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The past two months of political events in Romania offer an accurate image of the inner workings of and flaws within the country's system as a whole.

Smokescreens and mirrors: how the Romanian system failed its people again

February 3rd, 2017

By Irena Baboi – Research Assistant

The past two months of political events in Romania offer an accurate image of the inner workings of and flaws within the country’s system as a whole. The Social Democrats won the parliamentary elections despite widespread resentment for their past abuses of power, but also due to a lack of convincing alternatives. A Muslim woman was set to become Prime Minister in what was seen as a historical moment for the post-communist country, one which failed to materialise for reasons other than her gender and religion. Sevil Shhadeih, much like the later approved prime minister, Sorin Grindeanu, was only meant to be a mouthpiece for the real leader of the government, Liviu Dragnea, who cannot hold office because of his suspended conviction for vote rigging and fraud.

Dragnea, however, was not going to be satisfied with being the puppeteer controlling the new prime minister’s every word and move indefinitely – he is determined to have the position for himself. As a result, shortly after being appointed, Prime Minister Grindeanu announced that his government wants to pass an emergency ordinance to pardon prisoners and decriminalise certain offences, most notably abuse of power actions such as that of which Liviu Dragnea has been convicted. The emergency ordinance is said to be aimed at easing overcrowding in prisons; in reality, critics believe its main goal is to help government allies convicted of corruption – and by its nature, it would need neither the approval of the president nor that of the parliament to come into effect.

This type of action was not part of the deal, even for many Social Democrat voters. In response, thousands of people of all ages took to the streets of Bucharest, Cluj, Iasi and other cities throughout the country, demanding respect for justice, the rule of law, democracy and, ultimately, themselves. Part of the trigger for the protests was also the breakout of a fire in the Bamboo nightclub in Bucharest. Although fortunately not as serious, it reminded people of the Colectiv tragedy of October 2015, when 64 people died and more than 100 were seriously injured. Despite the lessons that were meant to be learned in its aftermath, Bamboo was also running without having a fire safety permit. The protests then brought down the government and replaced it with a technocratic one; the protests now, despite being branded an attempted coup, merely aim to stop the laws from being reformed for political benefits. For better or worse, the Social Democrats did win the December elections – all that is asked from them now is not to take advantage of that again.

The draft reforms plan, published last month, has been criticised by Romania’s top prosecutor, magistrates, and opposition politicians. As a supporter of the protests, as well as a critic of the proposed reforms himself, President Klaus Iohannis declared last week that he wants to organise a referendum on the issue, a decision welcomed by many of his citizens. The proposal, however, would have had to be approved by the parliament – and the parliament is formed of a Social Democrat majority. The latter  voiced stark opposition for the referendum, which only shows how little faith they had in a favourable result for their government. To prevent it and ensure everything goes ahead as planned, on the night of 31 January, in a hastily-assembled cabinet session behind closed doors, the government gave the ordinance the green light. The people responded again to the continued injustice – and 10,000 protesters quickly turned into nearly 100,000.

Corruption is deeply embedded in both the Romanian political system and its society, and the fragility of the anti-corruption drive is a testimony of this. Despite being a member of the European Union for a decade now, Romania’s legal system continues to be the subject of special monitoring by the European Commission. The anti-corruption drive has also been a case of quantity over quality, with most sentences being suspended ones. Aside from a few high-profile convictions, such as that of former prime minister Adrian Năstase and media mogul Dan Voiculescu, most corrupt politicians and public figures are likely to live the rest of their lives without seeing the inside of a jail cell. By many, however, the convictions had been received with hope for a more just future – and seen as the beginning of a long process that will slowly improve the system.

In December 2016, that hope began to fade. Despite efforts from various young parties, a government that would continue the anti-graft fight was a blurry vision compared to the economic promises of an experienced one. Many Romanians were reluctant to take a chance on what were seen as the political newcomers, and chose to go forward with the “devil you know” option instead. Winning the elections again, however, led the Social Democrats to believe they can get away with anything – including reforms that essentially cancel most of the anti-corruption progress made so far. This is the kind of blow Romanians have never taken lightly; and the kind of last straw that makes them take to the streets in thousands.

The Colectiv fire was a devastating wakeup call that should not have been necessary, and a tragedy that showed how dangerous a corrupt system can be for its people. A little over a year on, and the positive changes brought by its aftermath are close to being reversed. This time, however, Romanians have more recent memories of their power and influence – and the Social Democrats would do well not to forget past outcomes and achievements of mass protests in their country.

About Irena Baboi

Irena Baboi is a PhD candidate at the University of Glasgow, researching the future of European Union involvement in the Western Balkans. She also obtained both of her previous degrees from the same university, having completed an MA in Politics and Central and East European Studies and an MSc in Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies. Irena’s previous work experience includes internships with AKE Intelligence Group in London, as well as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and United Nations Information Centre in her hometown of Bucharest, Romania, fundraising for Macmillan Cancer Support, freelance writing and editing for Oxford University Press. She has also been a volunteer with the British Red Cross since 2013. Irena’s research interests include human rights, peacebuilding and statebuilding, conflict prevention, management and resolution, transitional justice, and post-conflict development.