French Journal For Media Research

Valentina Marinescu

Agriculture and populism in Romanian media
The case of EU Campaigns from 2019

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1Abstract: This paper will focus on two areas of agriculture in relation to populist discourse and ideology. First, we discuss the media coverage of a crisis in Romanian agriculture (as was the case with the African swine fever epidemic in 2017 and 2018) and examine whether this reconstruction of the topic have already set the basis of a populist discourse about agriculture for the Europarliamentary Elections Campaign in 2019. Second, we investigate the Romanian parties’ communications about agriculture-related issues in the European Electoral campaign from 2019 and attempt to identify the elements of populist discourse in this case.
Key-words: Agriculture, media coverage, populism, EU Campaign, Romania.
Résumé : Cet article se concentrera sur deux domaines de l'agriculture en relation avec le discours populiste et l’idéologie. Tout d’abord, nous discutons de la couverture médiatique d'une crise de l'agriculture roumaine (le cas de l’épidémie de peste porcine africaine en 2017 et 2018) et examinons si cette reconstruction du sujet a déjà jeté les bases d’un discours populiste sur l’agriculture dans le cas de Campagne pour élections Européennes en 2019. Deuxièmement, nous enquêtons sur les communications des partis roumains sur les questions liées à l’agriculture dans la campagne électorale européenne de 2019 et tentons d'identifier les éléments du discours populiste dans cette affaire.
Mots-clés: agriculture, couverture médiatique, populisme, campagne de l'UE, Roumanie.

Theoretical framework

2As a scientific term, as the existing literature showed (Roberts 2006; Barr 2009), “populism” is an extremely contested notion. As Weyland (2001) had pointed out, the definitions of “populism” were based on various sciences (e.g. political sciences, economic sciences, social sciences, and linguistics). Much more, the perspectives from which the “populism” was analyzed covered a vast array of different perspectives (such as structuralism, post-structuralism, modernization theory, social movement theory, party politics, political psychology, political economy, and democratic theory) (Acemoglu et al., 2011; Ionescu & Gellner, 1969; Canovan, 2002; Hawkins, 2009; Goodliffe, 2012; Postel, 2007). Taking into account the existing debates about the term of “populism” it is not unusual that there was no fixed definition of this concept (Canovan, 1981; Wievorka, 1993; Taguieff, 1995; Taguieff, 1998; Taggart, 2000; Elchardus 2001; Mény & Surel, 2000; Mény & Surel, 2002; Mudde, 2004; Abts, 2004).

3Our approach is based on the history of populism and in this case, we can distinguish three successive waves of populism: agrarian populism, Latin-American populism and new-right populism (Taguieff, 1998). As Walicki (1969) had pointed out, agrarian populism first appeared and developed in the XIXth century in Russia. It was a form of populism that aimed towards an egalitarian society and aimed at the development of the Russian peasants as a disadvantaged class. At the beginning of the XXth century, populism moved geographically and was at the basis of the American People’s party that also aimed to fight for the peasants, in favor of agrarian socio-economic interests (Worsley, 1969). Later, in the 1940s and 1950s, populism reappeared in Latin America, where some political leaders (such as Péron in Argentina and Vargas in Brazil) used populism as a state ideology (Hennessy, 1969). In the Latin-American form of populism, the politicians had considered themselves as direct emanation of the people and their “servants” (Hennessy, 1969). Starting with the 1970s populism was associated mainly with new-right parties (Taggart, 2000) and in this form it was and remained focused on specific topics – such is the case of immigration, taxes, crime, and nationalism (Taggart, 2000). In addition, new-right populism always attempted to challenge the traditional parties, by accusing them to ignore “the real wishes of the people” (Taggart, 2000).

4All the above-mentioned forms of populism shared as a common trait the assessment of society as made from indistinct individuals (Taggart, 2000; Mudde, 2004). In the populist views, the people have the same interests and, much more, they can be seen as having the same features. In opposition to the general society, the populist views had defined the existence of some groups which did not share the people’s characteristics (Reinemann et al., 2017). Those are the enemies, which had built their values and behaviors against “the people”. By defining the enemy as internal, within the people, the populism separated the “good people” from other groups, which became the target of political discourse and political action. The “enemy” groups were considered as the cause for all the misfortunes which affect the general population. The group of “others” is reconstructed by populism as being a peculiar segment of the population (Albertazzi & McDonnell, 2008).

