French Journal For Media Research

Liliana Ruxăndoiu

Populism in an Emerging Post-Communist Democracy
The Case of the Romanian Political Discourse

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Abstract: The paper aims at bringing forward some specific forms of populism which are quite active in the present-day Parliamentary debates in Romania.
The analysis emphasizes both important changes over time in the populist discourse in Romania, and important differences in the targets of this discourse, as compared to Western Europe and even to some other former communist countries (like Hungary)..

2The analysis will focus on the populist strategies used by the MPs representing some important political

3parties: Social-Democratic Party (PSD), National-Liberal Party (PNL) and the Union Save Romania (USR).
The picture which emerges from this short description is that in Romania the roots and forms of populism

4should be looked for mainly in the competition for power between the left-wing and the right-wing parties, which are in an open and irreconcilable conflict.

Keywords: populism, parliamentary discourse, populist rhetoric, staging, conflicting stances

Résumé : Le document vise à mettre en évidence certaines formes spécifiques de populisme, qui sont assez actives dans les débats parlementaires actuels en Roumanie.

5L'analyse met l'accent à la fois sur les changements importants connus par le discours populiste en Roumanie le long du temps et sur les différences importantes dans les objectifs de ce discours, par rapport à l'Europe occidentale et même à certains autres anciens pays communistes.

6L'analyse se concentrera sur les stratégies populistes utilisées par les députés représentant certains partis : le Parti social-démocrate (PSD), le Parti national-libéral (PNL) et l’Union Sauvez la Roumanie (USR).
L'image qui se dégage de cette brève description est qu'en Roumanie les racines et les formes du populisme à rechercher principalement dans la compétition pour le pouvoir entre les partis de gauche et de droite, qui sont dans un conflit ouvert et irréconciliable.

Mots clés : populisme, discours parlementaire, rhétorique populiste, mise en scène, positions conflictuelles

Preliminary remarks

7 The paper aims at bringing forward some forms of populism, which characterize political discourse in Romania in the last three decades.

8 In the beginning, the theoretical background of the analysis will be presented. The analysis proper will try to reflect the changes produced over time in the targets and the style of the Romanian populist discourse. Some similarities and differences in relation to Western Europe as well as to other former communist countries will be brought forward too.

Some theoretical aspects

9 Populism has been approached from different viewpoints, which are not mutually exclusive (Gidron/Bonikowski 2013: 14), but rather complementary. Still, its forms and functions can be completely revealed and understood only in an interdisciplinary and trans-disciplinary perspective, including mainly theoretical and applied political sciences, philosophy, sociology, pragma-linguistics, discourse analysis, rhetoric. The common denominator or all these fields is represented by the discourse, the basic material form which triggers the interpretations and commentaries of different specialists.

10 In the following, populism will be viewed as a discursive style of political communication, based on a specific ideology and resulting in specific forms of political mobilization (Jagers/Walgrave 2007: “political communication style”; Gidron/Bonikowski 2013: 5-14).

11 Most of the researchers (cf., for example, Gidron/Bonikowski 2013; Bost/Brands 2014) identify a number of features which are typical of the populist discursive style, such as:

  • Manichaeism, reflected by the dichotomy us/them (viewed as antagonistic entities);

  • highly emotional character (emotion-driven discourse); pathos is more important than logos in the discourse; a dysphoric orientation of the discourse, aiming to produce indignation and accordingly to incite to action (Plantin 1999: 213);

  • paranoid character: exaggeration of the negative aspects, which creates an apocalyptic image of a certain society; suspicion; conspiracy view;

  • directness, everydayness (Oliver/Rahm 2016), and accordingly accessibility, anti-intellectualism;

  • stereotypy, slogans;

  • argumentation based on fallacies (Ilie 2016).

