Is Romania finally making its first steps towards democracy?

Unbenannt

By Luca Patriniche, a first-year History undergraduate at King’s College London

The newly-appointed Social-Democratic (PSD, now in coalition with ALDE) government of Sorin Grindeanu approved an emergency ordinance (OUG13), during the night of 31 January 2017, which alters the Romanian penal code and reduces penalties for abuses of power. The order stipulated more lenient punishments for corruption. There was also an amnesty for those convicted of certain corruption offenses, which amounts essentially to the legalization of corruption. PSD proposed further measures that would ban protests deemed to be of “extremist nature” and free from jail those serving sentences of up to five years for offenses including abuse of power. All these measures would be a clear breach of democratic principles – they bear an uncanny resemblance to the new measures passed secretively in the night by the illiberal Law & Justice (PiS) government in Poland. Similarly to PiS, PSD’s first line of defense to criticism is their pro-social measures to ‘help the poor’, that are ‘the will of the people’.

The main beneficiary of PSD’s ordinance would have been the PSD president Liviu Dragnea. PSD won parliamentary elections in December 2016 with 46% of the vote, but President Klaus Iohannis (of the National Liberal Party, or PNL)’s anti-corruption drive since 2014 bars those with convictions from public office, thus preventing a Dragnea premiership. Dragnea has a suspended two-year sentence for vote-rigging and is being prosecuted in a separate case for abuse of power. The proposed changes would likely be made with the intention of making Dragnea prime minister. The changes would pardon and shorten the sentences of those convicted of corruption, including of many PSD politicians, and allow future abuses of power.

For a week after 31 January 2017, there was every night (in temperatures often below minus 10 degrees Celsius) between 300,000 and 600,000 people protesting in Romania (population of 20 million), making them the biggest protests since the Revolution of December 1989 against Nicolae and Elena Ceaușescu. The protests have continued, albeit in much smaller numbers, as protestors want to ensure the Grindeanu government does not try to introduce a watered-down version of the ordinance after the proposals were withdrawn and Justice Minister Florin Iordache resigned. They call for the resignation of the entire Grindeanu cabinet. There were large protests outside Romania as well, in the Romanian diaspora of 4 million (compared to 20 million in Romania).

“Awaken, Romanian, from the deadly slumber into which the barbaric tyrants have sunk you!”[1] These opening lines of the Romanian national anthem, a song often sung at the protests for its message of liberty and patriotism, show the cynicism of the protestors and the mismatch between the reality of political, economic and social life in Romania and the optimism that followed the 1989 revolution. Corruption continues to pervade everyday life in Romania, and many are dissatisfied with the current state of affairs, the country’s trajectory in the past 28 years and its prospects, particularly in relation to neighbouring countries that are perceived to have transitioned more successfully since 1989. The protests are in favour of well-functioning, transparent and accountable institutions.

Other popular slogans showed the same bitterness. Referring to the defensive way in which former Justice Minister Iordache avoided uncomfortable questions 24 times at a single press conference with “altă întrebare” (“another question”, in English), there were also cries of “altă întrebare, altu’ între bare” (“another question, another one behind bars”), calling for Iordache’s imprisonment. Protesters denounced the PSD as the “red plague” and declared that Ceaușescu was not, in fact, dead, but alive and simply disguised as Dragnea. References were also made to the 1990 ‘Golaniad’ protests against the transitional National Salvation Front (FSN) government of Ion Iliescu, during which the protestors often sang: “Better to be dead than a communist!” That 1990 protest called for the barring of former Communist Party (PCR) officials from public office; people have the grievance today that old members of the party, or those who formed advantageous connections pre-1989, are still privileged, or even that the style of governance today and lack of transparency and integrity resembles the old days.

Other popular slogans refer to the PSD’s late-night decree signings (“like thieves in the middle of the night”) or the anti-democratic nature of the decrees (“in a democracy, thieves stay in jail”) , but they all use the idea of this PSD government and many before them since 1989 having consistently stolen and blighted Romania’s chances to improve herself. Cynicism and bitterness reflect the national feeling about politics since 1989.

