Why Romania erupted in protest
By Eszter Zalan
In recent weeks hundreds of thousands of Romanians poured out to the streets to stop what they had seen as corrupt politicians trying to get away with more corruption.
Not since the revolution in 1989 that overthrew communism have Romanians taken to the streets in such large numbers. This time, protesters want to ensure their leaders are held to account and the fight against corruption is continued.
“In a perverse way to see other countries in our neighbourhood, that used to be models for us, like Hungary, are going crazy, served as a wake up call,” Laura Stefan, an anti-corruption specialist at Expert Forum, a think tank focused on public administration, told this website.
“It showed up that we had to stand up fast. Romanians understood what is the role of the people in a democracy, and that we can’t rely on the European Union or public institutions,” she noted. “At some point it becomes a civic responsibility besides voting.”
The protests began after the recently elected government led by the Social Democratic Party (PSD) and prime minister Sorin Grindeanu adopted emergency ordinance 13 at a late night session on 31 January, decriminalising official misconduct in which the financial damage was less than 200,000 lei (€44,100).
"People realised they don't want to go back to the 90s," a time when Stefan said leaders enjoyed impunity. "Rule of law has to be upheld irrespective who wins the election," she said.
Paul Ivan, a political analyst with the Brussels-based European Policy Centre points out that in the last 4-5 years things started to turn around in the battle against the all encompassing corruption.
"For the first time after the fall of communism, high-level politicians were being sentenced," Ivan told this website. "This has raised hopes that we could become a 'normal European country'."
Attitudes toward corruption truly changed however after a fire in the Colectiv club in Bucharest in 2015 killed 64 people and injured over 140. It appeared that corruption had led to security rules being overlooked.
Tens of thousands took to the streets and forced the resignation of prime minister Victor Ponta, another PSD politician suspected of corruption.
"That's when people realised that corruption kills," Monica Macovei, a former Romanian justice minister and MEP from the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group, told this website.
Paul Ivan noted that while other parties' politicians are also mired in corruption cases, 20 to 30 percent of the PSD leadership is being investigated. Its leader, Liviu Dragnea, was also convicted for electoral fraud in 2015.
He added that with the rise of populism and extremism around Europe, Romanians also realised that the notion of democracy goes beyond the voting.
Catalin Sorin Ivan, an MEP from the ruling PSD, admitted that the party and government "did not anticipate that a technical issue would become such a political debate".
"It's not something we have done for our politicians. We didn't explain it properly to the people, and let the president use it in a political way," he told this website, referring to president Klaus Iohannis, a center-right political opponent of the government.
Government critics warn, however, that the danger to the rule of law is not over yet.
"This was done by thieves in the night," Macovei told this website, reminding that the emergency ordinance was adopted during the night.
Ordinance number 13, which triggered the protest, was not put to vote in parliament. Another ordinance, number 14, which annuls the previous one, was passed by parliament.
Ivan argued that ordinance 14 makes ordinance 13 irrelevant. He also explained that that the ordinances simply were aimed to bring the criminal code in line with constitutional court rulings and European standards.
Macovei, on the other hand, insisted that ordinance 13 can be introduced to the parliament at any time and still voted through, overruling the one passed to annul it. "First deal with 13, then adopt 14," she argued.
"The changes are directly aimed at helping, saving the president of the Socialist party, who had been convicted of electoral fraud," she said.
Macovei, who actively campaigned in Brussels against the ordinance, disputes the argument that the changes to anti-corruption rules were made solely to transpose constitutional court rulings. "They didn't have to do that in secret," she said.
Despite the differences, there is one thing that is surely similar in Romania's recent struggles to the Hungarian and Polish cases.
Just as the centre-right European People's Party has failed to discipline or expel Hungary's ruling Fidesz party, and the ECR protected the Polish ruling Law and Justice party, the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) group in the European Parliament have refused to expel PSD members.
S&D's leader Gianni Pittella said last week that since the PSD-led government recalled the ordinance, there was no reason to do so.