Romania corruption protests: government surrender or strategic retreat?


Is there any other country in Europe where the No. 2 politician (head of the Senate) and the No 3 politician (head of the Chamber of Deputies), who have just won elections with a comfortable majority fear imminent arrest and conviction? asks Alina Mungiu-Pippidi, professor of democracy studies at Hertie School of Governance in Berlin:

Or where most of the freshly elected members of Parliament could themselves be prosecuted on any count, from having hired their relatives in the past (like French presidential candidate François Fillon, except in Romania, unlike France, that’s illegal); having passed legislation to favour some private interests; or simply for having lunched with someone who is suspected of corruption and not declaring it? Or where a minister who issues legislation on criminal matters which is in his legal right is three days later indicted by the anticorruption agency (DNA) for his actions?

Demonstrations are expected to continue in Romania today despite a temporary government retreat over a bill that would have protected many politicians from being prosecuted for corruption, CNN reports. Almost 2,000 people were convicted for abuse of power between 2014 and 2016, and a serving prime minister, five ministers, 16 parliamentarians and five senators were put on trial, The Guardian adds:

Critics have said one beneficiary would be Liviu Dragnea, the head of the PSD who helped the party win a resounding election victory in December. Dragnea is barred from serving in government because of a conviction for voter fraud and is currently on trial for alleged abuse of power. He denies wrongdoing. 

What infuriated the crowds was that the decrees “gave people the impression that the government is legislating in its own benefit,” said Mungiu-Pippidi (right), who runs a website that monitors corruption in the country, The New York Times reports:

In fact, senior political and business figures, including Mr. Dragnea, were under investigation and likely to be convicted under the rules the decree was concerning.

“Romania is far from being a success story,” said Mungiu-Pippidi [a contributor to the National Endowment for Democracy’s Journal of Democracy]. “We ended impunity, we managed to put in jail very important people. But the problem is that corruption has not gone down — people who replaced those people behave similarly.”

The late-night introduction last week of an emergency ordinance to turn a blind eye toward bribery, fraud and other crimes by officials if the amount involved was less than about $48,500 provoked a lightning response from Romania’s civil society, according to reports.

Consequently, analysts suggest, Romania’s civil society, has come of age this winter. But other observers question whether recent events amount to a strategic retreat rather than surrender by the government.

“The people that pushed these controversial changes to the criminal codes are still in power,” said Paul Ivan, an analyst at the European Policy Centre, a think-tank. “There is no reason to believe that their goals on this issue have significantly changed,” he told the FT:

Persistent pressure from local PSD organisations — where hundreds of officials and representatives believe they are being unfairly targeted by the anti-corruption directorate, the DNA, is unlikely to wane, say analysts.

Although Sunday’s demonstrators repeated their demands for the government to resign, analysts said the governing coalition’s one-month old majority remained solid and elections were unlikely.

“It will depend on the government if it will decide to focus on the program with which it won the elections or on attempts to weaken the justice and anti-corruption systems, which were not in their public political program,” said Mr Ivan.

Parts of the media and the new civil society reacted with outrage, but also fell all over themselves with enthusiasm and praise for the public’s strong reaction, notes analyst Henry Rammelt:

Each protest was outperforming the last, with record participant numbers being reported for almost every new protest, everywhere in the country. These protests highlight a trend of discontent, also observable in other Central and Eastern European countries, at the gap between expectations and the actual achievements of the democratic transition process. Directed, in their majority, against the political establishment, the most visible protests are pillared by young, formerly politically-detached people, manifesting a growing orientation towards law and order, who are demanding to have their share in the political process. “Anti-corruption” is the common thread, and it is proving to be an efficient mobilisation framework, since it is broad enough to leave ample room for the subjective sensitivities of this generation.

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