migrants; European Union and its institutions; Political parties or the Parliament, as intermediary corrupt organisms between the people and the elites; Actors of globalization, who “threatened” the national sovereignty and traditional values: bankers, multinational companies, businesspeople (like Hungarian-American magnate George Soros, who asked for donations to support the NGOs and civil society initiatives, to build an open society in post-communist countries); Rule of law or the independence of justice. On the other side, the populist discourse would focus on the “homogeneity of the People” and on retrieving the power for the (Romanian) People and the National Sovereignty for the (Romanian) Nation.

Research Hypothesis

23My hypothesis is that if define populism as an “us versus them” antagonism, as conflict between the “pure people and the corrupt elite”, as discourse of those who claim that they represent the “people’s voice”, as rhetoric of the demagogues who tell people what they want to hear in the electoral campaigns, then all the monitored political forces will be labeled as being populist. If we limit the analysis only to the electoral speech, then “populism” is everywhere and everything is “populist”. In turn, if we use the definition of populism as illiberalism (Pappas, 2019) then only the illiberal politicians will be identified as being populists.

The Analyzed Data Corpus

24I have analyzed the online electoral speech, as well as the legislative and executive proposals regarding the rule of law, LGBT and minorities rights, NGOs, foreign businesses of the main Romanian political parties who participated in the 2019 European elections. I investigated the official Facebook pages that were active online at the date of the research period: April 27th-May 25th 2019. The official electoral period started on April 27th 2019 at 00.00 and ended on May 25th 2019 at 7.00 a.m. In this article, I used only the data collected from the official pages of the Social Democratic Party (PSD) (, National Liberal Party (PNL) ( and Save Romania Union and PLUS Alliance (Alianta USR-PLUS) (


25During the monitored period, on the PSD Facebook page there was a total of: 26 posts. Topics: 4 x Vote mobilization: Romania should be (more) respected in Europe by the EU; 3 x We are sending patriots in Europe/EP; 2 x PSD increases the state employees’ pensions and salaries; 2 x Foreign companies are selling low quality products in Romania – no double standard; 2x Youth support programs - The “First House for Youth” program; 1 x We do not despise the Romanians, like the others do / PSD brings home the values: the medics/ Protecting the Romanian migrant workers in the EU / PSD proudly represents Romania in Brussels / Romania’s economic growth ensured by the PSD Government / IT industry grows under PSD Government / PSD endorses Romanian producers / We do not despise the Romanians, like the others do / Vote mobilization: Vote for PSD on May 26th / Europe Day / Increase of the minimum wage / Liberals want to block the increase of state employees’ wages and to decrease the minimum wage / Better work conditions for teachers in the educational system.

26Key-words: 13 x Romania; 11x Romanians; 9 x respect; 9 x increase the salary of state employees (medics) and pensions; 6 x Patriots; 6 x country; 5 x Europe; 5 x youth; 4 x Brussels; 3 x children; 2 x We continue the fight for Romania; 2 x teachers; 2 x minimum wage; 2 x family; 2 x farmers; 1 x Returning home of the medics/ poor people/ housing program/ roads / highways / agricultural subsidies / students’ grants; free transportation / fighting the EU double standard / foreign companies / foreign capital / public servants,/ policeman / military / schools / hospitals.

27During April 27th-May 25th 2019, on the PNL official Facebook page there was a total of 57 posts. Topics: 5 x launching the candidates at the Sibiu PPE Summit PPE; 3 x PNL political program; 3 x President Iohannis launches a book: EU.Ro, An open dialogue about Europe; 2 x Romania should be an equal partner of the EU states; 3 x Rareș Bogdan. A TV star now a candidate, Encouraging people to vote; 2x Manfred Weber, President of #PPE in the European; 2 x National Liberal Party Day; 2 x President Iohannis is obstructed by the Socialist government; 2 x PNL President: encouraging people to vote for the euro-parliamentary elections and the referendum for justice. 1 x Romanians can punish the parties holding power by voting/ PSD lies about the EU double standard / PSD favors the thieves / President Iohannis: encouraging people to vote/ TV talk show with Sigfried Mureșan / Public television, accused of pro-PSD propaganda/ PNL electoral rally/Reducing bureaucracy for getting European funds/The local PNL administration is efficient/Launch of the PNL candidates/ PNL endorses the Romanian entrepreneurs/ The hidden radars will be forbidden/ Press statement of the President of Romania / Attacking the PSD President, Liviu Dragnea, accused of corruption / Criticizing the CCR judges for subordinating PSD / Criticizing the CCR judge proposed by PSD, who did not know how many articles the Romanian Constitution comprises / PNL defends the Romanian carriers in PE / The locally elected PNL politicians have modernized the infrastructure / PNL electoral meeting / Referendum for justice / Developing the infrastructure with EU funds / PSD releases convicts / Attacking the PSD Government / Attracting EU funds for development.

