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Who will win the duel over political legitimacy?

Ana-Maria TĂNASE

Romanian politicians seem to be suffering from amnesia when they speak about their decisions, as if Machiavelli had never been born or his name never got to Romanian land, although, if there is a God in politics, the best way to describe him and understand him is to read Niccolo Machiavelli's Prince.

Who does the agenda setting?


Even since the world began, but particularly so in a society both under-informed and uninterested in the political phenomenon, such as the Romanian one, we witness dissolution of the citizen's agenda.

Ideally, the public agenda should be the benchmark for the drafting and understanding of the political and media agenda. In practice however, it's the very opposite, i.e. the political element, with support from the media and/or business community, is the one which subordinates, or even shapes out the Romanian citizens' agenda. The political community claims the right (which they see as legitimate) to overrun and even replace the public's agenda, which is weaker, highly heterogeneous and therefore at times chaotic. The less informed and interested in the political phenomenon the citizens are, the less criteria they have to prioritise their own preferences and the more vulnerable (gullible?) they become when faced to a ready-made agenda, endorsed as being the accurate image of the "common good."

Starting from the aforesaid assumptions, agenda setting is a heuristic demonstration of the power representation: elites create the impression that political decisions are being taken in full compliance with the electorate's interests and needs. In this respect, and in many others, political legitimacy is a softer term for politically-driven interests, in which ethics and proper political conduct models are just some of the parts of a more complex mechanism of mass persuasion by Power.

But since we are dealing with a politically under-educated electorate, to what extent could the latter be able to identify and impose their own interests, as against the political factor? And if the political community did act "in compliance" with the electorate's decisions, to what extent can this type of, once again, politically under-educated electorate, be "legitimate," when they see their interests and needs globally implemented in the form of policies?


On political legitimacy


In the narrower meaning of the term, political legitimacy is a form of expression of the exercise of power, evincing in perfect congruency ("dyadic correspondence") between public interests and preferences on the one hand and "mandatory" decisions elites take with respect to these interests and preferences, on the other hand. Ideally, citizens (regardless of their education and political interests) are the "legitimate" one to impose a hierarchy of criteria employed in the political decision making and assignment. In turn, elites have their own interests and desires, and once at the top of the decision-making mechanism, they cannot, and more often than not they will not give up personal interests.

There is such a wide gap between the citizens' preferences and the elites' decisions, that one can no longer even speak about any common ground between the political and the public agenda. Furthermore, even when elites are aware of the gap between their own interests, political decisions and the public needs, they continue to implement policies, regardless of the citizens' discontent and tacit or evident frustration. Consequently, the governmental policy is no longer (nor has it even been) a reflection of the electorate's interests. This is why we can talk about a false legitimacy of political decisions.

Along these lines, the media are turned exclusively into a "staging" of the political and public communities, in which mere juxtaposition tends to have differences wane into an absurd show. On the one hand, we witness an alienation of the conditions the electorate could "legitimately" impose on the political community in decision-making. On the other hand, the over-exposure of differences takes such a grotesque form, that eventually no one finds it "illegitimate" any longer for politicians to exclusively pursue their own interests when making decisions on behalf of the electorate. With the citizens' full "consent" and under the media "eyes," the false legitimacy of political decisions is taken for granted.

These are the meanings of the term "legitimacy" as used in the following analysis.


Who wins the duel over power use?


The muffled battle over legitimacy, waged before the public opinion, is evident backstage, where the heart of actual politics is, defined as an all-out battle over supreme control of resources and levers of power. The political authority of today's leader no longer consists (if ever) in the political legitimacy of decisions, but in the power to control, like an omniscient deus abscons, as many resources and power mechanisms.

In the duel between the President and the Premier, none can win a full-fledge victory. The President has the trump card of his direct election by the electorate. In turn, in spite of the vulnerability related to his indirect appointment to office, the Premier has more power control attributions than the President. The Prime Minister benefits from the Constitutional-legal legitimacy granted by the Parliament before which he is called to answer, together with the entire governmental team. The Premier is the mediator and at the same time the one holding the blackmail potential related to governmental coalition forming and negotiating. Under these circumstances, he can play a major part in the decision to have PSD join PNL in Government.


Călin Popescu Tăriceanu, between legitimacy and lawfulness


The only times when Premier Tăriceanu built and "updated" his legitimacy were: when being sworn in and when undertaking governmental responsibility. Both moves were only to result in a frail legitimacy.

As far as the PM's being sworn in goes:

1. Head of Government: PNL, led by Călin Popescu Tăriceanu, lost parliamentary elections, Traian Băsescu won the presidential ones; Tăriceanu became the leader of PNL after taking over the office granted by President Băsescu, namely the Premier office;

2. Head of PNL: at the time President appointed him and Parliament endorsed him as Premier, Tăriceanu was only the interim president of PNL, delegated by Theodor Stolojan, the actual leader of PNL. The PNL Convention was the mechanism that granted Tăriceanu the legitimacy of his PNL leadership.