To understand this latest bout of anger at politics, one should consider the last year and a half in Romanian politics. The fire in the Colectiv nightclub in Bucharest in October 2015 killed 64 people. Already lax safety regulations were said to have been avoided by way of a bribe to the local council, thus helping the fire to spread. Corruption had killed. This sparked a wave of anti-government protest, eventually resulting in the resignation of then prime minister Victor Ponta (PSD), himself facing allegations of tax evasion, money-laundering, plagiarism of his doctoral thesis, and of being involved in the suspicious ‘suicide’ of a prosecutor. The National Anti-Corruption Agency (DNA), under Laura Kövesi, continued Iohannises anti-corruption drive with renewed strength, arresting many politicians. After one year of technocratic government, the December 2016 parliamentary elections returned the PSD to power. The fact that a new party, the urgently-named Save Romania Union (USR) came third, being led by Nicușor Dan (an academic turned activist) and Clotilde Armand (a French businesswoman turned activist), shows the dire situation in Romanian politics. PSD then proposed Sevil Shaiddeh for prime minister, which President Iohannis vetoed on the grounds of her inexperience and thus vulnerability to being exploited by Dragnea, as well as because of her husband’s previous role as a minister for tropical and subtropical fruit in the Syrian Agriculture Ministry from 1988 to 2010, the government of Assad. This sparked a minor constitutional crisis which ended with the eventual formation of the Grindeanu government in January 2017, whose actions have provoked the recent protests.

he above does not answer the question but is essential to understanding the nature of the protests and having an idea of how successful protest can be. The fact that hundreds of thousands, a sizeable chunk of the Romanian population, turned out to protest peacefully, often in bitterly cold weather, shows great determination. The fact that the government soon backed down on its proposals and that Iordache resigned shows that protest can have a significant impact on policy. This would appear to be the first step towards true democracy and rule of law. The effectiveness of protest in causing political change depends on local conditions such as the flexibility of rulers and the determination, co-ordination, and mobilization of protesters. In Romania’s case, these factors in 2017 were, at least at face value, very much in favour of the protesters. However, the victory for the protesters is provisional; there is a long battle for them to safeguard Romanian democracy.

Romanians’ resilience is commendable given 28 years of underwhelming political development and proposed political changes that are clearly anti-democratic, and which endangers much-needed attempts by Iohannis and the DNA to fight the corruption that is endemic and damaging to the Romanian economy and society.

The protests inspired civic creativity. Considering again the protest slogans, one can see they show bitterness, but they also show humour and creativity; a hint of positivity, in other words. They show a unique Romanian style of protest. The protest has been common in Romania since 2012. Protesters are therefore energetic, enthusiastic and organized. Volunteers provide protesters with food and tea and keep peace amongst the protesters, so as to avoid attracting police responses. The streets can thus act as the main guardians of democracy if the politicians are not so keen to protect it. The Romanian culture of protest since 2012 has tended to be less conflict-based than elsewhere and it makes use of modernity. The protesting becomes humorous – funny custom-made posters were used. A good example of this is a play on a Coca-Cola advert: “Enjoying Coca-Cola since 1886” became the sarcastic “Enjoying corruption since 1989”. Video projections of Romanian flags onto buildings and huge puppets, particularly of Dragnea in a prisoner’s uniform, have also been used. These show cynicism but also creativity and satire – protest is not about displaying anger, but it is satire instead. The protesters show passion but are good-natured and fun. “Distracție plăcută!” (“Have a good time!”) was often wished to those going to the protests. The protests’ humour and good-naturedness are advantageous because it makes the protests less obviously ideological and less antagonizing and more an occasion for unity against a clear problem of corruption.

Protesters have made good use of technology. It helps their cause as well as it has helped to gain significant international attention for these protests. Social media can be used to further deride incompetent politicians. Social media enables a leaderless, inclusive and fairly spontaneous movement. The protests have also echoed modern tastes; many slogans and signs resembled Facebook messages or tweets. #rezist has become synonymous for the 2017 protests. Iohannis’s election in 2014 was aided by many sharing a “keep calm and vote Iohannis” photo and by making him the most “liked” European politician on Facebook.

Romanian protests have also managed to unite those fed up with corruption and poor governance, providing unity across different socioeconomic groups. A Facebook video of an elderly Bucharest street cleaner went viral, as she was shouting passionately at the young protesters to rise up and to be brave Romanians and take back their country after the politicians stole it. A desire for the rule of law unites these people who previously might have been politically detached by disillusionment. They have consolidated their unity in the last few years since it has been more or less the same demographic that has been protesting at each wave. As these people tend to be young, there is an element of being different from mainstream society, often associated with the older generations and the poor, rural population, particularly as these groups are seen as voting PSD and seen as having been paid by PSD to stage counter-protests in PSD’s favour.

he humor, unity, creativity and modernity of the protests may well be able to cause real political change, but that would require a real grassroots anti-corruption movement, similar perhaps to Beppe Grillo in Italy. Despite the undeniable Romanian energy for protest, there is no such movement with the level of impact that Grillo has. There are further problems; the protesters were not united on certain issues, such as how to engage the police, after a few incidents of hooliganism. PSD remains dominant in Romanian politics also, despite all the bad press for it.

