Democratic Transition and Consolidation in Romania

Civic engagement and elite behavior after 1989

by Dragoş Dragoman (Author)
©2019 Monographs 158 Pages


Democratic transition is a very complex phenomenon. It relies on the outcome of the political competition between key actors during its initial stages, as well as on economic, social, and structural constraints inherited from the previous authoritarian regime. The book compares both series of factors by focusing on citizens’ democratic engagement and on political elites’ behavior. Despite a strong path-dependency to the previous authoritarian structures and low levels of initial democratic resources, citizens made proof of remarkable willingness to support democracy. By street protests, they even pressured political populist elites in power to abandon radical undemocratic regime changes. Romania managed therefore to maintain its European course and to avoid serious democratic backsliding.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright Page
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Citability of the eBook
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • 1 Regime change and transition trajectories
  • 1.1 The trajectory of political regimes in transition
  • 1.2 Democratic transition and regime support
  • 1.3 Comparing political regimes
  • 1.3.1 The support for democracy in post-communist Romania
  • 1.3.2 The support for democracy in other East European countries
  • 2  Social trust, citizen engagement and the role of civil society
  • 2.1 Public space and civil society
  • 2.2 Social capital and the habits of cooperation
  • 2.3 Social capital and social benefits
  • 3  Social capital and the support for democracy in Romania
  • 3.1 Social capital and democracy in Eastern Europe and Romania
  • 3.2 Measuring social capital and democracy in Romania
  • 3.3 Impact of social capital on the support for democracy
  • 3.4 Technical appendix
  • 4  Social capital and political engagement in Romania
  • 4.1 The importance of political participation for democracy
  • 4.2 Political activism and its essential factors
  • 4.3 Explaining low political activism in post-communist Romania
  • 4.3.1 The impact of resources, human capital and context variables
  • 4.3.2 The impact of motivation variables
  • 4.3.3 The impact of social capital
  • 5  Social dependency and predatory elites: from state capture to external conditionality
  • 5.1 Social dependency, state-led violence and post-communist elites
  • 5.2 Democratization under external control
  • 5.3 Romania’s democratic trajectory: the successful laggard
  • 6  Why no backsliding? Populism and the unrestricted use of executive power following the 2007 EU accession
  • 6.1 Rising populism as ‘post-accession hooliganism’ in Central and Eastern Europe
  • 6.2 Speaking for the people: ‘they stand by them, we stand by you!’
  • 6.3 Populists in power: institutional change and political control
  • 6.3.1 Populist consolidation in power: looking for a favorable electoral system
  • 6.3.2 Weakening the legislature: reducing both MPs’ number and credibility
  • 6.3.3 Populism and the dominance of the executive power
  • 6.3.4 Preempting electoral defeat: postponing local elections
  • 7  Unpopular populists: public overt contestation and political survival strategies
  • 7.1 Right-wing intellectuals and civil society apathy
  • 7.1.1 Right-wing intellectuals on the road to power
  • 7.1.2 Condemning the communist ideology, but not the communist oppressors
  • 7.2 Unpopular populists: facing overt public contestation
  • 7.2.1 Neo-liberalism and the economic crisis of 2010
  • 7.2.2 Unpopular populists and large-scale high-level corruption
  • 7.3 Street protests and the dismissal of the PDL government
  • 8  Twenty-five years of democratic transition and consolidation
  • 8.1 Critical citizens: protests and new forms of political participation
  • 8.1.1 Political activism and dominant social values
  • 8.1.2 Protest and the support for democracy
  • 8.2 Challenges and prospects for democracy in Romania
  • Bibliography


The election of Klaus Werner Johannis as president of Romania in November 2014 marks the end of a long democratic transition. Twenty-five years ago, the communist regime ended in bloodshed, with protesters killed in the streets by the defenders of the dictatorship. The general elections held in December 2016 close another period, a period of twenty-five years of political competition and alternative succession in power in the general framework of the new Romanian constitution, adopted by national referendum in November 1991.

The two recent political events are a milestone in Romanian politics for several reasons. Electing for president a candidate with German background and Catholic faith in a country inhabited in very large shares by ethnic Romanians of Orthodox faith is a proof of ethnic tolerance in a region generally marked by ethnic tensions. Electing a left-wing party, in fact, re-electing its candidates following a brief interim technocratic cabinet (2015–2016) means engaging for the first time in the logic of (re)electing parties with a fresh support as political reward. Since the very first elections held in the framework of the constitutional settings, the economic voting largely meant punishing those in office by redrawing their electoral support. The five previous term elections ended with the opposition being confirmed in office and legitimated to change various previous policy decisions, and sometimes strategic policy decisions. The two recent electoral events highlight a new stage in Romanian democratization, which is the engagement in a consolidation phase, marked by Romania’s accession to NATO in 2004 and to the European Union in 2007.

Although this accession took place at a different moment than for other former communist countries in Central and Eastern Europe, which have been NATO members from 2000 and EU members beginning with 2004, Romania’s democratic trajectory is much similar to that of its fellow former communist states. Although one could label it as a laggard, Romania overpassed a triple transition (Kuzio 2001), more complicated than the double transition undertook by other countries in Central and Eastern Europe. Alongside marketization and democratization through fresh institutional design, Romania and other countries in the region had to solve ethnic tensions that complicated very much institutional design and political competition. Many countries, like many former Soviet republics and former Yugoslav states had an even more complicated transition, since defining nationhood, securing inherited borders and accommodating national minorities added to the previously stated challenges (Kuzio ←9 | 10→2001). Those states had a different democratic trajectory, with no end in sight. They are still incomplete democracies, balancing between East and West, mixing elections with authoritarian characteristics and severe restrictions regarding civil and political rights. In other words, despite being a laggard when compared to countries from the “Visegrad group” in Central and Eastern Europe, Romania is neither Serbia, nor Moldova or Ukraine. Focusing on fulfilling the democratic standards necessary for the EU accession, Romania even become the leader in respect to minorities’ rights (Ram 2009).

