By Raluca Besliu, Romanian journalist and social commentator
Through massive daily street demonstrations, hundreds of thousands of Romanian protesters have obtained the withdrawal of an executive order decriminalising certain abuses of power.
Their movement, built on the legacy of protests taking place over the past several years, can be regarded as a successful model of non-violent resistance for demonstrators around the world to oppose self-serving governmental decisions, which breach the rule of law.
The protesters, comprising mainly the country’s middle class and intellectual urban elite, are fighting for the sustainable and democratic development of the country. In turn, the ruling PSD, overwhelmingly supported by rural, undereducated residents, is striving to maintain the political status quo, firmly installed after the fall of communism, in which politicians have the power to make decisions as best fits their interests, rather than those of country and its people.
Through the recent executive order, the social democratic-led government aimed to enable legally-sanctioned corruption and push back the country’s wide anti-corruption measures from the last fewl years. The decree, furtively passed last-minute on Tuesday, January 31, would have allowed corrupt politicians, including several high profile ones, to be freed from prison, if the financial prejudice they caused was less than $48,000.
One of the high-level officials that would have benefited from the executive order would have been Liviu Dragnea, the leader of Romania’s Social Democratic Party (PSD). He has already been convicted of electoral fraud, receiving a two-year suspended jail sentence, which barred him from holding ministerial office. He is currently accused of defrauding the state of around $26,000.
The executive order represented a desperate cry to maintain a threatened political status quo, still dominated by many politicians, who were directly or indirectly involved in the Romanian communist regime. Ousted from power by protests in 2015 and chased by the anti-corruption trials and sentences, PSD witnessed with horror for over one year its members being accused and condemned by the National Anti-Corruption Division (DNA) in a seemingly irreversible process of cleansing of the Romanian political class, which could finally permit the forming of a new political elite in the country.
In the past few years, PSD has lost other substantial battles against protesters. The greatest one was being forced to leave government in 2015, following large protests accusing it of mismanagement and corruption regarding a deadly fire at a Bucharest nightclub, which claimed many lives and is regarded as a national tragedy.
Other losses included having to reject a proposed amnesty and pardon bill in 2014 and backing down over the implementation of a Canadian-led gold mining project in 2013 at Rosia Montana. The latter project would have had a disastrous impact on the country’s economy and environment, but would have filled private pockets with money. Just like the current protest, all of the previous ones lasted for days, if not months on end, with the public defiantly, but peacefully taking to the streets to express their demands.
Emboldened by each victory, which cemented a growing consciousness that change can be obtained through resolute protesting, the Romanians have been demonstrating every year since 2012 against various governmental decisions that are perceived as detrimental, in a civic nonviolent movement that seems to be growing exponentially.
It is therefore no surprise, that, enraged by the recent executive order, hundreds of thousands of Romanians have daily braved freezing temperatures to take to the streets in the capital city of Bucharest as well as cities across the country and the world. These have represented the largest protest movements that the country has seen since the fall of the communist regime almost 30 years ago. With slogans decrying the current government as an organized mafia organization, the protesters have demanded the executive order’s repeal and the resignation of the recently elected social democratic government, which has only been in power since December 2016.
Speaking to AP regarding the executive order, Laura Kovesi, Romania’s anti-corruption chief, emphasized that the government’s recent measures have been aiming to render the anti-corruption fight irrelevant, by encouraging public worker’s abusive behaviour, dishonesty and immorality.
The National Anti-Corruption Division (DNA) prosecuted, between 2014 and 2016, 1,171 people and 34 organizations/companies for abuse of office. The estimated losses due to corruption were more than $1 billion. According to Kovesi, DNA has managed to secure condemnation rates of over 90 percent of its cases, well above the European average.
DNA has purged some high profile politicians, including Adrian Nastase, one of the top PSD leaders and a former Prime Minister, and Catalin Voicu, a social democratic who used to advise Romania’s President Ion Iliescu. At the same time, Victor Ponta, PSD’s former Prime Minister and party leader, is currently still under investigation for traffic of influence, among other things.
The executive order’s passing also seems to indicate that, despite campaign promises to focus on the struggling Romanian people, by highlighting tax breaks and higher wages, PSD is primarily invested in ensuring the individual prosperity and protection of its own members, who will fight viciously and with full disregard for the Romanian population to maintain and even enhance their status. The restoration of PSD’s power in December has brought new wind under their wings in their fight against the rule of law.
The current protests against the executive order and the draft pardon bill are part of a recent, larger protest movement that started sweeping Romania soon after PSD took charge of the government this past December. The more ample and consistent movement started two weeks ago, in response to the government’s proposal for an executive order on amnesty and pardon for those sentenced to prison terms shorter than five years for certain crimes as well as for halving jail terms for those with younger children, pregnant women and those over 60.
On January 22, President Iohannis took to the streets to show solidarity with the protests and emphasise that the government’s actions benefitted certain politicians, who had problems with the law.
The protesters have obtained an important victory: the executive order has already been withdrawn. They have yet to be appeased though. This is because they are leading a battle for the future of their country, as they continue to demand that the social democratic government resign. PSD and its government will likely fight an ugly battle to maintain the political status quo, as the mammoth pillars of corruption that it had meticulously built over the past 30 years are quickly crumbling under the pressure of an enraged and determined general public.
The latter has over the past years demonstrated its resolution to equally brave the freezing cold or scorching heat, peacefully and patiently imposing their vision for their country’s future.
Raluca Besiliu is a journalist from Romania. She has published extensively on national affairs as well as refugees and human rights’ issues
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