The DNA and Iohannis are spearheading the anti-corruption drive, but they are not innocent either. Iohannis risks politicizing the protests by declaring himself explicitly on the side of the protesters against the Grindeanu government, and the DNA’s quick prosecutions suggest it benefits from a privileged but questionable network of information-sharing.

A reform of public services and government institutions is needed for there to be a truly democratic political class. This would mean local authorities, national and state institutions need reform, like the army, police or postal service. Local and national authorities must be created such that they are compatible with a competent and honest Western EU state. This would mean cutting through the networks of influence, nepotism, and corruption that make up Romanian ‘godfather capitalism’, which combines several elements. First, there is the renewed influence of the Orthodox Church (Romania is currently building the largest Orthodox cathedral in the world in Bucharest), arguably primitive, unwanted and unnecessary. Second, there is almost exclusively non-violent corruption (bribery) and incompetence among untrained politicians. Third, the lack of training of politicians, exacerbated by a poorly-paid political class in a country where voters and politicians alike are not so much ideological as simply looking to make some extra money where possible, leads to incompetent, incoherent government. This puts the political class in conflict with the justice system, but collusion between the two sides blocks the transition to a truly democratic political class.

The minimum gross monthly salary in Romania is 1450 lei (about 235 euros); the average gross monthly salary is 3130 lei (about 685 euros). A deputy in the lower house of parliament has a starting monthly salary of 5400 lei (about 1180 euros), not including perks. Perks include a certain immunity from prosecution, which is useful when the justice system would otherwise pursue corrupt politicians. People are left with little money after their living costs, so find it difficult to save. Thus many voters are tempted by PSD promises of higher salaries and pensions. The politicians are better off, but still poor by European standards, and given their position of power, are likely to abuse it and try to make extra money where possible. This problem affects all. The only political ideology becomes to make extra money where possible. Politicians have frequently migrated across the political spectrum to different parties, including between PSD (centre-left) and PNL (centre-right). The result of prioritizing personal profit itself is the outcome of a lack of funding and incentives, leading to incompetent, incoherent and dishonest politicians and political parties.

This is added to the social problems that entrench the old power networks. The Romanian diaspora numbers almost 4 million. The younger generation is tempted to leave but the old and the poor (many of them PSD voters) remain and continue to vote PSD, which as the largest party, attracts the networks of corruption and dishonesty. The other parties are not necessarily less corrupt, but PSD enjoys an unhealthy political dominance. The inter-generational rift does not help. Furthermore, the quality of the education system, apart from a few good schools, is declining. Like other public services, quality is stagnant because of lack of funding and incompetence. As many jobs are in the public sector, Romania also has many individuals dependent on those in power, which only further entrenches dishonesty.

Protests are undeniably effective in Romania in bringing about the short-term change of policy and politicians. OUG13 was cancelled and Iordache resigned. That brought some relief from endemic corruption and satisfied citizens’ dissatisfaction with corrupt politicians. The magnitude and ingenious methods of the protests consolidate the street’s role as a visible and influential actor in politics and politicized many. International attention on Romania, partly a result of Romanians’ use of technology to make others abroad elsewhere aware of the situation, would certainly have pressured the government to act as it did. However, there are many rifts in Romanian society, as shown by the mostly old people who were at the pro-PSD counter-protests, having been told Iohannis would cut their pensions. Deep reform is needed to stem corruption and entrenched networks of elitism and dishonesty. The political system would have to become more coherent and honest as well. There are also the very tricky demographic problems to solve. The population is ageing and declining, and the young and skilled go abroad, so the result is that it is very difficult to put more funding into services like education. Political parties like USR offer hope of a more honest future, but there is still a long way to go before such parties become large enough to have influence. If the current young and educated generation keep to their ideals of honesty, then that is encouraging for the future. However, this should not disguise the fact that deep reform is needed. The protest was able to cause political change, but without deep reform, the post-1989 situation of stagnant political development may well continue, in other words, “meet the new boss, same as the old boss”.[2] A large grassroots political movement for honesty, of which these protests are a small first step, would surely be a step towards that. The protesters’ determination alone won’t bring true democracy, but one has to wait to see whether their determination can develop into a serious political movement to challenge the status quo.

 

Bibliography:

[1] Romanian National Anthem, Desteapta-te, Romane!, (lyrics by Andrei Muresanu)

[2] Daltrey, Townshend, Won’t Get Fooled Again, 1971

 

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