5It is not accidental that, in the process of building up the “enemies” from within, the communication played an important role (Aalberg et al., 2017; de Vreese et al., 2018). As the existing literature pointed out (Aalberg et al., 2017; Jagers & Walgrave, 2007) from the perspective of the communication the following types of populism can be identified: (1). The “complete populism” (it includes reference and appeals to the people, anti-elitism, and exclusion of out-groups); (2) the “anti-elitist populism”(a form of populism which made reference to the people and is openly against the existing elites in a society); (3) the “excluding populism”(this form only made an appeal to the people and refers to the exclusion of “others”, the groups which are different from the people); (4) the “empty populism”( not only refer to the people); (5) “restoring sovereignty populism” (in this case the appeal is to the “general will of the people” and it aims to restore popular sovereignty) (Aalberg et al., 2017; Jagers & Walgrave, 2007; Abts & Rummens, 2007; Canovan, 2002; Mény & Surel, 2002; Mudde, 2004).

6The present article starts from the above-mentioned types of populism as they are identified within the communication and it aimed to identify the peculiarities of Romanian populist discourse concerning the agriculture as the main theme. As the research questions we have the following ones:
RQ1: Does the crisis in Romanian agriculture set the basis of the populist discourse about agriculture at the level of general communication within society?
RQ2: During the European Electoral campaign from 2019 can one identify a specific type of populist discourse within the Romanian parties’ communication on agriculture-related topics?


7The present article has mainly an exploratory character and it used methodological triangulation. More specifically, we have used the triangulation at the double level: methods and samples. As regards the methods used in our analysis those were quantitative content analysis and qualitative content analysis.

8The quantitative content analysis was made on a sample of 450 articles on the topic of the 2018 crisis in Romanian agriculture. In this case, we used the Google Chrom search engine where I searched for articles using the keyword. Keywords used were: “pigs”; “swine”; “Swine fever”; “Swine fever epidemic”; “African swine fever”. The articles identified in the first 15 pages of Google Chrome were analyzed for each of the keywords used. Finally, 450 articles were selected that addressed the general issue of African swine fever. The articles were published in Romania in online newspapers (e. G., Gâ,, Business,, aggregated news sites (, and on television sites (Protv News, B1Tv, Digi24).

9The qualitative content analysis was made on a sample of eight articles dealing with the agriculture issues in the European Electoral campaign from 2019. The data were collected as part of the project “Platform Europe” (European Election Monitoring Center, 2019a). From a total of 472 posters, commercials and Facebook posts included in the sample only eight (that is 1.69% of the total sample) had referred to agriculture as the main topic. All the six posters were, as such, included in the qualitative content analysis.

Analysis of the results

The 2017-2018 crises in agriculture and media coverage

10In 2017-218 Romania experienced a vast crisis in agriculture, as a result of the African swine fever epidemics. The African swine flu epidemic was detected in 2017, more exactly on July 31st - August 1st, in the North-Western part of the country, where two outbreaks that originated in rural subsistence farmer households were reported (terBeek, 2017). The disease spread so rapidly, that 1,164 Africam swine fever (ASF) outbreaks affecting domestic pigs were identified and eradicated in 2018. More than 500,000 domestic pigs were sacrificed between 2017 and 2018, the highest number for entire Europe (Hopkins & Terazono, 2019).

11Our analysis showed that most articles on ASF have been published on the websites of TV stations (39.1%) and on sites exclusively dedicated to news (33.6%), followed at a great distance by the info platforms (11.8%). Almost half of the published press materials about the ASF crisis were average informative texts (over 20 lines) - 48.1% - while almost a quarter was plain news (23.2%). Interviews (1%) and opinion texts (3.3%) were the least used journalistic genres to cover the ASF epidemic.

12As regards the relation between the text and the images, as our data pointed out, a percentage of 72.3% of the analyzed articles were published together with one or more photos/videos featuring animals. Most animal pictures showed domestic pigs (44.1%) and domestic pigs and / or live boars (40.1%). Only 13.9% of the animal pictures showed dead or killed animals.

