The international media has rushed to make pronouncements about the May European Union (EU) elections, which largely focus on quantitative measurements; larger participation than in the past 40 years; polarization; and loss by established parties. While all these points are backed by global statistics, it is important to move beyond general numbers in order to understand what happened and what it means for the future of the EU and its members. In the end, voting is always a localized personal political act and needs to be understood also in its immediate context.

In the case I know best, Romania, the elections demonstrated a sustained and even rising commitment to the principles of rule of law, the EU as a democratic institution, and trust in the possibility of launching new political parties. It is a case worthy of attention because it offers hope for the future of the EU. The percentage of Romanian citizens who voted in the EU elections on May 26th surpassed the numbers in the previous contest across the board: over 50% of the eligible voters cast a ballot. It is also a higher percentage than in the last national parliamentary elections.

What could be the reason? In the most recent national elections the political offer in Romania was comprised of parties whose leaders and allies were being exposed by the independent media and prosecutor Laura Codruta Kövesi, as profoundly corrupt and involved in illegal financial dealings. The leading Social Democrats (PSD), in particular, were embroiled in types of corruption that turned many voters away from the polls. Simply put, with no decent alternatives on the ballot, why vote? The lack of trust in that ruling party became quite obvious in October 2018, when fewer than 22% of the eligible voters participated in a referendum on changing the Constitution to limit marriage to heterosexual couples. The PSD put a lot of pressure, both directly and through its allies (especially, bizarrely, the Romanian Orthodox Church) to bring out people, especially in rural and poorer areas that had voted strongly with the PSD in the past. But people stayed home. Not because Romania is a haven for LGBTQ+ folks; homophobia is alive and well. But because even the PSD supporters were fed up with unfulfilled promises.

What had happened? The incessant attempts of the PSD to rid themselves of the Kövesi through made-up accusations against her showed clearly to voters that this was a party for whom the rule of law had no other meaning than to protect their own personal interests. And this meant two things: (1) dismantling the separation of powers between the legislative and executive, through the abuse of existing institutions (e.g., use of executive orders by the PSD government to protect its own members from lawful investigation of their financial misdeeds) and abusive introduction of laws aimed to protect only members of the ruling coalition from prosecution; and (2) failing to act in the public’s general interest in a few very public and tragic events.

Two such events give us an idea of these major failures: the 2015 fire at the Colectiv Nightclub that led to the death of 64 and injury of 147 innocent people; and the massive protests from August 10th, 2018, which were brutally crushed by the police under direct orders from the PSD. The Colectiv fire had several impressive initial results: it led to massive grassroots mobilization among young people especially, who took to the streets and eventually brought down the PSD government led by Victor Ponta, a development that led to the appointment of an interim government of experts. The technocrats, who agreed to serve for a limited time as a reconciliatory measure, brought into the center of attention Dacian Cioloș, who subsequently became a rising star in Romanian politics, primarily because of the accomplishments of that short term mandate, which he fulfilled with excellent results, especially regarding the issue of the anti-corruption fight.

During the nearly 14 month duration of the interim government (November 2015-January 2017), PSD and its allies retreated to lick their wounds and began a new aggressive strategy of attacking its political opponents with impunity in the Parliament and through the media outlets they controlled. By the time the next parliamentary elections took place, Cioloș was departing and the only offers in place were largely the same parties. Participation dropped below 40% and PSD won again. And that was the end of any anti-corruption independent investigation, as well as the end of any changes in various public policies that had been promised after the Colectiv fire. This crass indifference ended up mobilizing two important forces: young people and the independent social media. Over the past three years, Romania has seen a spectacular rise in grassroots protests against corruption, with a total participation of over a million people. These street protests were successful because of the commitment and imaginative use of social media especially by young activists, people under 25. An independent mass media campaign drawing attention to the failures of the PSD government took place at the time of the 3rd anniversary of the fire. “They died for nothing” became a frequent line used by independent media outlets, observers, and many individual citizens.

