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In Citizens we Trust: How Street Protests Became the Last Democratic Resort in Romania

By Claudiu Crăciun

For several weeks in early February 2017, dozens of Romanian cities were rocked by the biggest protests in the country’s recent democratic history. Even small towns, usually dormant, had their own protesters present in the central squares. The peak protests were in Bucharest, with some 200,000 people taking the streets.

In a political system increasingly out of tune with regular citizens, the massive mobilisation was triggered by the government passing an Emergency Ordinance which proposed a removal of penalties for the graft offences usually committed by local and central party representatives while in public office. Due to public pressure, the justice minister resigned and the government eventually withdrew it. This issue was only a single focal point of conflict and contention within the larger corruption/anti-corruption agenda which is becoming central to Romanian politics. It was also a key event in an international political context in which different strands of illiberal action converge toward disbanding the post ’89 European order.

The events are the Romanian version of a wider struggle for democracy and cosmopolitanism which has take different forms in the majority of countries on the continent and beyond. If the protests had failed, in terms of mobilisation and outcomes, Romania would have been plunged into a limited democracy state, in which the dominant party uses its electoral and administrative force to erode the rule of law, silence the political and civic opposition, and upset the fragile democratic balance in the country.

Political context

Late in 2016, parliamentary elections were held, after one year of governance by a caretaker government (in place since the prime minister resigned in November 2015), due to street protests in the aftermath of a fire in a club which left the nation in shock. The then prime minister had a weak political position after losing the presidential race. The new caretaker government, formed more of bureaucrats than of politicians, organised the elections in December. The election results were a surprise to many. The Social Democrats, who were in government before the caretaker government took over, won by a very large margin, winning around 45% of the vote. The opposition, the Liberals and a newly formed party USR (Union Save Romania), were no match for the powerful party electoral machine of the winners, taking together around 30% of the vote, not enough to create a parliamentary majority, even though the president, a centre-right politician, used his formal and informal influence to build one. The Social Democrats quickly formed a majority with the help of a junior party – also nominally Liberal – and, following a failed attempt to nominate a party bureaucrat as prime minister, settled for a low-key local political figure, while the political and party power was kept in the hands of the president of the Chamber of Deputies, the de facto leader of the Government.

Even though during the electoral campaign the messages from the Social Democrats were all about infrastructure projects, increasing the minimum wage and pensions, but also about tax cuts, they quickly moved toward reforms in the justice sector. This included not only changing the Penal code but also providing collective amnesty for numerous people who were imprisoned for various offences. These moves tapped into the huge reservoir of mistrust and anger that Romanian society had accumulated over the years. The country has a problem with widespread corruption, starting from the petty corruption of public sector employees, to tenders for large public projects which usually come with a commission. Party finances remain very obscure, even though there were recent reforms in the legislation to improve transparency. The mass media abounds with information about local and central dignitaries involved in various corruption scandals, leading the general public to be very sensitive to the issue. This subject is especially sensitive to the centre-right parties and supporters, who use anti-corruption as a weapon of choice against the Social Democrats.

This preference has historical roots, with the Social Democrats – heirs of the former communist party – being associated in the democratic transition with the state bureaucracy and institutional system. Being the biggest and the longest governing party, it became closely associated with widespread corruption. The anti-corruption political and electoral drive was reinforced by the actions of the increasingly powerful DNA (Direcţia Naţională Anticorupţie – National Anti-corruption Direction). DNA, with the help of the internal intelligence agency (SRI), mounted a pro-active anti-corruption campaign that brought a sizeable group of politicians and high-ranking bureaucrats to court on corruption charges. The political response of the Social Democrats to this institutional and political mobilisation was two-fold. First, they portrayed the anti-corruption drive as a purely political move, aimed at removing them from power, and involving a great deal of abuse and errors. Second, they continued to address, at least in discourse, the need for redistribution and economic development, a dimension which was marginalised by the centre-right opposition which went for the corruption critique instead.

