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Romania protests: what caused the biggest uprising since the fall of communism?

EPA/Dan Balanescu

Romania protests: what caused the biggest uprising since the fall of communism?

EPA/Dan Balanescu

Romania recently saw the largest demonstrations on its streets since the fall of communism. On February 5, more than half a million people took part in protests across the country.

The marches came in response to an emergency decree passed by the recently elected PSD-ALDE government – a coalition of the PSD (Social Democratic Party) and ALDE (the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats). Among other things, this aimed to weaken anti-corruption legislation and offered potential amnesty for those convicted of corruption.

The decree was issued at 10pm on the evening of Tuesday January 31 and did not have to face parliamentary scrutiny. Many saw it as a back-door attempt by the government to help its supporters, both within the party and in the media, who are currently either in jail or under investigation for corruption.

The amnesty for those with convictions was also seen as an attempt by PSD leader Liviu Dragnea to clear his own path to becoming prime minister – a position from which he is currently excluded due to a conviction for electoral fraud. Dragnea is prime minister in all but name, such is his domination of the PSD. Sorin Grindeanu, the sitting prime minister, is entirely dependent on Dragnea’s patronage.

The Romanian government is simultaneously strong and weak. It commands a parliamentary majority, controls many institutions and has backers in the media. But it is continually vulnerable to anti-corruption efforts, which have seen many of its prominent members and supporters jailed. Both Dragnea and ALDE leader Călin Popescu-Tăriceanu are subject to investigations and court cases.

The emergency decree is part of a broader PSD campaign to unpick anti-corruption safeguards through legislative initiatives which will benefit its expansive patronage networks.

People vs government?

Protesters of all ages, social backgrounds and political leanings have come from across the country in response to this situation. Many are angry at the content of the proposed law as well as the surreptitious way in which it has been introduced. This is an unprecedented mobilisation of society but also reflects how Romania has changed over the past decade. Civil society is becoming increasingly vocal and active.

Protesters hold effigies of government representatives. EPA

The government meanwhile has shown no interest in backing down. Its public statements and actions have been conscious efforts to muddy the waters and confuse the public. Although it promised on Saturday February 4 to repeal the decree, this was more an attempt to confuse people and take them off the streets rather than a real concession. Closer inspection revealed that the repeal was not really a repeal at all. It contained clauses that had previously been declared unconstitutional so could be declared invalid at any moment – meaning the initial decree would stand.

What’s more, Grindeanu suggested sending the controversial measures through parliament, which would easily approve them thanks to the PSD’s majority. When his justice minister spoke out against this plan, Grindeanu threatened to sack him. Grindeanu has shifted the blame for the crisis over the decrees onto the justice ministry.

The government’s supporters and media allies have been quick to attack the protesters as anti-democratic, even claiming they were being paid by US financier George Soros, “fascists”, or were out on the street as part of a coup d’état led by President Klaus Iohannis, who has called for a referendum on the reforms proposed in the decree and took part in the protests.

A test for Romanian democracy

The complex legal machinations and contradictory statements are part of a deliberate strategy to draw out the issue. The government seems to want to stall for as long as possible in the hope that the protesters will give up and go home.

The PSD has a lot resting on this matter. Dragnea’s career depends on him getting out of his own ongoing corruption case. A second conviction would see him sent to jail, perhaps ending his political career.

The PSD is also very heavily dependent on local barons and oligarchs for financial and organisational support. The price for that support is the government weakening anti-corruption legislation.

The PSD government of Victor Ponta fell in November 2015 in the face of the street protests that followed a fire in a Bucharest nightclub in which 64 people died. Although the government was of course not responsible for the fire, many Romanians felt it was responsible for the administrative culture that allowed permits to be granted in exchange for bribes with no regard for safety, and for a health service that could not cope with the aftermath of the accident.

Dragnea has positioned himself as a political “hardman”. He wants to face down the latest protests and show that his government and party – not the people on the street – are in charge. There is a fear that retreating now will embolden government opponents in the future.

Although, on the face of it, this is a simple issue of anti-corruption, it has wider implications for Romanian democracy. The government may continue its approach of legal obfuscation to try to slide its decree through or it may, for the time being, abandon this attempt to unpick anti-corruption measures. However, this will be only a short pause. For the demonstrators the question remains whether the protests can be sustained and be effective in getting the government to abandon its anti-anti-corruption strategy.