Romania rarely features in international media, yet the scenes of mass demonstrations in Bucharest and other major cities last week may feel oddly familiar to Western TV audiences. Large-scale protests have been a major feature of Romania’s image in recent years, prompted by a variety of proximate causes.
In November 2015 it was the Colectiv nightclub fire, where lax enforcement of fire safety regulations contributed to the deaths of 64 people, while a year previously demonstrations were sparked by ‘irregularities’ in voting procedures for the presidential election. But in all cases public resentment of a political class seen as corrupt and self-serving has played a leading role.
This discontent has reached its zenith with the current protests – the largest since the fall of Communism – in response to a government proposal to amend the penal code. The decree, which effectively decriminalised low-level government corruption by exonerating embezzlement of up to €45,000, was passed without parliamentary debate in a late-night cabinet meeting on 31 January, sparking public demonstrations.
As the protests reached their peak, with over half a million taking to the streets, the law was scrapped at an emergency government meeting on Sunday 5 February, but demonstrations have continued, with protestors apparently unwilling to trust the government not to reinstate elements of the law in new legislation.
The public’s scepticism is well-founded. Romania's Social Democratic Party (PSD), which leads the three-party coalition government, has long sought to de-fang the judiciary: in 2013 it attempted to neuter the National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA) by cutting its budget, while in 2014 it tried to implement ‘super immunity’ for parliamentarians.
This battle with the judiciary is partly explained by the fact that the party, the biggest and most influential political force in the country, has long relied on networks of patronage to deliver votes, especially in rural areas where it has dominated local government since the fall of communism. It has thus developed both a dependency on corruption and a sense of impunity that is all too visible in last week’s audacious attempt to circumvent the judiciary.
What hope for change?
All of which raises the question of what hope there is for change. The governing coalition has already survived a no-confidence motion on February 8 and is planning to put a revised version of the controversial legislation before parliament (where its large majority could see the bill pass despite public opposition) at some undisclosed point in the future.
In the short term, there is the possibility of a referendum, proposed by President Klaus Iohannis of the National Liberal Party (PNL), the largest opposition party, on the proposed changes to the penal code. Parliament cannot pass laws that run counter to a referendum outcome, meaning that, with the right question, any attempt at amnesty or easing existing penal code provisions would become unlawful.
There is also pressure from Europe, with the European Commission engaged in judicial reform monitoring as part of the Co-operation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) for Romania and Bulgaria. And, despite the impression given by this latest spectacle, these efforts are bearing fruit. Between 2014 and 2016 over 2,000 people were convicted for abuse of power in Romania, including Adrian Nastase, a former prime minister, as well as the PSD’s leader, Liviu Dragnea. Dragnea was blocked from becoming Prime Minister last December on account of his conviction, which would likely have been overturned by PSD’s new proposal.
Indeed, the current protests are in part a reflection of how central the issue of corruption has become to the national political discourse. This stands in stark contrast to neighbouring Bulgaria, which sees little public outrage despite significantly higher levels of corruption.
Yet the demonstrations also highlight how far Romania still has to travel to meet acceptable standards of governance and accountability. And despite the best efforts of the European Commission and President Iohannis, this change will have to come from the Romanian people themselves. While the public have been quick to protest their government’s faults, they have also been quick to forgive and forget, as they did last December when PSD once again secured the largest vote share of any party.
It is no surprise that the party’s attempt to change the rules on corruption came so soon after the start of the new electoral cycle: its leaders were likely betting that any reaction would be long-forgotten before the next election in 2019. But they may have underestimated the strength of feeling stirred up by this latest and most blatant of actions.
If history is anything to go by, PSD is unlikely to give up in its quest to constrain the judiciary. But neither is the public in any mood to tolerate more meddling. The future is unknown, but another showdown between the party and population seems all but certain.
Alex Bivol is news editor of the Sofia Globe.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.