Tag Archives: Populism

Romania – How much ‘deep state’ and where to find it

Social Democrat Party (PSD) chairman Liviu Dragnea delivered the most important speech of 2018 at a party rally in June. The ‘parallel state’ featured most prominently among his choice of words. ©presidential – power.com / Veronica Anghel

In the 2013 novel ‘A Delicate Truth’, former MI5/6 spy and novelist John le Carré presents the ‘deep state’ as ‘the ever-expanding circle of non-governmental insiders from banking, industry and commerce who were cleared for highly classified information denied to large swathes of Whitehall and Westminster.’ The popular writer has constantly known how to position his plots in the palm of contemporaneity. Increasingly, politicians use the scare of the secrecy of the ‘deep state’ for a useful one-dimensional identification of an enemy and conspiracy theorists are slithering from the margins towards the mainstream on the waves of social media. At the same time, political scientists increasingly acknowledge the existence of unquantifiable intervening factors that may alter the predictable outcomes of formal institutions. How much is the balance between democratic institutions affected by the existence of a ‘deep state’ and is there a use to professionally trace its attributes without falling in the traps of literally mystery or legitimize populist discourse?

The ‘deep state’ by any other name…. and where to find it

The most common place to find the ‘deep state’ is in the results of discourse analysis. While politicians can use different names for what it is, they rely heavily on its power to be all encompassing and mobilize electoral sensibilities. In the US, Stephen Bannon announced the White House’s war against the ‘administrative state’, a conception of the ‘deep state’ that pits President Trump not against an economic privileged class, but against clerks and civil servants who are perceived as obstacles against the success of his political platform. Republican Ron Paul referred to such obscure interests as ‘the shadow government’.  This understanding of detrimental networks of authority for representative governance finds its adherents further back in US history. President Theodor Roosevelt announced his own belief in the existence of an ‘invisible government’ that cannot be held accountable by the people.

In Central European politics, reproving the ‘colonizing interests’ of the West – via Western corporations or enabled through Brussels and its EU civil servants – and/or chastising the secret services as enablers for hidden undefined interests are increasingly more common elements of political rhetoric. Such discourses use the logic of a Manichean zero sum game approach – the ‘good’ us against the ‘evil’ others – and incentivize emotional societal division. The Polish Kaczyński administration actively pursued the re-investigation and promotion of the Smolensk tragedy not as a result of faulty rational decisions as shown by a previous report, but of treacherous intrigues sponsored by Russia and other perpetrators that remained nameless. In Hungary, a useful name was at hand, as George Soros was identified as the social – liberal Western capitalist who is an obstacle against the state sponsored return to conservative values and nationalist economy. Consequently, the ‘deep state’ became known as the ‘Soros Army’. Contenders of the Orban regime use the term ‘mafia state’ to identify the structures that run parallel with state institutions and which are run through oligarch proxies of PM Orban and the FIDESZ party. Bulgarian PM Boiko Borisov announced during his first mandate in 2009 his own fight with what he considered is a deep infiltration of organised crime inside the government, working for personal economic interests. Similarly, his contenders claim (ex. here or here) it is PM Borisov and other government leaders with long running ties in the Bulgarian Communist Party who chair networks that result in a ‘state capture’. In other hybrid democracies, such as Turkey, the military is an unaccountable power group that more blatantly and more frequently curbs the power of elected civilians.

