This is the moment to either complete the post-communist democratic transition or become further mired in the culture of corruption and impunity that has threatened to strangle Romania's fledgling democracy.
"What we will become depends on this generation." Speaking about the rising tide of civic engagement in Romania, Ligia Mahalean, a Cluj-based activist and co-founder of the Anti-Corruption Umbrella, emphasised to me that the future of Romanian democracy depends on how this generation stands up to entrenched interests and political corruption. This is the moment to either complete the post-communist democratic transition or become further mired in the culture of corruption and impunity that has threatened to strangle Romania's fledgling democracy.
Since 2017, Romanian civil society has demonstrated its resilience and experienced a resurgence. Citizens are more politically engaged now than ever before. Demands for change handed incumbent President Klaus Iohannis a strong victory over Social Democrat candidate and former prime minister, Viorica Dăncilă in the election on 24 November. With a fresh mandate and sufficient political momentum to strengthen judicial independence and prosecute corrupt politicians, Mr Iohannis must engage more deeply with a reinvigorated civil society to pursue a more aggressive anti-corruption agenda.
Romanian civil society has only awakened in the last decade, but its organisation is impressive and its focus on rampant political corruption is sharp. For instance, large protests first erupted in 2012 over a proposed mining project in the village of Roșia Montană, which would have poisoned all of Transylvania's drinking water with cyanide. Then in 2015, it was revealed that a deadly fire occurred at the Colectiv nightclub in Bucharest because officials were bribed to ignore violations of safety rules. And in late January 2017, the government issued an emergency decree to raise the monetary limit on what was considered "corruption." In response, huge crowds poured into city squares around the country in the largest protests Romania has seen since the fall of communism. The government retreated in all of these instances due to intense popular pressure. As a result, people saw that political pressure through protest can make a difference.
When the government shifted its strategy to one of incremental changes, in which emergency decrees and other policies were put into place slowly in the hope of wearing down the protestors, civil society had to adapt its tactics. To avoid exhausting the people who come out to protest, organisers have focused on large, targeted demonstrations in order to pressure the government. A protest "has to have a purpose," Ms. Mahalean told me, "so we tried to make sure that we took the occasions when protesting would actually have a concrete impact and when the popular emotion was there." There is no perfect formula for knowing when the time is "right," and there is debate among organisers about when to call for a protest. Therefore, organisers must be deeply connected to all sectors of their communities so that they know when people are ready to vote with their feet.
With a fresh mandate and a strong victory in the presidential elections this past Sunday, "the right moment" has presented itself to Mr Iohannis. In order to deliver on his promise of restoring Romania, he must engage civil society in developing an anti-corruption agenda. Just as activists must be intimately connected to their communities to know when the popular mood is ready for a demonstration, the president must carefully listen to Romanian citizens' demands. He has shown that good governance can win an election, but he will need the backing of citizens every step of the way in order to repel the special interests of the elite.
Furthermore, activists and protestors have proven themselves to be a powerful force in Romanian politics. They have already achieved the cancellation of a large mining project, the resignation of a prime minister over a deadly nightclub fire and the withdrawal of emergency decrees designed to increase impunity. Civil society organisations have shown that they have a strong and wide-reaching base of popular support - and they know how to apply pressure. It would be a mistake to leave civil society organisations out of the creation and implementation of an anti-corruption agenda.
Lastly, the stars are finally aligning for a new type of governance in Romania. The party that has been responsible for the attacks on the judicial system and the rule of law has lost its parliamentary coalition and was defeated badly in May's European elections. The new prime minister is an ally of Iohannis, and the former head of Romania's National Anti-Corruption Directorate is now in charge of the new European Public Prosecutor's Office. Most importantly, the population has demonstrated that it is willing to repeatedly engage in large-scale protests. All of these factors, coupled with Iohannis' strong victory in the presidential election, put him in a prime position to aggressively pursue policies that will clean up Romanian politics.
The good news is that Mr. Iohannis has already shown that he is willing to engage with civil society. Before announcing last May's referendum on judicial independence, he met with NGOs and protest organisers to hear their perspectives and gain their support. Mr Iohannis must pursue this channel of communication more aggressively so that he is constantly aware of the positions and ideas of the organisations that are closest to the population. Now is the time for him to demonstrate that he has what it takes to fight corruption, restore the integrity of the judicial system and ensure that no one is above the law.
This can best be achieved through sustained dialogue with the activists and organisations that know how to build a movement. Romania's resurgent civil society can help chart the best path forward to promote a culture of democracy.
Devin MacGoy is a student researcher at Georgetown University. He studies Romanian politics.
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