12 These features reflect a specific discursive dramaturgy (Charaudeau 2005: 55-56), based on the identification of a situation of decline, whose source are the corrupt elites that ignored people’s needs. It can be solved only by a charismatic leader (or a certain group), who understands the people and shares its values, and who construes an image of power for himself. The whole “mise en discours” is oriented towards both the ideas transmitted to the audience and the speaker’s image building. The speaker takes advantage of other’s emotional needs, enacting emotion (Balique 2008: 276) and cooperation. In fact, it is mainly a “rhetorical cooperation”, as Gu (1993:188) puts it, following extra-linguistic perlocutionary effects.

13 Basically, one can speak of a “manipulative discourse” (Sorlin 2017: 134), which is parasitic on the main pragmatic principles. It is not meant to influence the free choice of the audience when it comes to some important issues for a given community, but to impose to the others speaker’s already made choices (ibid.: 135). Manipulation is insidious as it does not have explicit linguistic and pragmatic markers (ibid.: 136).

14The maxims of the co-operative principle are unostentatiously violated by the speaker, via conveying too much (or not enough) information, disseminating rumors, which are presented as true facts, imposing a certain selection of relevant and irrelevant issues, indirectness and lack of clarity. Politeness principle is also violated by a hypocritical exaggeration of the audience’s qualities (the right understanding of some important issues, the right position and attitude towards these issues, in the given conditions), as well as by a strategic enacting of the speaker’s face. The speaker creates an ethos of lucidity for him(/her)self (insisting on his/her correct evaluation of the circumstances), an ethos of engagement (insisting on his/her determination to act), or an ethos of authority (stressing on his/her credibility or legitimacy) (Charaudeau 2005: 41-42).

Populism and the fight for power in Romania after 1989

15As populism is an important instrument in the fight for power, one can expect it to be more active during the electoral campaigns (no matter which the object of these campaigns is: presidential elections, parliamentary elections, both for the national and the European Parliament, local elections). At the same time, populism has an important place in the fight of a political party to preserve its parliamentary majority (and accordingly to remain in power, preserving its own government). Of course, referendums also provide good opportunities for populist propaganda.

16In the following, four basic types of populist discourses will be commented. We labeled them nationalistic, agonistic, the populism of pretending, and the neo-/cyber populism. In order to illustrate them, different discursive forms will be used: electoral (both presidential and parliamentary) campaign discourses, press declarations, parliamentary speeches. They reflect the changes produced over time in the targets of populism as well as its forms and means of expression.

17One can also notice the role played by some basic parameters (such as the specific configuration of the internal and external situation at a certain moment, the relative position of different parties in the political life, and the personality of the speaker) in the way of staging and performing the discourse.

18(a) Nationalistic populism, which nowadays marks important points in Western Europe (see, for example, Jagers/Walgrave 2005; Gidron/Bonikowski 2013; Bos/Brants 2014), targeting mainly immigrants and all kinds of minorities, is dramatically declining in Romania. The situation is different even from some other former communist countries, like the neighboring Hungary, where a nationalistic party (Fidesz) is in power and the anti-immigration policies are officially supported by the government. In Romania, nationalistic rhetoric, the oldest and the most traditional form of populism, is nowadays felt as obsolete, as connected to the communist past of the country (it was an important component of Ceausescu’s propaganda) rather than with the modern ideas of globalization which gain ground. Nationalistic parties, which proliferated after 1989 (PRM “Greater Romania Party”, PUNR “the Party of the Romanian National Unity”, PNG “the New Generation Party”, etc.), are no more represented in the Parliament, some of them even disappeared or are “in conservation”.

19Nationalistic populism in Romania has been triggered by the radical changes produced after 1989, which had a strong impact on the life of wide sections of the population. Privatization was the phenomenon which had quite important economic and social consequences. On the one hand, most of the Romanian enterprises and some parts of the land have been acquired by foreign companies. On the other hand, privatization has created in time a deep gap in a previously rather homogeneous society concerning its economic means.

20This situation was exploited by C.V. Tudor, at that time the vocal president of the PRM, who entered the second round of the 2000 presidential elections, confronting I. Iliescu, the president of the PSD, the party in power, and the president in office. As Iliescu refused the direct confrontation with his opponent, the final debate between the two candidates took a non-canonical form: each of them had an individual intervention on the national TV channel.