In Romania, this inner core of the establishment able to conduct in secret a blurring of public and private interests is branded as the ‘parallel state’. The ‘parallel state’ allegedly represents a consortium of unidentified interests of secret services, foreign – connected NGOs and representatives of different branches of the judicial system linked to former president Traian Băsescu who use state resources for their aims. A quantitative analysis of the most important political speech of the year 2018, delivered by the chairperson of the governing Social Democrat Party (PSD), Liviu Dragnea, at an assembly of over 150 000 PSD supporters shows that the ‘parallel state’ is at the core of his concerns. At the same political assembly, another PSD leader delivered a speech in English, cheering president Trump’s fight against the ‘deep state’. Mr. Dragnea considers it the main obstacle standing in the way of PSD fulfilling its policy program, while also having the ability to change election outcomes and intimidate state officials through prosecutions. Similar analyses show comparative frequencies of references to the ‘parallel state’ in public discourses of other leaders of the governing coalition. Such concerns are reinforced by junior partner ALDE and senate chairperson, Călin Popescu Tăriceanu. This phrase has become so common use in Romanian politics that even in internal fighting of PSD members, members accuse each other of ‘using the means common to the “parallel state”’. By these, they mean illegal phone – tapping or other types of interception of communications using state resources. This is usually a cause for escalation of tensions and media speculation.

The wide spread use of the scare of an almighty  ‘parallel state’ that reminds of the communist security service is a source of citizens’ erosion of confidence in state institutions and the progress made towards the independence of the judiciary and in the anti-corruption fight. Electorally, this translates into support for the government’s program to reform the justice system. It also leads to steady decrease in voter turn – out as citizens increasingly believe politics is a murky territory their vote cannot affect either way. Lower voter turn –out is a technical advantage for the PSD who relies on a captive electorate.

President Băsescu, the main actor accused of chaperoning this complex system of  interests during his mandate, declared there is no such thing as a ‘deep state’, but affirmed the existence of prosecutors, judges and other persons, from within institutions, but not representing those institutions, who abused and misused power. President Klaus Iohannis altogether denied the existence of anything similar to what the PSD leaders claim exists in Romania.  The identification of this useful enemy that is everywhere and nowhere is a useful campaign tool. But is there anything that can be taken out of the shadows and systematically researched for a better understanding of weaknesses of formal institutions?

The aristocracy of pull or how much ‘deep state’ ?

The study of ‘interest groups’ and the need for their judicial review has been a long running preoccupation of political science (ex. here and here). More recently, post-communist transition theory identified that informal powers and networks that political elites use to their benefit is as an important factor in limiting democratic state building (see Grzymala – Busse and Jones Luong 2002). In such evaluations, the extent of the use of parallel networks of authority and power personalisation make the difference between ‘democratic’, ‘autocratic’ and ‘personalistic’ states. Other researchers claim the tension between formal and informal institutions precedes communist times (see Ekiert and Ziblatt 2012). Disaggregating the state analytically into actors at various levels of the decision-making process and state administration provides insight into the struggle between formal and informal institutions and permits a categorisation that can be used irrespective of time and space:

”In the formal democratic state, informal institutions are largely in accord with formal democratic institutions. In the semiformal state, dual domination signals the deep state’s existence. In the informal state, deep state is converted into the state, the rule, and the norm.” (Soyler 2013)

The countries of Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) increasingly prove to have multiple centres of informal authority with fluctuating degrees of influence on the process of democratization and state institutionalization. The introduction of democratic institutions – and their intrinsic formalisation of elite relationships -clashes with persistent informal practices. In other words, the formal changes introduced from above met significant resistance from patterns of informal norm systems, which are also the source of clientelism, corruption and networks of political patronage. The widespread acceptance of these informal norm systems caters for whichever presiding force finds its way into loci of state power. By circumventing predictability, their effect is anticompetitive and antimeritocratic, favouring those who are ‘in-the-know’ and have privileged access to politicians. This eases the appearance of one – party state forms of political organisations, regardless of ideological inclinations.

Conclusion: the ‘deep state’ is a puzzle, not the Leviathan    

Consequently, the Romanian ‘deep state’ is much less the conspirator centralized system chaired by any one interest group at any one time, but a fabric of relationships that uses different types of barter as a source of maintaining power among an established political and economic elite. The extent to which this is a part of the decision making process affects the state of democracy as a whole, but cannot controllably and substantially satisfy the interests of any one centralized interest group in the longer run. The ‘deep state’ is not in itself the all-powerful Leviathan, but resembles the timeless aristocracy of pull. It is a complex puzzle of unwritten, informal norms and relations that requires empirical research for a better understanding of power dispersion and agenda setting.