Further to the resignation hesitations, the Premier managed to reconfirm the legitimacy and authority of his office:

1. Head of PNL: in the wake of the Standing Delegation voting, the PNL president reconfigured his political legitimacy, counting on branch leaders' dependence on central structures for resources allocation and distribution.

2. Head of Government: counting on Romanian parliamentarians' "desperate drive" to preserve their seats, the Premier "forced" the Liberals and, in particular, the Democrats to acknowledge the legal-Constitutional legitimacy of his office; the Premier also "ventured" to "cook up" a threat to throw at Traian Băsescu when necessary: a PNL - PSD alliance.

3. Sole leader of the Alliance and ruling coalition: signature of a new protocol of cooperation with the ruling coalition parties was a new reconfiguration of Călin Popescu Tăriceanu's office legitimacy.


How legitimate was Mona Muscă's move?


Mona Muscă's resignation was seen as a "legitimate" political move, a lot more "legitimate" than the Premier's office and than the voting in the Standing Delegation. Were we to assess the move against the conceptual framework outlined above, we could say that political "coherence" has nothing to do with "legitimacy." But without doubt Mona Muscă's action was a challenge to the PM and PNL President's authority... in the name of an ethics presented as authentic. Because, without direct correspondence between politicians' decisions and the public interest, such decisions will always be rated as politically-drive, or mere exercises in image building, and consequently discarded by the public opinion.

As for Mona Muscă's resignation as PNL vice-president, Liberal leaders in the Standing Delegation (who would not appoint a replacement for the vice-president office) saved the face of the PNL leaders: the Liberal leaders only invalidated the "legitimacy" of Mona Muscă's resignation (equivalent to a defiance of authority). At an unofficial level, Mona Muscă has remained PNL vice-president and a prospective runner for a top position.

Apparently the same thing happens in the Ministry of Culture: Mona Muscă continues to act as interim Minister, although the new Minister of Culture has already been appointed.

Consequently, Mona Muscă's move was not only illegitimate, but it was rather reduced to "playing to the public." In this case, Mona Muscă's resignation was just a failed attempt to challenge the PM and PNL President's authority.    


The President, between solitude and singularity


In his ivory tower, the President feels lonely. His awkward position reminds me of a though Emil Cioran put down in "Amurgul gândurilor": "Solitude teaches you not that you are lonely, but that you are the only one."

For President Băsescu, political legitimacy takes the cumbersome and abstract form of the fight against corruption, a super-theme never worn out and always apparently "legitimate." When President Băsescu links political legitimacy with ethics (i.e. the fight against corruption) and democracy (in the sense Plato used the term in, as direct democracy: demos = leadership by the people), he plays the part of a messianic role, the Only One entitled to speak up and expose the corrupt ones, the Only One entitled, as legitimated by the votes backing him up, to fire arrows at the areas where the corrupt ones are said to be and to hold them liable as He sees fit.  

In President Băsescu's opinion (according to his latest radio statement), the fact that PM Tăriceanu made a decision outside governmental structures and (it goes without saying, without prior consultation with the President) abolishes his legitimate right to take the decision regarding his resignation by himself, and consequently annuls his right to call early elections, and this move has nothing to do with democracy. Starting from a particular case, the President refines his outlook on democracy: those who go against the decisions of the nation's legitimate, elected leaders are guilty of breaking the rules of democracy, and the Premier's decision, influenced by persons lacking legitimacy, becomes (by virtue o a syllogism or mathematical transitivity relationship) illegitimate on the one hand and non-democratic on the other hand (because to overlook the decision of the nation's elected representatives is to break the people's will, the will of those who put their trust in the ones they have elected). Consequently, Băsescu means, PM Tăriceanu's illegitimate and non-democratic acts (giving up the resignation, refusing to organise early elections) come against:

1.the President's political legitimacy, therefore are illegitimate: if the President accepted Tăriceanu's decisions (taken together with people outside the field of political legitimacy), the former's actions would become illegitimate, simply because it is the President who appointed (put his trust in) him for the Premier office;

2. presidential authority, therefore are non-democratic, or even anti-democratic: the (people-elected) President's power to pass laws through Parliament is fully compromised, because there is no parliamentary majority to back the laws.   

Were we to use the Băsescu model to analyse the political life in syllogisms, we would reach the following conclusion, which the presidential message seems to indirectly convey: "in my capacity as holder, as sole legitimate "heir" of political power, I am also the Only One in a position to issue and impose valid and legitimate truths, which others, regardless of their standing and social-economic-political background, must acknowledge and accept as supreme laws, along with the other sets of laws already endorsed and acquired by the society."

The legitimacy conflict between the two offices, the President and Premier (set out in the Constitution, but inflamed by Cotroceni), resides precisely in the President's "legitimate" intention to permanently "measure" the Premier's legitimacy and to drain it of any meanings before the public opinion. The duel over legitimacy in which the two are engaged is only fought at a discourse level, intended to cover an otherwise evident power pursuit. Because whenever public interests are overlooked in elite decisions, political legitimacy can only me a muffled battle over possession and use of authority for personal interests.

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