21C.V. Tudor’s intervention can be viewed as a prototypical example of a perfectly structured populist discourse. It starts with presenting a catastrophic script of ordinary people’s life in Romania and ends with interpreting his qualification in the second tour of the elections as a sign of the awakening of people’s self-awareness. Some aspects are quite salient.

22First of all, a Manichean view, reflected by the opposition between the “mafia type state” (implicating the policies of the PSD, the party in power), which transformed Romania into an “extermination camp”, and the PRM, defined as “the most national, redeeming party”, representing Romanians’ preferences and will (as the first electoral round has proved).

23The discourse has a highly emotional character; it is dysphorically oriented in its first part, where a dramatically negative scenario of a paranoid character is presented, in order to produce indignation and to contrast with the euphoric vision of the future, given the choice made by the Romanians in favor of the PRM:

“Romania became a mafia type state […] the ceiling of the schools falls down on the children’s heads and the mothers stuff up the windows with paper and cloths to prevent their children to see that it’s dawn and ask for food; and the guillotine of a criminal reform liquidates everything […] and nobody wants understand that the angelic patience of the Romanian has a limit. Well, on the 26th of November, all this rottenness of this extermination camp blew up. […] Romanians woke up and made their choice for the most national and the most redeeming party”

24Notice the lexical choices as well as the argumentation based on the ad misericordiam and on the ad populum fallacies.

25 The author makes reference to the national history and to some representative symbols (as the national anthem), to God, but also to “foreigners”, viewed as a destructive force, in contrast with the Romanians’ qualities (patience, dignity, opening towards democracy). All these aspects are typical of a right wing populist discourse.

26 (b) Agonistic populism: the populism of accusations and promises
The discourse of two completely different presidents could be labeled as such. One is Traian Băsescu, who defined himself as a “president player”, and the other – Klaus Iohannis, who might be called a “president spectator” (or onlooker). Both are strong and self-confident persons, but play different cards. Whereas Băsescu plays the card of closeness to the ordinary people, adopting an attitude of familiarity, Iohannis is distant, adopting a position of superiority, of a guru who speaks to his followers. These differences could be explained not only by the differences in their personality and temperament, but also by their professional background: Băsescu was a commercial ship commander, who used to spend much time with ordinary people, but whose authority was warranted by the military hierarchy; Iohannis was a high-school teacher and then a local school supervisor, who needed to impose his authority over his pupils or his colleagues. After that, he became the mayor of a province town.

27 I chose a fragment from the presidential campaign debate between Băsescu and A. Năstase, from the 8th of December 2004, hosted by the national TV channel, and two short press declarations of Iohannis, which precede the opening of the presidential election campaign (Iohannis competes for a new presidential mandate).

28 Unless C.V.Tudor, who creates a metaphorical script to describe the general situation of the country, indirectly accusing the party in power, Băsescu makes reference to some concrete facts, which are given subjective interpretations, aiming at accusing of corruption the PSD governing and his direct opponent in the campaign, the prime-minister in office. His main tactics is insinuation:

“Why did you cancel the article from the Law 19/2000, which stipulated the modification of the pension system starting with 2001? Maybe, in order to use this money in favor of your political clientele! Do you have contempt for the retired beyond the limits which this category of 6.2 million of people can stand?”

“You exempted X from taxes and you scorned the retired and peasants. You gave exemption of taxes to Y and scorned the younger generations.”

29Băsescu presents himself as caring for the needs of the simple people, of “any Romanian who wants to change the totalitarian power which is exerted by the PSD at present”. He makes special reference to those social categories, which need special attention and support: the retired, the peasants, and the youngsters. Without bringing any proofs, he maintains that the current governing drained the money these categories deserved to the rich businessmen representing its political clientele.

30 In his final message to the electorate, Băsescu addresses it with the familiar formula oameni buni “good people”, in contradistinction to Năstase, who uses the more formal formula dragi compatrioţi “dear fellow-countrymen”.