On August 10th, 2018, massive protests took place in Bucharest and other cities, such as Sibiu, as a sign of solidarity between Romanians living abroad and the dissident civil society groups in the country. The day started out with promise: it was a sunny, gorgeous Saturday, and many people were in a festive mood. They took their kids along, as they had many times before, and slowly made their way to the “usual” places — Victory Square in Bucharest. Little did they anticipate that large police squads were waiting for an order from inside the Ministry of Internal Affairs (a PSD appointee) to throw tear gas bombs into the peaceful crowds, to shoot at them with water cannons, and to beat them up with clubs. The PSD government also wanted to make sure they controlled the narrative by denying any cell phone company the request to place additional vans in Victory Square, which would have enabled cell reception at the site of the protest. This action, aimed to limit the free circulation of information about the protests, was unprecedented and a lot of what happened that day did not become visible through the mass media until days after the events, when disparate cell phone recordings of the violence perpetrated by the police against peaceful protesters made it to Facebook and other social media.

This was straw that broke the PSD’s back. The police pretended they were attacked and had to defend themselves. In a few cases the “aggressors” were persons in wheelchairs or parents walking around with children. In others, the aggression looked more real, but observers noted these people appeared to be “infiltrators”—soccer hooligans and possibly men paid by the government to make the protests look violent. Bogus evidence was presented to back this up, and the abusers did not suffer any substantial consequences. 452 people were injured, of whom 70 needed hospitalization. The government did very little to look into these abuses and to defend the rights of the citizens, who had protested peacefully. In fact, the government refused to refer to the protesters injured by the police as “victims”.

One outcome of this failure was that Cioloș and a number of other people, who genuinely seemed to care about Romania’s future, the rule of law, and the democratic rights of their fellow citizens, came together to form a new party, the Party of Liberty, Unity, and Solidarity (PLUS). It is a pro-EU formation, in favor of the separation of powers and independent judicial authority over anti-corruption investigations. It selects candidates on the basis of their qualifications for the job (e.g., public service and management experience, fiscal integrity, knowledge of EU institutions), as well as with the goal of producing a diverse and future-oriented young political class. They have been working for a year to formulate a platform, train members, listen to the population, and present their ideas with spectacular and deserved results: 22.36% of the total votes in the recent EU elections, the very first one in which they participated, neck in neck with the PSD (22.51%), the major loser in these elections. And PLUS is just getting started.

The Romanian case thus presents us with meaningful lessons about the EU elections:

  1. Participation: When new political groups that offer voters a reason to participate appear, voters respond through higher turnout rates. Romania’s especially high rate is evidence of that. And notable is the percentage of young voters (60% higher than in the 2016 national elections), who voted especially for the new parties. The potential to generate this shift exists everywhere in the EU, as the large percentage of support for the Greens in Germany also shows.
  2. Polarization: It is premature to speak of polarization until all the new formations and alliances are in place. The Romanian case offers a counter-example, which suggests that polarization may be the result of the absence of centrist parties who voters trust, rather than embracing radicalized populist offers. Emmanuel Macron’s “En Marche”, though a new formation, has not succeeded to retain the trust of French voters, quite likely because of the ineffectual ways the French President chose to engage with the Yellow Jackets over the past few months. It is a useful lesson for others, including Cioloș, in what not to do.
  3. Loss by established parties: They are at a crossroads — retrenchment or substantial reform. If the Social Democrats want to retain their position in the EU, they need to return to their social justice roots and leave behind power-hungry corrupt bureaucracies.

And a final thought on the worrisome trend of a growing alliance among ultra-nationalists. It only works until the inevitable moment, when those purported friends have to compete with each other economically and culturally. We saw how those differences played out in the 1930s and there is no reason to believe radical nationalist populism will play out differently today, given the fascistic ideological tropes those parties use. What we can hope for is that voters, who seem to respond to not just fear mongering but also optimism, will continue to make the choice to uphold the rule of law and democratic institutions, when trustworthy choices surface.

Maria Bucur is Professor of History and Gender Studies at Indiana University.