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Like thieves in the night

On the night of January 31st 2017 the Romanian government defiantly passed the ill-fated Ordinance 13, decriminalising certain instances of office misconduct, despite previous criticism from the public, the media and legal experts. People immediately took to the streets to protest both the document and the way in which it was adopted. “Like thieves in the night” became one of the main slogans of the protesters. The ordinance was seen as favouring a high number of corrupt officials either already sentenced or facing trial. Then, following five days of record-breaking protests across the country, the government agreed to withdraw it. However, the country is struggling in an atmosphere of social tensions and distrust of its elected leaders and the protests continue.

February 9, 2017 - Ioana Burtea - Articles and Commentary

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The birth and evolution of the protests

Less than two hours after Ordinance 13 was adopted, thousands of people gathered in front of the government building, in Victory Square in downtown Bucharest. This was not an entirely surprising reaction. Romanians had been protesting against the government’s intention to pass the bill during the previous two weekends. The media, especially independent outlets, had also done a good job communicating the dangers of the ordinance. It was seen as a blow to anticorruption authorities and a shameless way out for politicians with legal problems such as Liviu Dragnea – the head of the social democrats (PSD), who won the parliamentary elections just two months ago. Dragnea has already been convicted of electoral fraud and faces another trial for abuse of his office.

This sort of obvious scheming and disregard for any concerns raised by civil society, and even President Klaus Iohannis and the country’s judges, infuriated the people. If the protests’ spark was the content of Ordinance 13, the situation escalated because of the government’s, and Dragnea’s, arrogance and stubbornness to hold on to it. Dragnea dismissed protesters claiming they were being manipulated. He attacked multi-national companies and suggested foreign businessmen had a hand in mobilising the crowds. Still, Dragnea and his partners did not foresee the scale of the demonstrations and the coverage they would garner.File 002

People have been protesting in Victory Square in Bucharest and organising rallies in other cities for over a week now. The record number of participants surprised many (at its peak, there were around 300,000 people in Bucharest, the most since the Revolution in 1989), in addition to the endurance of the manifestations and the creativity in conveying their messages: visual projections on buildings surrounding the square in Bucharest, funny posters and a spectacular light show employing flashlights from mobile phones, which went viral.

At the core of the public’s outrage was the very practical menace of a regression to a past of savage corruption among the political class, which impacted all aspects of Romanian life. With all its progress in recent years, Romania has one of the weakest health systems in Europe (Euro Health Consumer Index 2015), a deeply flawed education system that produces more functional illiterates than most countries on the continent (42 per cent of youngsters) and a large number of skilled and highly skilled professionals who choose to emigrate. A return to an even darker time of tight government control on justice and political elites cashing in on this is inconceivable to many.

Scraping Ordinance 13

Soon enough, the protests obtained their desired result and the ordinance was withdrawn on February 5th. The step back was as much a scramble to calm the streets, as it was an acknowledgement that the protests had gathered an impressive amount of attention from abroad: media outlets such as the New York Times, The Guardian and BBC all covered the events in Romania, while EU leaders expressed their concern over the government’s blow to anticorruption efforts. Ordinance 13 stopped being an intimate affair and as much as Dragnea criticises foreign interference – a discourse all too familiar in these days of growing isolationism in Europe and the US – businesses with foreign capital employ over a million Romanians here in the country and produce a lot of money.

However, the withdrawal of the legal document did not extinguish protests as people keep asking for at least the resignation of Justice Minister Florin Iordache, whose office created the ordinance and pushed for its passing. Many voices also request the resignation of the whole government, saying Sorin Grindeanu’s cabinet cannot be trusted anymore, while a portion of the protesters would even call for early parliamentary elections in a hope to remove the social democrats from power. This is where things become a bit more complicated.

While the number of those protesting against Ordinance 13 was impressive and unprecedented for Romania, it still does not form a majority. Social democrats won the parliamentary elections in December with 46 per cent of the votes – a resounding victory, even if associated with low turnout. And while some of the electorate may have had a change of heart in the past week, that still leaves millions of people who either support the party or do not view its recent actions as truly dangerous to their everyday lives. Many of these are elderly voters whose priorities are pension increases and other social benefits the social democrats promised, but also younger people who feel disappointed by previous governments’ failure to tackle unemployment, systemic incompetence, low wages and to create more job opportunities. An ordinance modifying the Criminal Code may not be their biggest concern.

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Counter-protests demanding the removal of president Klaus Iohannis have also been organised. Some view his efforts to stop the ordinance from being adopted as interference in the businesses of a democratically elected parliament. While these protests’ magnitude is nowhere near that of the anti-government protests, an atmosphere of social tension has been obvious across the country.

A country torn

The main issues right now are how can this government regain trust and credibility, and how can Romanians begin a productive public dialogue on matters of importance in an atmosphere of mounting social division.

In the first matter, a solution might be for social democrats who disagree with Dragnea’s methods to distance themselves from the party’s leadership and ask for its change. Not that this would be easy considering Dragnea’s influence, but a better opportunity might not arise anytime soon. If he and his loyalists manage to survive this fiasco, his position will only be strengthened. And while his party is viewed as plagued by corruption, it surely cannot be that all its members are horrible. When push comes to shove, PSD has to lead the country, but it also has to respect people’s concerns and wishes for the future. Elections results offer no one the right to do as they please and serve their own interests.

In relation to the second matter, things are more complicated and will take more time. Creating a bridge between social groups with different priorities, who do not trust each other and who communicate inefficiently is a long-term process. People who support the social democrats invoke realism and compromise in order to get small improvements in their standard of living, while those who protest outside the government building every day want a country free of corruption and more open to the world. Neither goal is unreasonable, but people’s rigidity in their personal priorities kills off any hope of resolution. Unfortunately, the only beneficiaries of this situation are the political leaders who capitalise on negative emotions such as condescension and anger. Those leaders will never create anything positive for the whole of society. 

Ioana Burtea is a Bucharest-based reporter who collaborates with Decât o Revistă magazine. For almost four years, Ioana worked as a reporter for Mediafax News Agency in Bucharest, covering the Ministry of Administration and Interior. She studied journalism and creative writing in the UK. 

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