Unlike Hungary and Poland, for example, democratic consolidation seems to have grown stronger roots. Despite an episode of “post-accession hooliganism” due to political actions and projects of populists in power between 2008 and 2012, Romania had not witnessed a conservatory revolution like that which swept in Poland and Hungary (Bozóki 2016), where conservative politicians in search for political resources over-run the previous elite consensus regarding the rule of law and the constitutional stability, a long-lasting process known as state-building. In Romania, however, post-accession hooligans, namely populist politicians in power, spared no effort in consolidating the executive power, opening the door to political partisanship and abuse. They also looked for institutional design changes that would favor the concentration of power, despising courts of justice or denying the neutrality of such institutions as those regulating mass media. They also get engaged in corrupt activities, legislative and behavioral changes that undermined previously stable normative frameworks (Ganev 2013). But they have been challenged and successfully tamed by ordinary citizens, engaged in large shares in street protests. This sudden activation of a new type of political action, namely protest, marks a turning point in the participation style of ordinary people, who seem to burn stages and get engaged directly in new forms of political participation.

The perspective used in this volume is, therefore, a combined focus on both citizens and political elites. On one hand, what counts for democratic transition and consolidation are the values, beliefs and actions displayed by ordinary citizens. Their social capital, social and institutional trust, as well as their willingness to take part in voluntary associations, impact on their political engagement. Social capital is important for the way citizens imagine commitment, solidarity, tolerance and political moderation, finally for the way they imagine political community. Their support for democracy is essential and should not be conceived as taken for granted. In fact, not everybody wants that democratic transition ends in full democracy, since defining democracy also includes social costs and benefits. Unravelling the importance of social capital for the support for democracy is an essential aim of this volume. Since secondary organizations ←10 | 11→are labeled as schools of democracy (Putnam 1993), their impact on the support for democracy is to be counted when democracy is defined in a competitive rather than in an idealistic manner. This is to say that democracy is not imagined as the best form of government, as it is currently defined, but as one of many plausible alternatives. Among those alternatives, the dictatorship or the military rule, people have to choose having in mind their real functioning, which they are aware due to more or less recent personal and collective political experience.

On the other hand, political elites are engaged during the democratic transition in a decisive political competition. Especially during the first stages of transition, their action is essential in defining the general framework of the competition, the resources and the rules by which those resources are distributed. Despite their privileged position, political elites engaged in the early competition are not free from constraints. The first constraints come from the democratic framework itself, once it was firmly set in place. But there are additional external direct and indirect constraints, coming from marketization and from regional international organizations. Refraining from bending the general democratic rules would give to elites in power the legitimacy and the moral ascendance of attaining the political targets. For Romania, as well as for the other countries in Central and Eastern Europe, membership into the Council of Europe, NATO and the European Union worked as a powerful anesthetic, forcing political elites to restrain from selfish and undemocratic behavior.

The end of external conditionality is therefore an essential test for democratic consolidation. By comparing Romania with Poland and Hungary, for example, it turns that populists in Romania did not affect as much the state building process as Polish and Hungarian populists did. Due to serious contestation, they have been sanctioned at polls and had to abandon much of their political projects. It does not mean that their intention was not meant to transform the political system according to their own interest, in order to consolidate in power. It only means that ordinary people had to oppose through enduring street protests and to face the threat raised by police violent actions in order to constraint populists in power. Ordinary people found out that, except opposition parties, they had to face alone the coercive action of security forces, with no support from the main organizations from civil society. Although those prominent civic associations have been very active during the first stages of democratic transition, and have successfully managed to contain anti-democratic deviations of political elites, they decided not to oppose populists in power. Their ideological compatibility with right-wing policies put in place by populists, especially in social and economic domains, made them less active that one would have expected. The official ←11 | 12→condemnation of communism by populists in power worked as a powerful anesthetic for once critical right-wing intellectuals.

The decision of those right-wing intellectuals to refrain from publicly criticizing populists in power flags a deeper change in Romanian politics. Forcing ordinary citizens to face almost alone abusive political elites triggered an unprecedented growth of protest as a form of political action. Protest has thus replaced more conventional forms of political participation, making Romanian citizens to burn stages in their political development and to engage in the new era of cognitive mobilization. This is how the volume combines the two perspectives, focusing once again on the citizens’ abilities to interact with political elites and to shape the political system. Quick mobilization through new communication facilities, in the era of new media, is a challenge for both elites in power and the political system. Democratic consolidation is now questioned by the capacity of ordinary people to discriminate when judging public policy issues and when controlling elected officials. Their incapacity of discrimination could lead to manipulation and abuse, to injustice, intolerance and violence. That is why a solid civil society is needed in order to balance the fast growing direct democracy tendencies. A strong network of vivid secondary organizations could provide the background for democratic ideas and responsible leaders, who could oppose to a future populist leader who would intend to take over a genuine unorganized citizen movement.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2019 (May)
Regime change populism social capital democratic setbacks protests elections
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien. 2019. 158 p., 21 b/w tab.

Biographical notes

Dragoş Dragoman (Author)

Dragoș Dragoman teaches and researches in the area of political sociology at the Departement of Political Science, University »Lucian Blaga« of Sibiu, Romania. His research interests include social capital, democratization, ethnic relations and party politics.


Title: Democratic Transition and Consolidation in Romania
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160 pages