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17 February, 2017  ▪  Sorin Ioniţă

You can’t buy us off!

Romanian Social Democrats won elections by a landslide but face stiff resistance from society whentrying to stop the anti-corruption drive

Nobody expected that, less than two months after winning hands down the elections in Dec 2016 and forming a solid 58% majority in the Parliament with their allies, the Romanian Social Democrats would be confronted with the largest street protests since the fall of the Communist regime. It was all the more unlikely as their newly installed cabinet hit the ground running in the first days of 2017, implementing a pro-business, pro-consumer package widely advertised during the campaign: a hundred taxes and fees were slashed; the minimum salary was increased by 16%; small state pensions were raised and the student allowance was doubled. Some analysts expressed doubts about the sustainability of such spending plans, extravagant even for an economy growing strongly at a yearly pace of 4-5%, but the mood in society was largely apathetic. After all, this was the left winning elections and it was their legitimate turn to try their hand on the economy.

All hell broke loose on February 18, however, when the cabinet did something that was nevermentioned in the campaign but was thehidden top priorityof the Socialists all along. Namely, they proposed two “emergency ordinances” (acts of government becoming effective immediately): oneto grant a collective pardon to some people in detention, allegedly because jails were overcrowded and a EUR 80mn fine from the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) was imminent; the other, to amend the Criminal Code and cut some investigative instruments used with increasing success by the DNA (the highly praised anti-corruption procuratura).

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It didn’t take long for the public to realize that the motivations were just a pretext. The ECHR fine was not at all imminent; the Romanian jails are indeed in poor condition, but overcrowding is actually diminishing on a yearly basis; and the collective pardon covered, among others, sentences with suspension, i.e.it benefited people who were never in jail.

This last point happens to be convenient for nobody other than the current president of the Socialists, Liviu Dragnea, the strongman who masterminded the electoral success and would be prime minister now, had this not been blocked by his criminal record: he has asentence of two yearswith suspension(!) for electoral fraud, is now on probation and so, by law, he cannot be a minister, having to consume his frustration as speaker of the Chamber of Deputies. But if his sentence is pardoned by a quickdecision of a pliant cabinet, the interdiction disappears and he can come out of the shadows, taking the reins officially.

Of course, it was not just about him. The anti-corruption campaign has been the main success  story of the past decade in Romania, materialized in a more independent judiciary and solid results by flagship anti-corruption institutions (DNA and ANI), which are portrayed  in EU reports as the best practice in the region. Dozens of ministers and ex-ministers were investigated, some already serving time in jail (including two prime-ministers). The same happened to hundreds of city and county mayors and councillors,  business or mass media owners, plus, for good measure, virtually all football club owners. Important people from all parties and government levels, as well as from the judiciary itself,  were brought to trial and convicted for corruption-related offences, which dispelled to a  large extent the impression that certain people are above the law, in place since times immemorial. As some apt observers noted, the anti-corruption drive is a complete historical novelty not only for recent periods, but ever: since the creation of the modern Romanian state in the mid-19thcentury, no minister had served time in jail for corruption. Only the reforms of judiciary launched in 2005 made this possible. 

As a result, in the past 10-15 years the conflict over the anti-corruption policy has become the most important topic in Romanian politics and the line of fracture replacing left vs right as the main axis of the party system. Parties used anti-corruption as a reference in positioning themselves in elections, or as a strategy to get rid of political opponents. The anti-corruption drive has shaped the relationship between governments and succesive presidents of the country, the latter being by and large supporters of these policies while in office, while a large majority in the Parliament, hidden under the umbrella of collective (ir)responsibility, was opposing them.

Supporting or opposing the DNA and its investigations is the real subject of negotiations between politicians behind the closed doors, over which ruling coalitions form or break down. In office, minister and parlamentarians spend a lot of time, formally and informally, defending themselves against the increasingly assertive anti-corruption prosecutors, by re-writing laws, manipulating institutions or launching vicious campaigns against magistrates in the mass media channels they control. The only obstacles which stopped so far the parties from killing the DNA and the purging of the political class are, on the one hand, the strong support for the anti-corruption drive expressed by Brussels, Washington and the main European capitals; and on the other hand, the popularity of the offensive with the Romanian public.

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It is therefore easy to understand the furor of the masses when the new Socialist cabinet came out of the blue with the two emergency ordinances which were anything but urgent, were never discussed before, were adopted during a night meeting of ministers and provided for a hidden amnesty for light and corruption-related crimes. The urban public exploded in a series of protests which lasted two weeks and culminated with an estimated half a million people taking the streets on February 5, in more than sixty cities across Romania. About 200,000 of themwere in Victoria Square in Bucharest, in front of the government building, for an anti-corruption evening show of light and lasers projections.

This unexpected social resistance made the government relent: after procrastinating, threatening with implausible counter-demonstrations and serving “alternative realities” on subservient TVs which only increased the public anger, the two emergency ordinances were eventually repealed. Laws are to be initiated instead, after consultations, and send to Parliament on normal procedure. President Klaus Johannis, who by any analysis was a half-loser during the electoral year 2016, suddenly emerged as a hero for his stern opposition to the ordinances: a typical example of winning a match by the own goals of the opposing team. Resignations from the cabinet will probably follow this week: at least the Minister of Justice Iordache, the drafter of the ordinances, will have to go, but the street is demanding the head of Prime-Minister Grindeanu too.

Protests continue, though in reduced numbers, lest the government tries some dubious movesagain. The mess in the legal system has increased after this failed coup against the rule of law: the Constitutional Court will have to decide on the constitutionality of the proposed acts, retrospectively, in spite of them being repealed by the initiator, because it had been petitioned last week by the president and the Ombudsman. Marginal corrections to the harsh Penal Code of 2011 will have to be made, following past decisions of the same Constitutional Court, to better clarify some corruption-related offences.

Stronger civilian supervision of the intelligence services must be put in place, as the current one through parliamentary committeesis visibly deficient. Intelligence services were instrumental in the early stages of the anti-corruption offensive and acted as a trusted partner of DNA, but there are legitimate concerns in society that they have no business in providing “technical assistance” in normal penal investigations. In fact, a decision of the Constitutional Court from 2016 already curtailed their attributions and ordered the transfer of wiretapping equipment to the civilian police supervised by prosecutors. Not everybody, including in the DNA, was happy with it, but it was nevertheless implemented and no major case failed in court subsequently.

The fine-tuning of the anti-corruption instruments, by better balancing the effectiveness of the prosecution with the proper protection of the rights of the defenders, in light of 15 years of practical experience, is necessary, welcome and must continue. The problem is that nobody in Romania trusts this government anymore with such sensitive and important tasks, after the attempt to pass overnight self-serving legislation, using real problems merely as window-dressing for getting top politicians off the hook. In process, they only managed to educate a whole new urban generation into civism and resistance. By one internal survey of the Socialists, in two weeks the party has dropped by 23% in Iaşi, the capital of north-eastern region of Romania, one of their strongholds. Not bad, for less than two months in office.

Sorin Ioniţă is a policy analyst and blogger at ExpertForum, a think tank in Romania 

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