31 It is quite striking the similarity between the strategies used by T. Băsescu in his discourse and those used by K. Iohannis in some of his recent public interventions. On the 25th of July 2019, a tragic event has taken place: a young girl, who has been kidnapped, called the emergency services, but has not been found. A similar event has taken place in May, in the same area. In a press declaration from the 28th of July, the President accuses the Government of being “the moral author” of these tragedies. Upon him, the Government attitude lacks honesty and sincerity when proposing a referendum concerning the judicial system. Iohannis seizes the opportunity of approaching some very sensitive topics for the Romanian society, such as corruption and the political subordination of the judicial system:

“I reject the Government politician approach […]. This would be honest requirement only if coming from honest people, looking for solutions to solve the situation openly and sincerely. When it comes from those who made a hash from laws, fired competent people in order to appoint their intimates, reduced the penalties for the offenders and wanted to politically subordinate the judicial system […], they do not have any credibility.”

32 When commenting President’s declarations, one should also mention that, on November 10, we should have presidential elections. On August 10, the President started to collect signatures in favor of his re-election, in the University Square, the emblematic place of the Romanian revolution from 1989. The date also was not chosen at random, as just a year before the police violently repressed an ample meeting organized by the diaspora. In the short speech, he gave on this occasion, the President mentions:

“The PSD government attacked its own citizens”

33(although the citizens are not government property), an idea which appears too, in a different form, in the previously quoted declaration.

34 During his whole mandate, Iohannis’s policy was to avoid any responsibility for the negative events, to position him above the facts, and to transfer the whole guilt to the opposition parties in power (PSD and ALDE). Still, it should be mentioned that, according to the Romanian Constitution, the President is part of the executive power. At the same time, the President – who was a member of the PNL – should abandon his party membership as long as he is in office, and act as a mediator between the different political parties.

35 Construed on the opposition I/the Government, K. Iohannis’s discourses do not exploit people’s emotions (which are only indirectly triggered), but their rationality, by the negative features assigned to the opposition Government: incompetence, corruption, arrogance. It is a strongly individualistic discourse, elaborated from the perspective of someone who views himself as an embodiment of the leader. Even in his declaration from the 10th of August, where the inclusive we is used twice:

“Together we need to reset the Romanian state.”

“We need to rebuild everything”,

36it appears in connection with the idea of execution. The thinking and will belong to the leader:

“I know how to do it”,

“I am willing to do it”

“I shall coagulate a strong team”.

37 The same perspective is reflected in the press declaration from July 28, where the President threatens the Government:

“Should this Government not do it, I shall require a new majority after the presidential elections”.

38This is practically impossible, since upon the Constitution a majority cannot be required by anybody (even by the President), but it results from the parliamentary elections. Not to mention that Iohannis presents his re-election as a President as certain.

39 To conclude, what distinguishes the populist discourse of Iohannis from that of Băsescu is the type of ethos which is discursively construed. Whereas Iohannis construes an ethos of credibility for himself, exploiting the ideas of seriousness and competence (savoir and savoir-faire), Băsescu construes an ethos of identification for himself, based on force, directness (provocations, polemics), compassion (humanity), solidarity (Charaudeau 2005: 91/129).


41 (c) The populism of pretending
This is a different type of populism, which characterizes the discourse of the governing party, the PSD. The discourse of the PSD representatives is quite monotonous. They all stick to the idea “what matters to us is fulfilling our governing program”, in other words “we do not talk, but act for your well-being”, “our deeds speak for themselves”.

42 On the EU parliamentary elections, PSD freely distributed a small newspaper, whose title contained the formula “Romania deserves more”, in different variants (in Europe, respect, etc.). In this newspaper, some main results of the PSD governing are presented: the rise in the living standard; higher salaries; increase of the purchasing power; blocking the rise in the tariffs of the utilities, etc. At the same time, these results are compared with those of the other governing parties, in a table, under the titles What have done them/What have done us. The comparison includes basic aspects, such as salaries, pensions, access to medicine, taxes, AVT, utilities. In a similar way, the future plans are comparatively presented, under the titles What do they want to do/ What do we want to do. Of course, the comparison is in favor of the PSD.

