There were huge protests in Romania — but what happens next?

Riot police use a water cannon to clear the square during protests in August outside the government headquarters in Bucharest, Romania. (AP)
Riot police use a water cannon to clear the square during protests in August outside the government headquarters in Bucharest, Romania. (AP)

Just a week ago, more than 150,000 people in Bucharest and other cities in Romania filled the streets to protest attempts by the government to weaken anti-corruption measures. Police beatings — of protesters, Israeli tourists and an Austrian television crew — left several hundred injured and provoked an international response.

Romania’s Social Democratic Party (PSD)-led government sought to blame protesters for the unrest, while President Klaus Iohannis of the National Liberal Party (PNL) condemned the violence.

The protests were led by members of the large Romanian diaspora — those who left after the fall of the communist regime in 1989 in search of work and a better life. While some protesters traveled from across Europe, a broad cross-section of Romanian society also participated, representing political views from left to right. Here’s what you need to know:

1. Why are people on the streets?

This was a widespread condemnation of recent PSD attempts to weaken the judicial system and anti-corruption measures enacted as part of Romania’s accession to the European Union. The anti-corruption drive has seen several prominent former politicians and business executives jailed, including former PSD prime minister and presidential candidate Adrian Nastase.

Although the Romanian economy is growing, inequalities remain. Many Romanians equate political and economic corruption — and the elites who are corrupt — with stealing the wealth of the nation.

And there is criticism of the ability of the country’s elites to use the system to their own benefit. For instance, politicians can employ different tricks to stay out of jail or get a reduced sentence — while manipulating the political system against opponents or to suppress voters.

2. Is Romania backsliding on democracy?

The PSD has adopted increasingly populist and authoritarian language to justify its policies, claiming that prosecutors have exceeded their authority and anti-corruption efforts are politically motivated. It’s important to note that democratic backsliding in Romania is more defensive in character and less ideological than in Hungary or Poland. It reflects the desire of Romania’s elites to protect their own economic and political gains since the fall of communism. Many of these gains were made illegally through theft, graft and corruption — so the anti-corruption measures are a clear threat.

The PSD has launched major attacks on the democratic and judicial system, targeting the court and its judges, decriminalizing acts of corruption, and changing legislation to impeach the president or to limit his powers, for instance.

The resulting popular protests forced the party to retreat at times. But the PSD also passed a number of more minor changes, which effectively undermine Romania’s democratic institutions and anti-corruption efforts.

3. Why is the PSD so keen to weaken the rule of law?

Confrontations between sections of the Romanian elite and the population are nothing new — the public has pushed back hard after several scandals (such as the Rosia Montana mining dispute, the Colectiv nightclub fire that killed 64 people and a government coverup when hospitals used diluted disinfectant. The PSD and its allies tried to impeach President Traian Basescu in 2007 and 2012 and weaken anti-corruption laws last year.

But things are heating up. In June, PSD leader Liviu Dragnea was convicted over a fake jobs scandal and sentenced to 3½ years in jail. The PSD and its allies in parliament forced Iohannis to sack the head of the anti-corruption unit, Laura Codruța Kovesi. Most Romanians see Dragnea, who leads the PSD but cannot serve as prime minister because of an earlier conviction for ballot rigging, as driving this attempt to weaken anti-corruption efforts.

The PSD blames the diaspora for its losses in the presidential elections and has been critical of those who left Romania. And when the PSD government (under Victor Ponta) resigned in November 2015 following the Colectiv fire, some within the party felt that they had given in to the streets and that it was important to defeat the protesters to reassert their authority.

4. Who supports the PSD and why?

It might seem strange that a government that lost power in November 2015 could succeed at the polls just a year later. While the PSD has not won a presidential election since 2000, its party machinery is particularly effective in Romania’s parliamentary and local elections, which are legislatively more important than the presidency. The PSD can rely on a core electorate for support.

With inequality and poverty critical problems, the PSD is the only party in Romania to make even a token effort to address issues of social justice (although in all other areas it follows neoliberal economic policies). It does so in a fairly crude way by marginally increasing pensions and giving away food and drink during elections. Local politicians also often carry out symbolically important actions to garner support — such as repairing playgrounds or providing benches for pensioners to sit on.

The PSD also enjoys a strong alliance with the socially conservative Romanian Orthodox Church. Members of the Orthodox Church have been instrumental in mobilizing socially conservative voters to support the PSD and conservative initiatives including the attempt to change the constitution to ban same-sex marriage even though the civil code already bans this practice.

And the PSD, like all political parties, makes extensive use of patronage networks. Romania’s political parties control most jobs or private contracts at all levels (including school janitors) — and these loyalty networks provide the foundations upon which all Romanian party machines operate.

5. Where is this leading?

With presidential elections next year, Dragnea and his colleagues are keen to stay out of jail. Despite their control of Parliament and local government, the government has been unstable, with Viorica Dancila serving as the fourth PSD prime minister since January 2017.

After previous street protests, the European Union and United States spoke with one voice to condemn the attacks on democracy, but the PSD probably hopes the global disruptions of U.S. alliances may render the international condemnation weaker, allowing the party to press on with its efforts.

Romania’s protesters lack a single voice and seem to have few clear goals beyond wanting an end to corruption. This means the PSD can easily exploit the divisions between the protesters. Previous protests have dissipated quickly after a short period of high intensity, and then life returns to normal. The big question now is whether this will happen next year — and if disaffection with Iohannis’s perceived lack of response prompts voters to stay at home, allowing the PSD to capture the presidency alongside the Parliament and local governments.

Daniel Brett is a teaching fellow in social and political science at the University College London School of Slavonic and East European Studies, London.

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