28Key-words of the Liberal discourse: 24 x Romania; 15 x The President of Romania, Iohannis; 14x PNL; 12x PSD; 9 x Rares Bogdan; 8x European Popular Party / 8x Euro-parliamentary elections; 9x Romanians + 2x Romania’s interests; 6x European Parliament /6x Europe / 3x EU / 2x European; 5x Liberalism; 3x referendum for justice / 3x European funds 2x Constitutional Court / 2x people / 2x vote / 2x country / 2x Realitatea TV /2x transport infrastructure / 1 x equal partner / Romanian products / country traitors / nation, the red plague in Europe / Romanian Television, manipulation / diaspora, migration/ entrepreneurs / increase of prosperity / dictatorial / constitutional / criminals / honest people / corruption / theft / convicts release.

29During the electoral campaign period, the USR-PLUS Alliance had a total of 142 posts. Topics: 20 x PSD promotes impostors for holding public functions (Attacking Liviu Dragnea, Norica Nicolai, Daniel Barbu, Maria Grapini, Rovana Plumb) vs the new and competent people of USR; 12 x mobilizing the undecided people to vote (via the “Call 5 friends” phone campaign); 9 x electoral meeting; 8 x Mobilization to the electoral meeting in the park; 7x Campaigning through the country – We can get far ahead without thieves; 5 x The “No criminals holding public functions” campaign; 5 x Europe Day; 4 x Referendum for justice; 4 x Choose USR PLUS, a new party with new people vs. the ones who held the power so far; 3x Guy Verhofstadt, the ALDE leader in PE, endorses USR PLUS; 2 x The Cooperation and Verification Mechanism should be instituted in all EU countries; 3 x Romania loses European money (for highways, agriculture & cohesion) because of corruption; 2 x You can vote anywhere in the country; 2 x PSD wants to take Romania out of the EU;2 x developing the infrastructure with communitarian support; 2 x European funds, wasted by the PSD administration; 2 x The European Summit in Sibiu; 2 x Manifest for a Europe of the future – USR PLUS program; 2 x Education at European standards; 2 x Developing small and medium farmers based on European funds; 3 x The “nothingness governance” of PSD- ALDE – nothing for schools, highways and hospitals; 1 x PSD wants to hinder the appointment of Laura Codruța Kövesi as European Chief Prosecutor / All parties in Romania implemented a disastrous leadership/ Vlad Voiculescu, the coordinator of the PLUS campaign, called dozens of people to persuade them to go voting/ Preparations for voting day at the campaign headquarters/ Romania as part of the exclusivist EU club and of the strong North Atlantic military alliance / The thieves will be judged by the vote, not by corrupted courts / The old school PSD politicians are hiding from the people /European wellbeing in Romania / PSD would do anything to steal at the May 26th vote / Targoviste city, blocked by the Minister of Justice for a PSD meeting / Romanian Police turned into the personal train station of the PSD President / PSD positioned anti-Europe, so they can steal without worries / You can stop the dictators by voting / PSD demanded the censorship of the electoral newspaper USR PLUS, claiming it defames by using the terms “penal” and “criminal” / Isolated regions because of the PSD administration / Withheld citizens at a peaceful anti-PSD protest /PSD promised 8 regional hospitals and has not built any / USR supports the small enterprises / PSD lies about the growth of purchase power / Measures that help the development of start-ups / 1 x Vote for changing the old political class / Creating small and medium enterprises and supporting the family businesses with European funds / Without thieves we will get rid of poverty / The abuses of PSD / Romania should have highways made with the money offered for free by the EU / PSD governs in the interest of criminals / Corruption generates poverty / Reducing the red tape for getting European funds / European funds for infrastructure / European money for protection against the natural disasters / PSD lost the money of the Romanian farmers / Measures for stimulating local agriculture and the young entrepreneurs / PSD and all the other parties do not respect the law of electoral display / PSD enhances the public expenses of an inefficient and corrupted state / Decreasing the bureaucracy of the procedures for allocating European funds / USR wants that the 2021-2027 European budget to ensure enough funds for developing Romania / Reforming the Communitarian Agricultural Policy / European funds for small farms and local producers / Stop the migration / EU and the European funds are Romania’s chance to decrease the gap vs. the other states.

