Magdalena Ulceluse discusses a new far right, nationalist and populist force within Romanian politics: AUR, Alliance for the Unity of Romanians. How did AUR become the fourth party with over 9% of the vote share? And why this came, at least in the rest of Europe, as an unexpected surprise? Their use of social media, their offline presence, and controversial style attracted many young people, especially under 30, from poor and religious regions. AUR combines conservative and religious values with anti-establishment, populist discourses, and is exploiting grievances linked to the lockdowns imposed because of the pandemic to gather attention and attract voters.
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Few had heard of the Alliance for the Unity of Romanians (AUR) before the December 6th, 2020 Romanian Parliamentary elections, when they gathered a whopping 9% of the electoral votes and became the fourth party to join the Parliament, out of 5 parties that received the requisite amount of votes to enter. The far-right nationalist party managed to obtain over half a million votes within a year of its founding conception, superseding 6 other parties, including perennials such as the Democratic Alliance for Hungarians (UDMR), and newer challenger parties led by former president Traian Basescu (PMP) and former prime minister Victor Ponta (Pro Romania).
The increasing support of the population for AUR flew under the radar of opposing parties and the national and international media. One reason is the fact that much of the party’s campaign was conducted, cheaply, on social media. While the mainstream parties were busy occupying prime time slots on television, AUR was aggressively capitalizing on a resource which had not been properly tapped in Romania. The party leaders would generate (often incendiary) material in the form of videos or photos, which were then shared hundreds of times on Facebook, generating millions of likes. Branch leaders would share a post from multiple accounts, and follow-up every comment or like with a friend invite. If the invitation was accepted, then the party member would initiate a conversation about the party and subsequently add the new person to internal WhatsApp groups. Moreover, while members of established parties were abiding by the social distancing and lockdown measures, AUR members were in the streets, either protesting, sharing pamphlets, or knocking on people’s doors to promote the party. In the second half of 2020, George Simion, the party’s leader, was mostly on the road, campaigning, meeting people and being received like a hero, sometimes with religious fervour. These efforts were not in vain, as they harnessed the support of over half a million Romanians, many of them young voters under the age of 30, hailing from some of the poorest and most religious regions in the country.
But who is AUR and what does it stand for?
AUR co-chairman Claudiu Târziu from a 2015 article in his publication Rost:— Populism Updates (@PopulismUpdates) December 7, 2020
– “What else do the Jews want? Well, to let history only be written after the own dictation…”
– “Last but not least, the Jews want Romanians to no longer have cultural landmarks” https://t.co/fUPx8GNlJR https://t.co/SRS8DPNnXN
Who is AUR and what does it stand for?
AUR, which means “gold” in Romanian, was co-founded by George Simion and Claudiu Târziu on December 1st, 2019, Romania’s National Day. George Simion, 34, is an activist best known for advocating Romania’s unification with the Republic of Moldova. He founded “Action 2012”, an umbrella foundation for NGOs and civic groups supporting the unification, under which he organized rallies and marches in Bucharest and throughout the country. He received national attention following several attention-grabbing demonstrations, usually with a symbolic meaning, and used this increasing popularity to independently run in various elections, including for the European Parliament in 2019 where he obtained marginal results. Claudiu Târziu, 47, was a member of the National Council for the Coordination of the Coalition for Family, an umbrella organization for associations which promote family values, with strong religious and (right-wing) political views. Openly anti-abortion, homophobic, a big admirer of the fascist Legionnaire Movement in Romania (also known as Iron Guard), he had extensive experience in electoral mobilisation from organizing the Family referendum in 2018[i] and a strong basis of supporters from conservative and extreme religious groups.
Given this initial voter base, made up of unionists and religious conservatives, it is not surprising that religion, anti-LGBTQ sentiment and ethno-nationalism inform much of the party’s ideology, whose core pillars are “faith, liberty, family and motherland”. The party believes in a “moral vision inspired by faith” which can “shape a rightly ordered society”, and wants to preserve Romania as a “strongly Christian nation” currently under attack from “secularist agendas”. It also believes in personal, economic, religious and political liberty, in opposition to the “ruthless dictatorship” of the Communist regimes. The party believes in the traditional family, being against any measures they perceive to threaten it, including abortion and same-sex marriage. Lastly, they believe in patriotism and national identity, which they argue should not include “chauvinistic or extreme attitudes, no disregard for other nations”.