Presidents and Populism in Latin America

Last week, Ecuador’s constitutional court decided to allow a constitutional reform, which would effectively remove term limits and allow President Rafael Correa to run for re-election in 2017, go forward for a vote in congress. Given Alianza Pais controls 100 of the 137 seats in the Assembly, it looks almost certain that this reform will pass.[1] Correa has already overseen a constitutional reform to allow him run for a third consecutive term.

Attempts to reform term limits in Latin America are becoming a recurrent theme in my blog posts. Initially, most Latin American constitutions, to avoid the perils of presidentialism and prevent the long-term concentration of power in the hands of a few, limited presidents to one term in office. In fact, in 1990, the Dominican Republic was the only country that allowed presidential re-election.

But this has changed. In the 1990s, presidents such as Carlos Menem and Alberto Fujimori brokered deals to allow for an extension and/or redefinition of term limits. The trend has gathered pace in recent times. Under Hugo Chávez, term limits were abolished in Venezuela. In 2010, Álvaro Uribe received support from the parliament to hold a referendum, proposing to change the constitution to allow him run for a third consecutive term (this was stymied by the constitutional court). Last November, Daniel Ortega oversaw the abolition of term limits in Nicaragua. And this year, the Bolivian electoral council allowed Bolivia’s incumbent president, Evo Morales, to run for a third consecutive term in presidential elections this October, which Morales duly won with an impressive 61 per cent of the popular vote.

Is there any pattern here? Well, there does appear to be one thing that unites all of these leaders – they have all been accused of being populist, from the neo-populists of the 1990s such as Menen and Fujimori who began the process of dismantling term limits, to the present day left-leaning populism of Chávez and Correa, and the security-orientated populism of Uribe.[2] Populism is a term frequently bandied about in the context of Latin American presidents. One widely used definition views populism as the ‘top-down political mobilization of mass constituencies by personalistic leaders who challenge elite groups on behalf of an ill-defined pueblo, or ‘the people.’[3]

Within this context, it makes sense for these leaders to attempt to abolish term limits. If they are acting on behalf of a discontented population, who view political elites as venal and corrupt, and by extension the institutions they have established, then the reform of these institutions is a logical next step, particularly the abolishment of term limits, as the populist, as the true agent of the people, should not be constrained by such institutions. So it comes as no surprise that we tend to see constitutional reform and the reform of term limits go hand-in-hand with populism.

Having said that however, a caveat. Although it is something of a trope to suggest populism in Latin America is a much-debated concept, I had the pleasure of attending a recent talk here in Oxford by Kirk Hawkins, where Kirk highlighted the ongoing conceptual debates surrounding populism and proposed an ideational definition of the concept. Kirk’s definition has important implications. It suggests that populism is actually not that recurrent a feature of Latin American politics, despite a popular interpretation to the contrary. Secondly, Kirk’s definition eschews the organizational or political overtones to be found in the definition above (in addition to Dornbusch and Edwards’ classic economic conceptualisation of populism). Nonetheless, this definition also focused on how populists use a discourse to critique existing political elites (or actors). Again, even here, constitutional reform and the abolishment of term limits would seem to naturally follow such signals.

Of course, when presidents win three or four consecutive terms, it becomes much more difficult to rail against the established political order, given they are now the political elite. That however, is an issue for another day.

[1] The court ruled that this proposal did not need to be approved by a popular referendum, but given Correa’s very high approval rating, this would most likely have been passed anyway.

[2] E.g. see Roberts, Kenneth M., 2007. “Latin America’s Populist Revival,” SAIS Review, Vol. XXVII (1), pp. 3-15.

[3] Roberts, 2007, p. 5