30Key-words: 103 x USR PLUS; 39 x Romania; 34 x PSD; 32 x vote; 21 x thieves/theft; 17 x Romanians; 12 x Ciolos; 12 x Europe + 12 EU; 12 x country; 10 x referendum for justice; 8 x people + 2 x new people in politics + 5 x honest people; 9 x European funds + 6 x European money; 9 x corruption + 4 x stealing; 8 x Euro-parliamentary elections; 7 x old school politicians + 3 x old school parties; 7 x diaspora; 5 x poverty; 5 x hospitals; 5 x change; 4 x hospitals; 3 x highways; 3 x schools; 3x Guy Verhofstadt; 3 x lies; 1 x jail.


31The hypothesis that if we analyze the online electoral discourse, all the political actors can be labeled as populists has been verified by monitoring the official Facebook pages of the main traditional parties and the new political actors from the 2019 campaign for the European Parliament. The discursive logic of populism – “us versus them” – was used by all the political competitors: we, “the pure people”, against them, “the corrupt elite”.

32As per the interpretation grid, the USR-PLUS Alliance had the most populist discourse: “the pure people”, represented by the candidates of the 2020 USR-PLUS Alliance, stood against the “traditional corrupted political elite” and the thieves and liars from the big parties. The electoral communication of USR-PLUS frequently appealed to the antagonism of the “pure people versus the corrupted elite”. USR-PLUS promoted messages opposing the traditional, old-school parties and politicians. For this new entry party, the enemies of the people are “the corrupt parties and political elites”.

33De facto, USR was the only political party that has publicly and explicitly opposed the referendum for the traditional family, backed by PSD (Marian, 2018a), thus defending the citizens’ equality of rights and liberties regardless of their sexual orientation (BBC, 2018). USR was the formation that strongly supported the Romanian President’s referendum for justice, and fought alongside Iohannis against the dismissal of the Chief Prosecutor of the National Anticorruption Department (DNA), Laura Codruta Kövesi. The PSD government and the ruling coalition (PSD-ALDE) wanted to dismiss Kövesi over alleged misconduct within the agency she managed, which they said resulted in abuses. Iohannis’ refusal to dismiss Kövesi could have led to an attempt to impeach the President. In 2018, the Minister of Justice, Tudorel Toader, set up a unit to bring charges against prosecutors who “abused” their power, a clear attempt to intimidate the DNA. The minister also fired Laura Codruta Kövesi, the agency’s hard-driving director.

34As Opposition party, USR drafted a motion against the Minister of Justice and expressed hopes that the larger opposition party represented in the Parliament by the National Liberal Party would endorse their efforts (Regional Anti-corruption Initiative, 2018). USR together with the President of PLUS, Dacian Cioloș, who was the head of Emmanuel Macron’s liberal Renew Europe Group in the European Parliament, “a staunch supporter of Kövesi’s efforts to fight corruption in Romania”(Bucuras, 2019), have backed her in the race for the position of European Chief Prosecutor, which she later gained. By defending the rule of law and the equality of all citizens before the law, by opposing the referendum for traditional family and protecting the LGBT and minority rights, USR is far from the populist ideology.

35The Social Democratic Party (PSD) used their official Facebook page for socialist, nationalist and conservative messages. They showed discursive support for the Romanian workers abroad and for Romanian farmers. In their Facebook posts, PSD discredited the EU institutions, claiming that the “EU applies a double standard, allowing foreign companies to commercialize low quality agricultural products/ aliments/ medication in Romania”; Romanian Socialists complained that the multinational companies sent their profit abroad and gave small salaries to the Romanian employees, and on top of this, the international financial organisms do not recognize the economic growth generated by PSD. Their discourse was nationalist populist according to the interpretation grid.

