Few had heard of the far-right populist party the Alliance for Romanian Unity (AUR) until Sunday evening when it stunned Romania at the ballot box in parliamentary elections.
The little-known AUR, an ultranationalist party that proclaims to stand for 'family, nation, faith, and freedom,’ rose from obscurity to take almost 9% of the overall vote.
This saw the party, which was formed in autumn last year, pass the 5% threshold allowing it to enter parliament.
“Romanians are fed up with theft, lies and a lack of attachment to national values," said 34-year-old AUR founder, George Simion in something of a victory speech in Bucharest on Sunday evening. "We are a Christian party, a nationalist, patriotic party.”
Coronavirus helps fuel voter apathy
The unexpected emergence of AUR — an acronym for GOLD in Romanian — ultimately overshadowed an election that failed to inspire voters.
Overall turnout represented a historic low at less than 32%, in part due to voter apathy but also due to concerns over the coronavirus pandemic.
“AUR in parliament will legitimise extremist positions in the public sphere,” Claudiu Tufis, an associate professor of political science at the University of Bucharest, told Euronews. “I first heard about them at the beginning of this summer.”
The election also forced the resignation last night of prime minister Ludovic Orban of the National Liberal Party (PNL), after his party got around 25% of the overall votes. PNL was widely expected to beat the Social Democrat Party (PSD) which took around 30% of the votes.
“I will not cling to my position as prime minister,” Orban said in his televised resignation speech.
But as Romania’s defence minister, Nicolae Ciuca, was appointed interim prime minister until a new government can be formed, questions were still being asked as to how the illiberal AUR came out of nowhere to win such a large proportion of the ballot box in this EU country.
“[AUR] played the anti-medicine, anti-vaccination, and anti-restrictions card to a population that is not truly educated in health issues,” said Tufis. “Their message is of building something for Romania. Nationalistic, Romania-first style, make Romania better. This kind of discourse has the potential to attract large numbers of people.”
What does the AUR party stand for?
AUR has a strong connection to Romania’s powerful Orthodox Church, which it has supported in holding religious ceremonies during the pandemic.
The party opposes same-sex marriage, has held anti-mask-wearing rallies and calls for unification with the Republic of Moldova.
Simion, who has quickly become the face of the party, last year participated in nationalist protests at a military cemetery, clashing with ethnic Hungarians.
AUR co-founder Claudiu Tarziu, a 47-year-old former journalist, was a member of the civil society group Coalition for Family, which in 2018 called for a referendum that attempted to ban same-sex marriage — but failed.
Nationalistic sentiments were also espoused on Sunday evening by Tarziu, who started his speech by saying, “A conservative revolution has commenced.”
“We are part of the Coalition for Family, and we defended the family, and we promoted the family, and we plan to do this in parliament,” he said, going on to add that AUR is the only [Romanian] party to support Donald Trump. Indeed, there are echoes in the party of Trump's media distrust and even claims of ballot-rigging.
But these are facts that didn’t deter hundreds of thousands of voters from casting their support for the party.
“It is clear that the political class needs a reset,” said 32-year-old AUR voter Constantin Rares. “Most of the population, especially young people, are disgusted by everything that the old political class [represent].”
Rares says that the widely reported nationalistic elements of the party do not concern him.
“I believe that each state must have its own identity and must be represented by patriots who, apart from economic, social, and cultural interests, represent interests and when it comes to the position of the family clearly defined by constitution, religion and other rights,” he says.
Diaspora drives AUR's election success
What further mystified analysts following AUR’s election success, was its massive support from Romania’s large diaspora, which, until now, has been generally seen as a voter base stronghold for USR-PLUS, a progressive party that won 15% of the vote and will look to form a coalition with PNL.
Instead, AUR was the diaspora’s first choice in Italy, and second in both France and Spain.
“They also benefitted from the large numbers of Romanian migrants in Europe. Some of them live mini-tragedies, they stay where they are for financial reasons but they do not adapt to the local cultures — which some might even find obscene,” Tufis says.
Many are now speculating as to who or what is behind AUR's support, including Iulian Fota, a former head of Romania's National Intelligence College in the Romanian Intelligence Service, who has speculated that the party is a “laboratory” creation.
“After each era of close collaboration with the West, we see that there has been a movement to deny modernisation or at least to dilute it,” Fota explained today in a Facebook post. “Romanians who perceive the modernisation of the country as a danger have gathered willingly under the same flag.”
Romanian MEP Siegfried Muresan, told Euronews: “[AUR] are anti-EU, pro-Russia, and reflect a small minority of the population.”
“It is very important to note they will not have a say or influence in policymaking,” he said.
Seemingly overnight and out of nowhere AUR, which ran a targeted, strategic online campaign, became Romania’s fourth-largest political party, and one that stands firmly against EU values.
“They answered to a demand that existed for quite some time in the Romanian population,” said Tufis.
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