EssaysLiberal Democracy in QuestionMedia/Publics

Romanian Tragedy, Romanian Miracle

Glimmers of hope in European politics

“It is this fragility that makes deception so very easy up to a point, and so tempting. It never comes into a conflict with reason, because things could indeed have been as the liar maintains they were. Lies are often much more plausible, more appealing to reason, than reality, since the liar has the great advantage of knowing beforehand what the audience wishes or expects to hear. He has prepared his story for public consumption with a careful eye to making it credible, whereas reality has the disconcerting habit of confronting us with the unexpected, for which we were not prepared.”

–Hannah Arendt, “Lying in Politics” in Crises of the Republic (1972)

“If the meaning of politics is freedom, that means that in this realm — and in no other — we do indeed have the right to expect miracles. Not because we superstitiously believe in miracles, but because human beings, whether or not they know it, as long as they can act, are capable of achieving, and constantly do achieve, the improbable and unpredictable.”

Hannah Arendt, “Introduction Into Politics,” in The Promise of Politics (2005)

On Friday night a heavy metal concert at a downtown Bucharest night club burst literally into flames, as a spark from a pyrotechnic display set off a conflagration that caused panic and pandemonium among the roughly 400 young people trapped inside. Over thirty people were burned to death, and hundreds more suffered injuries. The shock spread quickly. So did the outrage, and the indignation. I am very lucky to have many dear friends in Bucharest, and so I watched this cycle of grief, shock, outrage, and indignation unfold, almost by the hour, on my own Facebook feed. Some of my dearest friends lost students or colleagues in the disaster. My friends include some extraordinary public intellectuals, and by Saturday they were talking about action. Public statements. Television appearances. Newspaper interviews. Demonstrations.

The action was political. In the first instance the actors — the citizens — demanded that those responsible for the hazardous conditions in the night club be held accountable. But in raising this demand, other and broader demands came to the fore: demands for an inquiry into public corruption, for greater transparency in Romanian politics, and for the resignation of a Prime Minister long dogged by scandal and charges of corruption.

Victor Ponta has long been a blight on Romanian politics for many who take liberal democratic values seriously. His government has been challenged in the courts and in the streets, and it has been reprimanded by EU officials concerned about its authoritarian tendencies. In 2012 Ponta’s efforts to remove from office the duly elected President caused a constitutional crisis, leading then-EU Justice Minister Viviane Reding to declare that she was “very much worried about the state of democracy in Romania.” For years Ponta has been able to maneuver and dissemble and avoid these challenges. And then on Tuesday, in a shocking turn of events, he announced his resignation, stating: “I’m handing in my mandate, I’m resigning, and implicitly my government too . . . I am obliged to take note of the legitimate grievances which exist in society . . . I hope handing in my and my government’s mandate will satisfy the demands of protesters.”

What happened? I am not there. I claim no special expertise. Indeed, events continue to unfold, and part of what drives this unfolding is the discussion of this very question by the actors who brought it about. What is happening? What does it mean? Where does it lead? It is too early to say. But it would appear that an awful and shocking tragedy that no one could have predicted has sparked a mass public outpouring of indignation and political opposition capable of making visible to the country, and to the world, the fragility and the lack of credibility of a government and, perhaps, a political system. What happens next remains in question. What is not in question is that many of the protest organizers want nothing less than what one of my friends calls “a profound reform of the entire political class and a system of real citizen representation based on truly democratic political parties.”

As Hannah Arendt noted long ago, deceit can be a potent tool of political elites, but reality has a “disconcerting habit” of producing unexpected challenges for which holders of power are unprepared.

Victor Ponta long deceived and dissembled Romanians. He was unprepared for what happened in the streets of Bucharest.

The protesters on the street were also probably unprepared. They expected to protest their government. They demanded accountability. But they probably did not expect that these demands would lead so quickly to the improbable, unpredictable abdication of the government.

It will be interesting to see how this fluid situation unfolds. I am proud of my Romanian friends and colleagues, who by channeling their grief into politics, have brought about a miraculous turn of events in their country.

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Jeffrey C. Isaac

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