Ivo Kesler argues that the emergence of the far-right populist Alliance for the Union of Romanians (AUR) reflects the contested legacy of legionarism and fascism in Romania. AUR is growing in popularity, and with parliamentary elections coming in 2024, the party constitutes a real threat to the mainstream
Since the fall of communism in 1989 and the transition from authoritarian socialism to a free-market democracy, Romania has come a long way. Immediately after the revolution, there was no institutionalised party system. With continuity in personnel from the communist regime, doubts that Romania would become a stable democracy persisted until the late 1990s.
Stubborn authoritarian tendencies, and the electoral success of illiberal parties that were the direct continuation of the communist party, made for a chaotic first two decades of electoral democracy. Shortly after the revolution, far-right parties like the Greater Romania Party (PRM) enjoyed modest success, but by the late 1990s had dwindled in importance. For a good 20 years, Romania was the exception to the rule in Central and Eastern Europe: its parliamentary system contained no major far-right parties.
This changed with the formation in 2019 of the Alliance for the Union of Romanians, AUR. The young party established with the explicit purpose of participating in the 2020 elections. Its emergence was a genuine disruptor of Romania’s political landscape. Gaining around 9% in the Senate and in the Chamber of Deputies, AUR appeared a major player in Romania’s politics. Its electoral success continues. Current polls indicate that AUR sits somewhere around 17%, making it the third most popular party in Romania.
Symbolically, the party’s logo alludes to the borders of 'Great Romania' extending over the current Republic of Moldova.
AUR, a populist far-right party, incorporates strong elements of Christian faith and is very close to the Romanian Orthodox Church. The party positions itself as an alternative to the establishment, able to unite all Romanians regardless of national borders.
AUR positions itself as an alternative to the establishment, able to unite all Romanians
AUR emphasises 'Family, Nation, Christian Faith, Freedom'. It also embraces environmentalism and anti-globalisation. Yet it is most notorious for spreading conspiracy theories and for being rife with homophobia and antisemitism. It also has a general disregard for Romania’s ethnic minorities.
Despite not being in government, AUR nevertheless exerts political influence. We saw this most clearly in AUR's role in the November 2021 no-confidence motion against the cabinet of Florin Cîțu.
This was the culmination of a larger conflict between the National Liberal Party (PNL) and the Social Democratic Party (PSD). In the 2020 parliamentary elections, PSD won, with 29% of the votes. The incumbent president Klaus Iohannis (PNL) wanted to avoid a coalition with the PSD. He thus forged a coalition between his PNL and three other parties: the Save Romania Union (USR), The Party of Liberty, Unity and Solidarity (PLUS) and the Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania (UDMR). Infighting between the partners, however, plagued this coalition. USR-PLUS tabled a motion of no confidence.
This motion brought about an unlikely coalition between parties that, until then, had considered each other arch enemies. AUR, the far-right party with legionary inspiration, worked closely with PSD, even though AUR saw PSD as a corrupt party of the establishment. USR-PLUS, which is adamantly anti-establishment, also entered this unholy alliance, thus cooperating with parties it regularly demonised.
In October 2021, PSD introduced a no-confidence motion which, with the support of USR PLUS and AUR, passed. The result of this turmoil was an executive coalition between PNL and PSD. PSD had achieved its goal of governing once again.
The crucial lesson from the 2021 no-confidence motion is that a mainstream party, PSD, was willing to collaborate with AUR. There are plenty of similarities between the two parties, from their shared social conservatism to overlaps in personnel. Romania’s political system experiences frequent alternations and is characterised by extreme electoral volatility and fragmentation. Short-lived governments, unlikely coalitions and deep crises are commonplace.
The normalisation and mainstreaming of AUR is a dangerous by-product of its interaction and coalition-building with mainstream parties
AUR’s normalisation and mainstreaming is a dangerous by-product of its interaction and coalition-building with mainstream parties. AUR’s ideological overlap with legionarism and fascism, in a country where those legacies remain disputed, makes it even more menacing.
Partidul e nou, dar lupta e veche! The party is new, but the fight is old. These are the first words that greet you on AUR’s website. The party presents answers to problems that plague many Romanians. These problems include being forced to look for work abroad, mainly in Western Europe; and the exploitation of Romania's resources by foreign companies. AUR's answers constitute a potent mix of neo-legionary ideology and pan-nationalist talking points. The party's messaging is not falling on deaf ears. The legacy of legionarism in Romania is essentially contested, as are Romanians’ views on the movement and its leaders.
The party is new, but the fight is old!partidulaur.ro
AUR constructs common enemies in 'degenerate' liberalism, ethnic minorities (such as Hungarians, Jews and Roma), as well as the so-called corrupt elites. Prosperity is guaranteed, it claims, if we can only deal with these malaises. The 'retaking' of the homeland is a crucial point, stemming from legionarism's origins in interbellum Romania. The far deeper issue of pan-nationalism rests on historic romanticism, dissatisfaction and yearning for a once-'Great' Romania. The core assumption is that half of ethnic Romanians live outside Romania. Uniting them is a fight as old as Romanian nationalism itself.
The country's electorate, especially younger diaspora Romanians, can relate to these problems in search of their own, national, identity. In the tradition of the historic legionary movement, spirituality and the Romanian Orthodox Church are essential to the mix.
The far right has awoken again in Romania, and it is stronger than ever. AUR appeals to a broad electorate and uses contested neo-legionary ideology and discourse. After the 2024 parliamentary elections, we face the alarming prospect of AUR becoming a governing party.