13From a geographical point of view, in 55.7% of the articles the ASF epidemic was mentioned as taking place in a certain area/county/locality in Romania and in 26.5% the journalist referred to Romania in general. Most articles specified the Romanian counties where ASF cases appeared (there were 667 mentions of the 41 counties in Romania) or strictly localities where an ASF outbreak was located (there were 242 localities mentioned as such). Most mention of a foreign country where the ASF epidemic appeared was referred to Ukraine (7.60% of the total articles), Poland (5.07%), Bulgaria (4.56%) and the Republic of Moldova (3,805). Only in a small number of articles did journalists locate the ASF epidemic as belonging to a general geographical area: the “Baltic countries” (in the case of 4 articles) or “Eastern Europe” (also a number of 4 articles).

14When the issue of designated the epidemic of ASF was analyzed our data showed that journalists did not use negative references and/or words related to it in most cases. Thus, in the case of a quarter of the analyzed articles (25.2%) the disease is simply called “African swine fever”, and in the case of a fifth of the total sample (19.3%) it is called “Swine fever”. The use of words with negative emotional load was minimal in the period considered, only 0.3% of the articles calling it a “deadly disease” and only 0.5% referring to it as a “scourge”.

15Almost one-fifth of the analyzed articles (17.9%) had as their source the National Veterinary Health and Food Safety Authority and 11.2% had used the information issued by the Veterinary and Food Safety Directorates located at the county’s level. Other sources for articles published on this topic were another traditional media - other newspapers, TV stations (10.2%) - and a member of the Government (that is, a minister) (8.1%). Half of the analyzed articles (50.1%) also cited persons and documents and institutions.

16The main “definers of the situation” (Miller, 1993) in the case of the ASF epidemic were a minister (12.5%), Veterinary and Food Safety Directorates representatives at the level of the county (12.4%), politicians (6.9%), local government representatives (6.9%), the ministries of profile - through their decisions and decisions (11.2%), the local administration - through the issued documents (9.8%) and the Romanian state or the European Union - through the laws which were in force related to the agriculture and public health (9.3%).

17We found the references to the causes of disease’ occurrence and spread in the case of 23.1% of the entire sample. Among the most frequently mentioned causes of this situation were: causes of a medical-veterinary type (26.2%); causes related to the spatial movement of animals (24.8%); causes that tend to lack control from the authorities (10.4%) and causes directly related to the delay of the authorities in taking firm measures regarding the ASF (9.4%)

18The consequences of ASF occurrence and spread were presented by 75.5% of the articles included in our sample. The causes of the occurrence and spread of ASF that were frequently mentioned were: the death of sick animals or of those which were suspected of being sick (19.1%); the spread of the virus in the territory (18%); the economic-social causes (15.9%); the only social causes (9.3%); the causes that had been only of medical-veterinary type (8.2%).

19The risks associated with ASF occurrence and spread had been mentioned in 56.2% of the entire sample. As the most commonly mentioned risks one could identify: the spread of the virus (26.7%); the economic risks (13%); the risks which were medical-veterinary (11.1%); the risks that were related only to animals (7.5%); the commercial risks (6.3%); the risks that concern only the agricultural sector in the country (6.3%).

20A percentage of 65.5% of the articles included in our analysis mentioned also who was responsible for the emergence and spread of ASF. In this case, journalists mentioned frequently: the medical-veterinary staff (9.9%); the virus as such (9.7%); the central authorities from Romania (7.8%); the ministries (e.g. Ministry of Agriculture) (7.6%); the politicians in general (7.1%); domestic pigs (7%); wild boar (7%).

21The factors that led to the emergence and spread of ASF were mentioned by 42.1% of the articles. Here the reference was made at: the biological factors (27.7%); the factors which were related to the natural migration of animals (especially wild boars) (12.5%); the factors related to the specificity of the disease (the fact that it is a viral, communicable disease) (10.4%); the factors related to the correct and / or incomplete application of the measures to prevent and combat the spread of the disease (7.2%); the factors related to the negligent behavior of ordinary people (5.8%).

22Journalists also mentioned barriers to the spread of the ASF in the case of 49.4% of the articles. The most frequently mentioned barriers to ASF were: the killing of animals (16.5%); the measures taken by the central authorities (13.7%); the measures taken by the local authorities (13.4%); the liquidation of outbreaks of ASF (8%); the measures specific to the control of the disease in the territory (5.5%).

