“As citizens, I think we all have an exhausting duty to know what our governments are up to, and it is cowardice or laziness to ask: what can I do about it anyway? Every squeak counts, if only in self-respect.” Martha Gellhorn, The Face of War
As the Indian summer of Romania’s political turmoil continues, it is clear the last hope for stability stands in the upcoming parliamentary elections this December. Yet “change” is a funny word for Romanians. No one believes it anymore. Hoping for change is considered naive and inexperienced, and talking about democracy is frowned upon in bitter speeches which ask: “What democracy?” For generations the general discourse in this apathy-hit country has been: “Get real, don’t bother trying to change things. God forbid you might get your hands dirty.” However, as grand as it may sound, the country is preparing for its most important elections since 1990. If ever there was a time to think, act, speak up and try to change things, that time is now.
Băsescu the survivor
As expected, President Traian Băsescu is back in his seat following the failure of last July’s referendum. Băsescu is nothing if not a survivor. He might subordinate the justice system and cut pensions, but he will also put on a t-shirt, hold a baby in front of the cameras, and people will buy it. The problem is that this referendum was a close one: although a little over 46 per cent of the registered voters participated, leading it to be declared invalid, 87.5 per cent of that group voted against the president, which adds up to 7.4 million people. If you consider that in 2009, Băsescu was elected for a second term with only 5.23 million votes, it’s safe to say the population doesn’t want Traian Băsescu as president. So why is the country still stuck with him? As Martha Gellhorn would say: “If we cannot blame our leaders (…) we can only blame ourselves.”
Traian Băsescu’s return to the presidency did not calm the waters. Both the president and the prime minister, Victor Ponta, are obviously incapable of cohabiting, with both parties resorting to political manoeuvers, public insults and tiresome complaining about each other’s flaws. The Social-Liberal coalition led by Mr Ponta continues its attempts at removing the president from power, attracting expressions of severe concern from the country’s foreign partners. European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and Vice-President Viviane Reding have spoken about preserving the independence of Romania's justice system, with the latter sending a controversial warning that the country’s accession to the Schengen Area might be endangered by Social-Liberal’s actions. Ponta’s response was that Mrs Reding doesn’t know what she is talking about, and that she is carrying out a political attack.
Mr Ponta was probably under the impression he was having a one-on-one with Traian Băsescu, showing off his complete lack of diplomatic skills and capacity to understand hierarchy. On the other hand, the leader of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D), Hannes Swoboda, asked Mrs Reding why she didn’t react in the same way towards President Băsescu’s controversial actions.
European Union concerns and warnings related to the political crisis in Romania have been received with mixed feelings by the population. While some people are relieved that the European Commission and the European Parliament are monitoring Romanian politics, others view their actions as over-controlling impulses not suitable between member states. The problem, however, isn't particularly simple, which is why no one can agree on the best course of action.
The EU prides itself on being a community which abides by “the rule of law”, and based on this principle its leaders voice concerns about Romania. But it is difficult to measure the compliance of a member state to the law. According to a common definition, the rule of law is a legal maximum establishing that governmental decisions are made by applying known legal principles. The European Institute of Public Administration, however, claims that there is no benchmark in the EU by which to compare a country’s compliance, and there are no regional blocs that abide to similar principles.
Perhaps Europe’s strong reaction to Romania was misunderstood as aggressive? Maybe the EU is just playing its part as guardian of treaties, and perhaps Romania is still a democracy, and not a dictatorship, because European leaders warned Romanian politicians that their actions might have serious consequences?
But how can the people understand this when internal reactions to what happened have been so weak and shallow? Perhaps everyone in Europe expected Romanian public opinion to be braver, more outspoken in defending democracy, although Romanians know so little about acting out of civic duty. The general attitude of: “It’s their battle, not ours,” has led, over the years, to a freedom of corruption among the political class which no one knows how to straighten out, and which no one has done since 1989.
Votes needed: apply within
There are many things that need to be done fast if Romania is to become more than an orphan of communism, as some still call it. The constitution needs to be revised – Romania is a parliamentary republic with a president who imposes his will on parliament. It has a Constitutional Court with politically appointed judges who cannot be contested by any public authority. It is also unreasonable and dangerous that the government can pass laws without parliament’s approval using the existing emergency ordinances. These changes can no longer be put off and a serious turn-out is needed in the next elections. People must snap out of their silent frustration, although I fear the chances of this happening are slim.
If you take a look at Romania this December, you will see that there's a huge fight about to take place. This is not for a big chunk of power in Romania: this time it’s for everything. There is an old Chinese curse which states: “May you live in interesting times.” It seems Romania has been experiencing plenty of this. However, an even worse one may soon apply: “May you find what you are looking for.” We will see, all too soon, what Romania’s masses are looking for. Almost 87 per cent of the population voted in 1990, their very first act of democracy after the fall of communism. How many will turn out in December to preserve that ideal?
Ioana Burtea is a writer with Europe & Me magazine. As a journalism graduate currently based in London, she studies creative writing and is carrying out research for her first non-fiction book. Ioana has also worked as a reporter for Mediafax News Agency in Bucharest for almost four years, covering the Ministry of Administration and Interior.