By Isabela Mares, professor of political science at Columbia University
Over the past decade, Romania has experienced remarkable success prosecuting a variety of illicit activities conducted by its elected officials. A number of anti-corruption agencies that were previously dormant have asserted their independence. These agencies have investigated and indicted hundreds of public officials, including former prime ministers, members of government, mayors and public sector employees.
Such vigorous prosecution of a range of illicit activities has generated considerable anxiety among elected Romanian politicians. Last week, politicians struck back at the actions of the independent prosecutors, by introducing legislation that decriminalised a number of offences for public misconduct. Sidestepping parliamentary deliberation over these measures, the current government introduced these changes as emergency decrees. The new decrees were issued last Tuesday and will come into effect ten days after their publication.
These events have set in motion the current wave of protests throughout Romania. The protests brought together several hundred thousand people in large Romanian cities and extended in recent days to smaller localities. In smaller localities, participants in protests incur considerable risks, as local politicians affiliated with the incumbent party control economic opportunities. Yet despite such opportunities for repression, the protests have not declined in intensity over the last few days and are likely to intensify over the week-end.
What motivates hundreds of thousands of Romanians to take to the streets night after night? Most immediately, protesters hope to pressure the government to rescind the emergency orders. The ten-day lag between the enactment and the moment when the decrees will become law has created a window of opportunity during which protesters seek to convince the government to back down from its intention.
A second set of considerations that motivate Romanians to join these protests night after night is a sense of moral outrage and revulsion. The outrage is directed both at the decision of the government to enact legislation and also at the methods chosen by the government. The signs of many protesters accuse the government of acting “thievishly” at night, of cowardice and fear to engage in a democratic deliberation about the proposed changes in legislation. Such moral outrage motivates a form of political participation that is symbolic and ritualistic. These considerations are likely to motivate protesters to continue to participate in the protest even if the government does not back down to the demands of the street.
The current confrontation in Romania exemplifies the “new politics” in the era of global populism, where pushback against democratic norms by incumbent politicians is met with popular resistance. The new global context characterised by an erosion of democratic norms helps explain both the actions of politicians and the forms of the popular response to such actions. Romania’s politicians took their cues from the actions of populist politicians in Europe and elsewhere. Their calculus was that their blatant attack on the rule of law is more likely to go away unpunished in the current context because politicians elsewhere can get away with similar offences.
At the moment of writing, it is unclear whether the government will meet the demand of the protesters and rescind the new measures or whether it will persist in its reluctance to do so. If the government is unwilling to back down, one should expect a long-lasting protracted protest. Such a protest motivated by moral outrage is likely to result in peaceful, non-violent activities. The Romanian protests anticipate thus a type of political engagement that we will likely to see future years in other places, an engagement that does not call for material gains or compensation, but for the recognition of the dignity of citizens and the rollback of measures that infringe on it.
Follow Isabela Mares on Twitter: @isabelaanda
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