23As our analysis showed the Romanian media had covered a rather neutral way the ASF epidemic from 2017-2018. More precisely, journalists’ emphasis was mainly on medical (and not political, as anyone could expected) causes of ASF and on the responsibilities of central and local authorities in fighting and preventing the disease. There was no indication of a populist approach of the agrarian crisis caused by ASF epidemics and no manifest link between the (strictly) medical causes and responsibilities related to the zoonotic disease and the political domain.

The agriculture and populism during the European Electoral Campaign 2019

24The European Electoral Campaign 2019 in Romania was polarised into two contrasting campaigns approaches anti-corruption and anti-system (which was targeted against the government party – Democratic Party) and pro-European (European Election Monitoring Center, 2019b).

25There were four main approaches used in Romania during the European Electoral Campaign, as follows: (1). A focus on the national identity and patriotism – “Proud to be Romanians” (Social Democratic Party, Liberals, and Democrats Alliance Party), “‘Romania first” (National Liberal Party), “Romania respected in the EU” (Social Democratic Party, National Liberal Party, Liberals and Democrats Alliance Party); (2). The anti-corruption theme – “No thieves in public institutions” (USR-PLUS Alliance); (3). The Anti-Government related issue (Liberals and Democrats Alliance Party, USR-Plus Alliance, National Liberal Party, ProRomania, Popular Movement Party); (4). The Pro-European topics (Popular Movement Party, USR-PLUS Alliance, ProRomania) (European Election Monitoring Center, 2019b).

26 In the case of Romanian parties’ posters focused on agriculture as the main topic one could identify three main sub-themes: (1). Agriculture as an economic activity; (2). Agriculture as a part of national identity; and (3). Agriculture as an element contributing to the citizens’ well-being.

27Figure 1. Poster for the European Electoral Campaign (National Liberal Party)

Image 100000000000012D00000192D0DEFDFEC944AC3C.png

28(Source: Author’s own archive)

29In the first case, agriculture was a topic under the Pro-European approach used by National Liberal Party and Liberals and Democrats Alliance Party. The stress was put either only on financial aspects (“more money for Romanian farmers” and “to increase the subsidy per hectare”) or on the link between the European funds for farmers and future prosperity for this social class (“European money for Romanians to develop their businesses the right to equal welfare in Europe”).

Our priorities in the European Parliament: 1. Regional hospitals, 2. Motorways built with European money, 3. More money for Romanian farmers, 4. Thermal rehabilitation with European money, 5. Increase of the scholarships for students, 6. Investment in education. (National Liberal Party)

L.D.A.P. A party concerned with agriculture: European money for Romanians to develop their own businesses the right to equal welfare in Europe. (Liberals and Democrats Alliance Party.)

To increase the subsidy per hectare at the European level. Vote National Liberal Party. The force of change. #RomaniaWhereItCan (National Liberal Party)

Our MEPs will support rural areas and agriculture. We will support collaboration between farmers. (National Liberal Party)

30When agriculture was related to national identity it was, as such, put in a direct and causal link with patriotism, understood as the love for the “country”. One could easily identify here elements of the populist discourse. According to this poster, people working in agriculture (“farmers”) were assessed as a homogenous class, under the general label “people who love Romania and are not ashamed of their country” and, subsequently, they were asked to vote for the party (in this case, the Social Democratic Party).

We are calling to vote on Sunday to show once again that the Social Democratic Party is the strongest party, the only party for farmers, for people who love Romania and who are not ashamed of their country. (Social Democratic Party)

31Figure 2. – Poster for the European Electoral Campaign (Social Democratic Party)

Image 10000000000001C500000135C23775AE7DA13621.png

32(Source: Author’s archive)

33 When agriculture was assessed as being a part of citizens’ well-being it was, first, linked to the so-called “double standards” for food in the European Union – the fact that the food sold by hypermarkets in Eastern countries is of a lower quality than that sold in Western Europe, even though the brands are the same. The slogans are simply and direct - “food as good as in E.U.” and “we do not accept double standard for food” – and they point out the equality between Romanians (as “people”, citizens) and other people from European Union (especially from the “rich” countries).

Romania deserves more: food as good as in E.U (Social Democratic Party)

We do not accept the double standard for food! (Social Democratic Party)

34The discourse about agriculture as part of citizens’ well-being development was the second case in which we can identify elements of the populist discourse. We can include here a poster and an electoral newspaper, both from the Social Democratic Party, in which food was linked to “national identity” (“national Romanian vegetables”) and to family’s values (“food for us and our children” and “healthy food from Europe for children from Romania”).