43 Under the heading Did you know that…, the readers are alerted about the future plans of the opposition parties, which will negatively affect the life of ordinary people:

“PNL proposed the diminishing of the minimal wages”; “PNL wants to keep the bills for the utilities and the credits at high costs, in favor of the corporations”; “PNL voted against the raising of the allowances for the children”; “PNL proposed to stop all the state allowances for the retired, the persons with cancer, and for other vulnerable categories”.

44 Under the same heading, negative information about important leaders appears, in order to affect their credibility:

“Judges have decided that Iohannis family committed false and made use of false in acquiring a residence”.

45 A declaration of L. Dragnea (accompanied by his picture), the former PSD leader, in jail at present, takes for granted the positive evaluation of his party by the ordinary citizens:

“There is a certain fact for the citizens: PSD raises the salaries and the pensions, does not cut them. During the PSD governing, national economy was in a continuous growing process. And despite the critics, PSD is the greatest party; it knows how to govern a country and has the capacity to bring a change for better in the Romanians’ life”.

46 This reminds the Romanians the communist propaganda, praising the results of the wise party policies, as well as the slogan “With the people, for the people”, from the Ceauşescu’s epoch (self-entitled “the golden epoch”). It is one of the typical forms of the left wing demagogy.

47 (d) The neo-/cyber populism is typical of a quite recently created party, USR, which is represented in the Romanian Parliament, getting good scores in the last elections. USR is the party of a new generation of politicians. It does not have well known leaders yet, as to them public discourse is not a basic means of political action. They are better known for the unconventional means of protesting against the policies of the party in power, such as boycotting the parliamentary debates by using loud musical records, slogans, banners, badges, and other distinctive signs. At the same time, they organized protests outside the Parliament building, and were active in all the public protests, co-operating with the anti-PSD movement #Rezist.

48 Using the possibilities provided by the internet, they act more as individual critics of the establishment, than as a political formation with a specific ideology. Generally speaking, what connects them is the reject of the past and the opening towards the future and towards the problems of the younger generations.

49 Their favorite slogan “PSD- ciuma roşie” (“PSD- the red pest”) is largely used in the public protest meetings, although it has been invented by C.V. Tudor. Still, one can add that there are some other similarities between the forms of political action adopted by the USR and those previously used by the PRM. C.V. Tudor was the first who used the show and the banners as forms of protest. For example, on the occasion of the parliamentary session dedicated to the condemnation of communism, when T. Băsescu gave an important speech. C.V. Tudor considered it a masquerade, as the speaker was not viewed as the appropriate person to do such an important action (given his communist past).

Final remarks

50 Populism is a matter of political attitude, reflected mainly in the discursive choices. In its deep structure, populism always has an electoral component: it represents a strategy aiming at getting the necessary support of the basic social layers in a country for a certain political group and for its representatives. It is an instrument in the fight for power.

51 Considering the evolution of populism in Romania in the last three decades, one can notice:
a) a depreciation of the “traditional” forms of populism, based on construing a catastrophic scenario, and involving a strong nationalistic component (references to main historical events and personalities or to religious symbols). This differentiates our country from most of the Western countries as well as from some other former communist countries.
b) the constant presence of a strong demagogic component in the discourse of both the left- and the right-wing parties. If the populism of the right-wing parties is based on accuses (directed to their opponents) and promises, the populism of the left-wing parties – most of the time in power after 1989 – is based on pretending to act for the people’s welfare.
c) the new parliamentary parties, representing younger generations (like the USR) do not lay great stress on the discourse, but on the efficiency of the internet and the social network media. Their populism is based more on non-conformism and contestation.


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Liliana Ruxăndoiu, «Populism in an Emerging Post-Communist Democracy», French Journal For Media Research [online], Full texts/Numéros en texte intégral, 14/2020 Populism and New/Old Media, last update the : 01/04/2020, URL :

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Liliana Ruxăndoiu

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University of Bucharest

Faculty of Letter



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