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Why celebrating Liviu Dragnea's jailing in Romania might be premature

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Why celebrating Liviu Dragnea's jailing in Romania might be premature
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Romania should focus less on celebrating the jailing of Liviu Dragnea and more on reforming how political leaders are chosen, experts say.

The country’s most powerful politician, 56, was taken to prison on Monday after a court upheld a corruption conviction.

Dragnea headed up the ruling Social Democrats (PSD) during a period when it instigated controversial reforms that critics say undermined the independence of the judiciary and the fight against corruption.

Romanians rejected the reforms in a referendum on Sunday. The following day Dragnea was heading to jail.

‘Romania needs to grow up’

Protesters waved handcuffs in front of Dragnea as he entered prison grounds while another threw a toilet roll at his car.

“With this decision, the Liviu Dragnea era ends,” said opposition politician Dan Barna. “Romania is getting better.”

But George Jiglau, a political scientist at the University of Cluj, said it was not necessarily a moment to celebrate.

“I’m being realistic and maybe I’m going against the mainstream flow of ideas and enthusiasm that many perceive now that Dragnea has been sent to jail,” he told Euronews.

“Dragnea is simply a symptom of a corrupted system of recruiting political elites that are deeply rooted in PSD and in other parties as well.

“That should be the main concern of those who want to change politics for the better, not getting rid of X or Y.”

Laura Stefan, an anti-corruption expert and former director of Romania's ministry of justice, also spoke against taking the short-term view.

“Dragnea is not the only thing that is wrong with Romania. For many, many years we have made this mistake of thinking one person is the absolute evil and if he or she goes then everything will be perfect,” she told Euronews. “I think we need to grow up and realise there’s more to it than meets the eye.”

Is history going to repeat itself?

Dragnea’s jailing, the referendum defeat and a poor display in the European Parliament elections have raised questions about the government’s future.

Elections are not due until late next year and experts say it would be difficult to have one before then.

The likelier scenario, said Jiglau, is the PSD/ALDE ruling coalition losing its parliamentary majority and a new government being formed.

But experts fear this could be history repeating itself.

In October 2015, dozens of people were killed in a nightclub fire in Bucharest, which was linked to corruption.

The disaster prompted protests and the resignation of Victor Ponta’s PSD-run government in early November.

But a year later, PSD, tainted with corruption over the fire, was re-elected with a 45.4% share of the vote.

“I think the worst solution would be to have a technocratic government [in the coming months], it would just give PSD and ALDE a break to come back to life after a year and that would be very bad for Romania in the medium and long term,” said Stefan.

Are there grounds for optimism?

Despite caution from some quarters over celebrating Dragnea’s jailing, Stefan said there were grounds for optimism.

“They [PSD] were trying [to weaken anti-corruption laws] but they failed and that is a reason for hope because it shows the checks and balances are working in Romanian democracy, that we’re not taking short cuts even if you come to power you cannot just do whatever you want,” she said.

“So time and again Romania proves that in fact not only do we have high-level corruption but we are serious about dealing with it.”

But for Jiglau, Dragnea’s jailing will only deepen divisions among PSD supporters who believe the case was politically motivated.

“There is this feeling, this expectation, especially after what happened to Dragnea and how [Viorica] Dancila is ruling the government, that it cannot get any worse, any kind of government would be better and more legitimate, especially after the European elections,” he said.

“But we said that after each prime minister so I would refrain from being optimistic that whatever comes next is better.

“But there is a very significant side of the society - that might seem small after the results of the European elections - that says this is a political move and that the justice itself is controlled by the parallel state. They go for this interpretation quite clearly. What’s happened to Dragnea doesn’t help heal this rift.”