We develop national Romanian vegetables; we provide tasty and healthy Romanian food for us and our children. (Social Democratic Party)

35Figure 3. Electoral newspaper for the European Electoral Campaign (Social Democratic Party)

Image 10000000000000A3000000FB6297DCDE779FEED2.png

36(Source: Author’s own archive)

37 No poster of any Romanian political party made any reference to the agrarian crisis from 2017-2018 and we could not identify any other election material which mentioned it, even though even in 2019 the epidemic was spreading within Romanian farms.


38In recent years the academics, experts and political actors made an increased appeal to populism when they attempted to define the nature of some political phenomena or when electoral campaigns took place and political competitors were labeled. As the existing literature had pointed out (Madrid, 2006; Subramanian, 2007; Hawkins, 2010; Jansen, 2011) populist politics can change the shape of political mobilization, increase the development of some mass social movements and reshape party organizations.

39As Pappas (2013) noticed, populism is also closely related to political polarization and even to the fundamental changes of the traditional parties system. Based on the difference between social groups, populist politics can influence new political configurations (Laclau, 2005; Fella & Ruzza, 2013).

40Between 2017 and 2019, the economic repercussions of the ASF epidemic were considerable, swine meat exports collapsing by 41.3% between June 2017 and July 2018. The most severe shortages were noticed in swine meat exports to China (minus 97.44%), the UK (minus 53.46%), Bulgaria (minus 42.89%), and the Netherlands (minus 31.03%) (USDA – Foreign Agricultural Service, 2018). Around the same period, the production value in the swine sector (domestic pigs) dropped from 18% (2017) to 16.7% (2018) (RevistaPatronatelor, 2019). But, as our analysis showed media presentation of agrarian crisis (which was related to zoonotic diseases) did not lead to an apparition of a populist discourse about agriculture in Romania. Romanian mass media covered in a rather neutral, objective way and did not give in to the temptation to transform this topic into a political one. The small number of politicians cited in the media coverage of ASF epidemics and the appeal to scientific arguments did not allow the apparition of populist discourse in Romania about agrarian topics.

41One year later, the European Electoral Campaign 2019 in Romania was for the first time a campaign focused more on internal political issues than EU issues, a campaign dominated by internal political conflicts, political protests, anger and desire of revenge and public attacks against other internal candidates (European Election Monitoring Center, 2019b). Only a few parties tried to explain why the EU membership is good for the country and its citizens and there were no anti-EU messages in this electoral campaign, the EU being mostly praised for opening up new opportunities of development. Some parties focused their campaign on European issues only, which shows that Romanian politicians see the European elections campaign as an opportunity to promote their political agenda and launch attacks against the opposition (European Election Monitoring Center, 2019b). Major topics that lead the European and international political and news agenda like immigration and environmental issues have barely been discussed by the Romanian candidates this voting round, appearing in only 1% of the analyzed sample. The most frequently discussed topic in this election campaign was, as expected, Europe or the European Union, followed by values (in general) and social issues. Security, welfare, products, and services, or labor-related issues were also present sporadically in some posters and political ads (European Election Monitoring Center, 2019b).

42In this case, we could notice the existence of two types of populist appeal. One was related to national identity and patriotism, understood as the love for the “country”. In the second case, agriculture was linked to “national identity” and the family’s values.

43Based on our analysis we can conclude that even if populism was historically rooted in issues and related to farmers, in Romanian case it was not used with agriculture either in electoral or non-electoral periods.

44 The main limitation of our analysis is the fact that it is focused on a sample made only from Romanian media and Romanian political parties’ posters. As such, our analysis cannot be generalized for a larger geographical and cultural area, as could be the case with Eastern European countries.

45Despite this limitation, we asses that our analysis provides some interesting elements impressive elements related to the use of populist discourse concerning a specific topic – in our case, the agriculture. In our opinion, further studies are needed to better understand the peculiarities of populism in various parts of Europe, as was the case with Romania.


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Valentina Marinescu, «Agriculture and populism in Romanian media», French Journal For Media Research [online], Full texts/Numéros en texte intégral, 14/2020 Populism and New/Old Media, last update the : 04/04/2020, URL :

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Valentina Marinescu

Ph D Full Professor

University of Bucharest

Faculty of Sociology and Social Work,



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