The structure of the institutional and partisan conflict also had an international and European dimension. During the EU pre-accession period, the European institutions made clear that the performance of the country in reforming the judicial system and fighting corruption was unsatisfactory. The late accession of the country, together with Bulgaria, which had similar difficulties, came with conditions. The two countries still have a Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM), a hybrid form of post-accession conditionality, through which the European Commission can assess the performance of the country and issue guidelines for further reforms. The CVM Reports usually praised the anti-corruption efforts by DNA and other institutions and pushed for deeper reforms. This, together with other stimuli from the EU institutions turned the anti-corruption fight into a European project also. The continued support for it from the United States also gave it an American dimension.

The framing of anti-corruption measures within a geopolitical framework added a complementary faultline: (neoliberal) internationalists versus sovereignists. The centre-right advocated a closer connection with Europe and US as guarantors of the rule of law while the centre-left became increasingly reluctant to accept outside pressure, especially when it included the anti-corruption. To make their case stronger, the latter started promoting nationalist and illiberal arguments through friendly media channels, for example critiquing the international capital which was claimed to be side-lining the national one or denouncing civil society organisations as being financially supported by George Soros. This nationalist and illiberal turn connects Romania with the larger struggles on the continent and beyond. Thus, the protests were not only about corruption but also about the very essence of the democratic regime in the country and the post ’89 international order. And to the surprise and relief of many, the mobilisation was decidedly pro-European. This was shown on a particular day of protests when the people participating created an EU flag, holding sheets of paper and their mobile phones above their heads.

Citizen mobilisation

Although surprising in its extent, the mass mobilisation was not really new or unpredictable. From 2012, Romania has frequently experienced mass mobilisation and protests. In 2012 it was against austerity and a centre-right president who was almost impeached for breaching the Constitution. In 2013 a mass mobilisation forced the Social Democrats to cancel the gold mining project in Transylvania in Roşia Montana. In 2014, people took the streets to protest the limitation of the right to vote for the diaspora in the presidential elections. 2015 saw another mass protest after the Colectiv club fire brought down the government. So the protests in 2017 come after a solid build-up in the previous years. In a sense, they were more politically charged than the others. There was a feeling of disappointment with the results of the elections and the passing of the Emergency Ordinance provided the opportunity to express it. The majority of people protesting considered anti-corruption the main political issue of the country. In the previous protests, corruption was present but only as one dimension. This time it was central to the picture.

Most of the slogans chanted were against the Social Democrat government and in support of the National Anti-corruption Direction. Added to that, the protesters asked for more integrity in public life and politics. Naturally, the withdrawal of the Emergency Ordinance, which triggered the protests was the main point of contention. Due to the rather technical nature of anti-corruption legislation, it would be difficult to formulate a list of demands of reform proposals, so the huge crowds remained committed to a diffuse and strongly emotional expression of discontent. It was a powerful display of support for the anti-corruption fight, without presenting any alternative views on the policy agenda. The political forces did not advance any alternative views on the issues either. The president Klaus Iohannis, a key player in the events, only stated that the anti-corruption fight should continue.

Yet, the Emergency Ordinance mobilised not only the mostly centre-right leaning citizens but also many centrists and progressive/left-wing groups who became increasingly estranged by the nationalistic turn of the Social Democrats. Thus, opposition to the Emergency Ordinance became politically and socially more inclusive, a concert of voices which kept their identity but joined in a common effort.

