Earlier this week, The Atlantic‘s David Graham pointed us to the fact that former Alaska governor and one-time Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin fell behind just U.S. president Barack Obama and 2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in popularity, at least in terms of most searched politicians.
I’m going to let you in on a little journalism secret. Time was, political reporters knew that any post about Sarah from Alaska was any easy way to get eyeballs. (In one week in May 2010, I wrote three separate items under the rubric “Sarah Palin Real-Estate Watch.” All were well-read.)
You want to know who doesn’t turn eyeballs?
Indeed, if you look at a Google Trends analysis comparing Victor Ponta and Sarah Palin, you’ll see quite clearly just how much more often ‘Sarah Palin’ is searched than ‘Victor Ponta.’
Yet for all the attention to Palin, it’s not her, but Ponta, Romania’s prime minister, who arguably holds the greater role in influencing not only European affairs, but U.S. foreign policy as well.
His party is set to win an overwhelming majority on Sunday in Romania’s parliamentary elections — the latest polls show his party/alliance, the Uniunea Social Liberală (USL, Social Liberal Union), with 62% of the vote and just barely one-fourth that support for the nearest opponent. It’s important because Ponta has increasingly been viewed as bending the rule of law in order to benefit himself and his party. He initiated a constitutionally suspect referendum against Romania’s president, Traian Băsescu, and the two are likely to lock Romania in political paralysis for the foreseeable future.
Romania, with a population of 19 million, has about as many people as all of the five countries that comprised the former Yugoslavia — it’s about one-third as populous as Italy, and it’s more populous than the Netherlands (17 million), a founding member of the European Union’s predecessor, Belgium (11 million), another founding member and the home of Brussels, the EU’s bureaucratic capital, or Greece (11 million), whose financial and economic woes have made it an outsized problem for the eurozone for the past three years.
Romania has been a member of the EU since 2007 (it joined at the same time as Bulgaria), and it’s been a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization since 2004.
So a Romanian prime minister is set to win extraordinary strength in the Romanian parliament — perhaps even enough support to make constitutional changes — with a record that falls far short of most EU members and NATO allies, in terms of his respect for democracy and the rule of law.
If Greece became the epicenter for the beginning of the eurozone’s sovereign debt crisis on Europe’s periphery, Romania could well become the epicenter for a different kind of European crisis — a crisis of democratic and legal backsliding.
That the EU has a fully-fledged member and the United States has a NATO ally slouching toward authoritarianism should be an alarm-inducing event, and it certainly has wider implications for U.S. security policy, not to mention U.S. policy on Europe and economic affairs, than the decaying political half-life of a half-term governor from an American state six times zones away from Washington, D.C.
For now, it’s Palin — and not Ponta — that’s driving the most traffic. Given Sunday’s election, that could change.
Regardless of whether it does, it should.