Are Romania’s Protests Helping or Hindering Liberal Democracy?

Protesters wave flags during mass protests against government corruption. Bucharest, Romania, February 2, 2017. (Vadim Ghirda/Associated Press)

Romania has long been considered an outlier among European post-communist countries. It had the only violent transition to democracy in the region, but it also enjoys one of the lowest electoral volatility levels, with its political system characterized as extremely stable based on the longevity of its parties.

Elections in December 2016 returned power to the Social Democrats, who have dominated Romanian politics for the entire post-communist period. With a comfortable majority, the new government did not generate initial signs of popular unrest. On the contrary, it was able to quickly implement a large set of measures aimed at simultaneously increasing spending and cutting taxes.

Nevertheless, it is in this setting that Romania has seen its largest protest movement since the 1989 revolution, both in duration (demonstrations started on January 18 this year) and participation (up to half a million people have taken part).

What Is Behind the Protest Movement?

The immediate spark for the demonstrations was the government’s plan to amend the criminal code to pardon prisoners and decriminalize certain crimes, including abuses committed in office. The protesters alleged the amendments were intended to decriminalize government corruption. More than 30,000 people took to the streets of Bucharest in late January to request that the plans be renounced.

This pressure at first seemed to have been successful, with the government announcing a national plebiscite on the issue. But the subsequent decision to secretly approve an emergency ordinance modifying the criminal and criminal procedure codes on January 31 reenergized the demonstrators. This marked the beginning of the second phase of the protests, which continues to this day across major Romanian cities and reached a peak of approximately 500,000 people on February 5.

The government’s decision to repeal the emergency ordinance did not satisfy protester demands and left no room for future negotiations. The second phase of demonstrations has been characterized not only by fighting against corruption but also by a deepening lack of trust between the protesters and government; two of the most common slogans being shouted are “we see what you are doing,” and accusing government members of “acting like thieves in the night.” A distinct protest culture has taken shape in this second phase, with various themes and recurring events such as live video projections on surrounding buildings, the singing of the national anthem, dressing in the colors of the national flag, and civic education being provided for children.

The protest movement offers a new perspective on Romania’s recent democratic progress in terms of the level of active citizenship and the reactions of political representatives to the unrest. It demonstrates a growing capacity of Romanians to mobilize in response to certain governmental decisions. The core issue has been the fight against corruption, or, more broadly, respect for the rule of law and increased transparency. While Romania has made strong progress in these areas, the persistence of politicians with corruption charges on electoral lists, and pending judicial decisions against many incumbent members of parliament and mayors, explain the ongoing public opposition.

The European Union’s Cooperation and Verification Mechanism regularly reports on Romania’s fight against corruption, as well as its implementation of judicial reform. It has had a strong normative effect across society and led to progress that is the most significant in the post-communist region of the EU. Yet several problems persist:

  • Insufficient technical assistance on legislative provisions for anti-corruption efforts. Romanian legislation is vague and even contradictory on many matters regarding conduct of public office holders. This includes the definition of “abuse in office,” which was the topic of the proposed emergency ordinances.
  • Insufficient preventive measures. There is no institutional effort to counteract abuses driven by incompetence. The National Integrity Agency, for example, does not provide instruction on potential conflict of interests. Especially at the local and regional level, public officials should have the opportunity to be advised by relevant bodies before being sanctioned or prosecuted.
  • Insufficient engagement at the local government level. Corruption is much more frequent in local administrations than central ones, which are more heavily scrutinized by national and international partners. As such, efforts to counter corruption and promote public ethics should be significantly increased through technical assistance programs at the sub-national level.

Helping or Hindering?

The deeper issue at stake from the current protest movement is the future of EU convergence and liberal democracy in Romania. Most of the measures that promote transparency and public ethics were developed and implemented as part of the European convergence process. A legislative easing on graft could also mean backsliding on broader good governance engagements.

Challenging the status quo will not, however, necessarily bring widespread liberal democratic improvement. Most Central and Eastern European countries are currently ruled by authoritarian populists, both from the right (for example, Poland and Hungary) and the left (for example, Slovakia). Romania is currently the only one where a fringe party has been unable to take hold.

While it might be tempting to see the current social movement as a guardian of liberal values, the poor performance of nationalist or other new political movements in Romania owes more to the stability of the Social Democrats. As opposed to the coalition model dominant in nearby countries, the party has enjoyed an unchallenged position on the left, due to a widespread territorial presence, deep societal roots, and clientelistic links.

While left-wing, the Social Democrats bear many similarities with Poland’s right-wing PiS, including their traditionalist policies and cunning separation between the party leadership and governmental executive. This frustrates many defenders of liberal values and blocks effective accountability from the de facto political decision-makers—i.e. Liviu Dragnea in Romania and Jaroslaw Kaczynski in Poland, who head their organizations but not the state or government.

The positions of these parties do not, however, extend to the detachment from the EU project present in the illiberal regime of Victor Orban in Hungary. Instead, both the PSD and PiS take no conclusive stance on the EU or NATO; their medium-term strategy is to consolidate domestic political positions by building stronger relations with them.

The most lasting political change from the current social movement may be to promote a competitive political contender to the Social Democrats and all that they entail. Given their poor electoral results and widespread graft scandals within their own ranks, current opposition parties are unrepresentative of wider political trends. Meanwhile, anti-establishment reform parties have risen to prominence, for better or worse, in many Central and Eastern European countries, where they have traded on the popular rejection of corrupt governmental practices.

The Romanian protesters may, however, prefer to take lessons from further afield, in Southern Europe. They could look to enhance the quality of their democratic process by increasing citizens’ engagement in public affairs, including through monitoring legislative reforms or governmental spending. They could also build the foundations of forceful political movements in the coming years, mirroring the likes of Syriza in Greece or Podemos in Spain. The former seems possible in the near future, while the latter would take some time.

Clara Volintiru is Associate Professor at the Bucharest Academy of Economic Studies. Adelina Țînțariu is specialist in public affairs and has published on transitional justice in Romania and the communist era.