The protests helped consolidate four main narratives on corruption and anti-corruption in Romania. First, the neoliberal narrative connected the anti-corruption fight to a broader reform agenda in which the state and the public bureaucracy are viewed as inherently corrupt and inefficient. According to it, anti-corruption and privatisation for example, are part of the same drive. The anti-corruption institutions like DNA must be very active and determined in order to  “clean” administration and politics. This is the main narrative of the centre-right parties, the Liberals and USR, for example, and also underlies the mandate of the centre-right president, Klaus Iohannis. A second narrative is supported by the Social Democrats – the limited anti-corruption, in which the anti-corruption institutions are seen as partisan and abusive, and hampering both the democratic process and the economic development of the country by bureaucratic paralysis. In this view, the anti-corruption drive should be limited and subordinated to some higher political and economic imperatives. A third narrative, the democratic-civic one, supports a strong anti-corruption drive but insists on the correctness and integrity of the process: the drive should not be selective, the investigations and prosecutions should be fair, and respect for human rights and the separation of powers always protected. This narrative is supported by some professional associations of magistrates and many key NGOs working on democracy and judicial issues. Finally, the fourth narrative, the progressive one, is incorporating the democratic-civic narrative with its focus on the process, but places it in a larger political and economic framework. In this narrative, the political and bureaucratic elites are as relevant as the corporate interests pushing them into high level corruption, especially in large tender processes or the disbanding and selling of public companies. The Roşia Montană mining project and its entrenched corruption was the perfect illustration of the nexus of interests criticised in this narrative.

During the protests, all narratives, except the limited anti-corruption one, were present. The organisation of protests reflected that diversity and also its continuity with the previous protests. The Facebook pages calling for the protests were already established and many of the most actively involved were also active before. All the protesters followed a protest code which was never formalised but created informally over time. This code is simple and concerns how to behave in and out of the protests. First, the protest should be peaceful. Second, the protest sites are important and symbolic sites of the city like Piata Universităţii, the Palace of the Parliament, or in front of the Government building. Third, every protester has their own voice and message, so the slogans and placards were very diverse and creative, empowering every participant. This relatively open and decentralised model of mobilisation was effective and helped citizens became involved. The principle of decentralisation also applied for the protests nationwide. Each protest had its own character depending on the city it was taking place in. There was no national hierarchical coordination but a loose coordination based on exchanging information and repertoires of protest.

Whilst the opposition parties encouraged the protests, they never influenced nor led them. None of the parties and institutions in the country has the capacity to mobilise and coordinate such crowds. For the political parties in general, the protests were a challenge because it forced them to position themselves and find ways to interact with those out on the streets. For the centre-right parties there was a reinvigorating push after the defeat in the December 2016 elections. It showed that potential electoral support was available. A key question is whether existing parties, old and new, manage to keep up the pace with the increasingly mobile, connected, and informed groups in society. Another key question is whether the civic mobilisation will be able to change the political balance in the country at the next elections in 2019 (both European and presidential). So far, the energy of the protests has not been systematically transferred to the parties, so the latter must work harder if they want to stay relevant and representative.

The protests in February showed that citizen mobilisation can occur and keep a democratic balance in the country especially when the government is too powerful and the opposition parties are too weak to oppose it. Thus, the protests and the citizens acted like a quasi-autonomous actor keeping in check the power that has a tendency to become arbitrary and abusive.

Democratic and European prospects

The Social Democrats were held back by the protests and the massive international coverage these received. They kept their plans to change the Penal Code but they will push for it through Parliament. But now the government has to be more careful; the majority of the protesters are still active and the international community is very attentive. Romania’s role in the political dynamic of the continent is a specific one. Against the attempt of the government to abuse power, much like in Hungary and Poland, there was fierce resistance. Romania, through its citizens and mass mobilisation has successfully opposed illiberal and Eurosceptic tendencies. The current events in the country will force a reflection on wider processes of European integration and enlargement. The Hungarian and Polish cases show that creeping authoritarianism goes undetected by the EU, or even if it is recognised as such, the EU has few instruments to limit it. The historical imperative to unite Europe, the single biggest achievement after 1989, is thus undermined by the inability of some Central and Eastern political elites to follow the democratic rules. In Romania, as in other cases, the citizens fought to keep the power of their leaders in check. It is one of the signs that European values have laid down some roots in these countries. Whether this will be enough to tame authoritarian tendencies and force the leaders to engage constructively in the European project remains to be seen.

 

In Citizens we Trust: How Street Protests Became the Last Democratic Resort in Romania