I took the subway to go to the Parliament. I am an elected politician now, but I will always be a normal person like any of you, so don’t be surprised to see me in public transportation. You voted for me to serve our nation, not to enjoy privileges, like many parliamentarians do. pic.twitter.com/VEVJJtjdNm— 🇷🇴 George Simion 🇲🇩 (@georgesimion) January 16, 2021
In matters of international relations, Mr Simion has declared the party anti-Russia, which he blames for taking away Moldova and for historically harming Romania, and pro-NATO and the EU. Within the EU, however, he wants Romania to “get up from its knees”, stand tall like Poland, and look after its own interests. In fact, Poland’s Law and Justice Party (PiS) constitutes one of his models of governance. While these values and stances catered strongly to the unionist-nationalists and religious conservatist factions, they would not have been enough to significantly expand the party’s electoral base and stand a real chance in national elections. Enter the anti-establishment platform.
To attract a wider base, AUR turned to populist messages, pressing on the most sensitive and painful issues for Romanians at the time. These included, among others, the topic of wide-spread political corruption, illegal logging and deforestation, the politicization of public institutions, ruinous privatisation, globalization, the export of non-processed foods and emigration. The “Romania first” message resonated especially strong with a large share of the emigrant population abroad, which traditionally bolsters more mainstream, liberal parties during elections. These frustrations were further catalysed by the pandemic, with its strict lockdowns, social distancing measures, masking, the closures of indoor local markets, and the perceived mishandling of the pandemic by the government. AUR was the only party to promote anti-masking and anti-vaccine messages, and to break the social distancing and lockdown measures by organizing protests and rallies. They positioned themselves as David to the governments’ Goliath, a message repeated throughout the campaign, calling for an overhauling of the (corrupt) political system.
What next for the party?
It has been argued that in the lead-in to the Parliamentary elections, due to the small number of party members and the need to fill up seats per county, AUR allied itself with groups with competing or different interests, often extreme groups which did not find representation in the ideologies and the more restrained discourses of the established parties. This process resulted in a hodgepodge of factions and views within the party, and a lack of unified and cohesive vision. This might explain the sometimes-conflicting declarations between some members and party leaders. For instance, although the party takes an anti-abortion stance, Mr Simion’s has declared that abortion is a personal choice. Similarly, even though some members have taken an anti-Roma stance, some local party branches are led by ethnic Roma. This fragmentation might also explain the recent “cleaning ups” within the party, through the removal of Parliamentary members Mihai Lasca, for being under criminal investigation and Diana Șoșoacă Ivanovici, because she did not follow the strategy and mandate of the party. The party promised that in future elections, it will “set up a much more rigorous system of verification and selection of candidates, which will no longer make it possible to elect to public office persons incompatible with the law or the values of the AUR and who do not act in accordance with the decisions of the forums”.
It would be easy to dismiss AUR as a party of extremist groups, whether they’re unionists, fascist sympathisers, nationalists, religious conservatives, anti-vaxxers, COVID-19 sceptics or individuals with criminal records. However, the party also gained support from Romanians who in previous elections had voted for one of the established parties, but who were disappointed with the state of the country and wanted a change. Many of these Romanians did not cast their vote for AUR, as much as they did against the mainstream parties.
Joining the Parliament means that the party now received state funding to finance its activities and prime television time, as mandated by the law. This may represent an opportunity for it to further expand its base and propagate its message. On the other hand, it is easy to be the rebel party when outside the system, but it might prove to be more difficult once inside, having to account for their actions and promises like all other parties.
[i] The referendum concerned the definition of the “family” in the Romanian Constitution. Organized by the Coalition for Family, it asked voters to support the change of definition from the neutral marriage “between spouses”, to “a union between a man and a woman”, effectively banning same-sex marriage. Due to a low turnout, the referendum proved invalid.
Magdalena Ulceluse is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of Groningen, currently on a research visit at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Ethnic and Religious Diversity. Her main research interests lie in the causes and consequences of international migration, with a particular focus on intra-EU migration. She has worked on projects for several international organisations, including the European Commission, the International Labor Organization, the International Organization for Migration and ESPON.