36Also, through their governance, PSD have imposed an entire series of measures that hindered the fight against corruption: they passed emergency ordinances by which the PSD leaders would have benefited of special treatment in court. The party leader, Liviu Dragnea, back then the country's most powerful politician, tried to change the law to stay out of prison, but failed (The Economist, 2019). The Minister of Justice, Tudorel Toader, has repeatedly applied for the dismissal of the Attorney General of Romania, Augustin Lazăr, and of the Chief DNA Prosecutor, Codruța Kövesi, (Duncan, 2018) endeavors in which he was backed by the politicized Constitutional Court of Romania (Marian, 2018b, pp. 31-33). PSD did not endorse Kövesi for the European Chief Persecutor Office – EPPO – (Schwartz, 2019): they tried to block her appointment (Valerie Hopkins, Michael Peel & Mehreen Khan, 2019) with the help of their representatives from the European Parliament commissions, together with other Euro-skeptics and European nationalists (Anca Gurzu, 2019). The role of the EU Prosecutor’s Office is to investigate and criminally indict offences that affect the EU budget: fraud, corruption, money laundering, VAT cross border fraud.

37During the migrants’ crisis in 2015, the PSD leaders spoke against the Syrian refugees’ wave that would have migrated to Romania, without being solidary with the EU (Gotev, 2015b). In 2017-2019, throughout their governing, PSD have publicly attacked the Western corporations, the multinational companies and the foreign banks (HotNews, 2018). Afterwards, they have taken measures against foreign capital by introducing the so-called greed tax or „Greed Ordinance”: the emergency ordinance 114/2018 that entailed new taxes for banks, energy and telecom firms (Melenciuc, 2019).

38In his public speeches, Liviu Dragnea has “demonized” the Hungarian-American financier George Soros (Ilie & Birsel, 2018), accusing him of supporting the 2017-2018 anti-corruption protests against PSD via non-governmental organizations (Ursu &Drăgan, 2018, p. 13). The leader of Romania’s governing party even declared that George Soros “tried to kill him” (Clej, 2018). Therefore, PSD had a reason to enforce financial measures that did not favor the associative environment din Romania: a bill submitted by Romania’s ruling Social Democrat Party required non-governmental organizations to declare their sources of funding every six months or face dissolution, causing great concern among the civic society in Bucharest (Touma, 2017).

39In the 2018 campaign, the conservative PSD were the main political endorsers of the referendum for traditional family, initiated by the Coalition for Family with the goal to define marriage as the communion between a man and a woman. Hence, the Romanian Social Democrats have yet again disagreed with the values of the European socialists (Michalopoulos, 2018). By their legislative measures, directed against the NGOs, foreign businesspeople or LGBT minorities, PSD promoted not only a populist speech, but also a populist ideology, steering Romania towards an illiberal democracy regime.

40In the online discourse on their official Facebook page, PNL, member of the European Popular Party, personalized their campaign, emphasizing the actions of the popular leaders of the party: the Romanian Liberals focused on President Iohannis’ book launches and on the TV apparitions of candidate Rares Bogdan, a former political talk-show host. The Liberals’ speech was populist as well: blaming the PSD leaders and Socialist Government of being corrupted and claiming they represented the voice of the “pure people”. Paradoxically, PNL has endorsed the referendum for justice of the liberal President Klaus Iohannis less than USR in the digital environment. The Romanian Liberals also embraced the populist ideology in the campaign for the referendum for traditional family: they have opposed the rights of the LGBT minorities on the ground that – as their president, Ludovic Orban, officially argued – “this is how God made the human” (Wall-Street, 2017).

41Therefore, whenever we apply the minimal definition of populism – “democratic illiberalism” –, we escape the trap of labeling all the political actors as being “populists” just because they integrated in their political discourse the antagonism between the “corrupted” elite and the “pure” people on behalf of whom they claim to be speaking.

This work was supported by the Project entitled “Proiecte de mobilitate pentru cercetători”, Project Code: PN-III-P1-1.1-MC-2019-1488. Contracting Authority: Unitatea Executivă pentru Finanțarea Învățământului Superior, a Cercetării, Dezvoltării și Inovării (UEFISCDI). Contractor: University of Bucharest via the Program “Dezvoltarea sistemului național de cercetare-dezvoltare”.


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Antonio Momoc, «Populism: from strategic communication style to political ideology of illiberal democracy», French Journal For Media Research [online], Browse this journal/Dans cette revue, 14/2020 Populism and New/Old Media, last update the : 10/01/2020, URL :

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Antonio Momoc

Associate Professor, PhD,

University of Bucharest, Faculty of Journalism and Communication Sciences



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