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Hands off their DNA: Huge protests force Romania’s government to reverse itself on corruption

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AFTER just three weeks in power, Romania’s new prime minister, Sorin Grindeanu, could look out of his window and see a huge crowd carrying banners reading: “You have succeeded in uniting us.” Unfortunately for Mr Grindeanu, they did not mean it in a good way. For over a week, throngs estimated in the hundreds of thousands have turned out to protest against the passage of an emergency ordinance that could sabotage the country’s much-praised anti-corruption campaign. Even after the government cancelled the ordinance, the protests have continued.

The emergency decree, which the government passed on January 31st, in effect decriminalised official misconduct resulting in financial damage of less than 200,000 lei ($47,600). The new limit would have spared the leader of the ruling Social Democratic Party (PSD), Liviu Dragnea, who has been charged with abuse of power for granting contracts worth $26,000 to associates who allegedly performed no work.

Within an hour of the measure’s adoption, more than 10,000 protesters were on the streets. The next night an estimated 250,000 gathered in more than 50 cities and towns across the country. The president and vice-president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker and Frans Timmermans, released a statement saying the fight against corruption “needs to be advanced, not undone”. The demonstrations peaked at over 500,000 people last Sunday, even though the government had rescinded the emergency ordinance earlier that day. Protesters wanted to ensure the government did not backslide.

The issue of corruption has dominated Romanian politics for years. The previous elected government was brought down by protests in November 2015, after graft among fire-safety inspectors led to a Bucharest nightclub blaze that killed 64 people. The country sits 57th on the corruption-perceptions index of Transparency International, a watchdog. Despite years of anti-corruption efforts, many analysts believe little has changed. “I don’t think Romania has made significant progress against corruption,” says Alina Mungiu-Pippidi, a Romanian corruption expert.

Good-government advocates have found a champion in Laura Codruta Kovesi, the combative chief prosecutor of the National Anti-Corruption Directorate (DNA). The DNA has convicted thousands of people of graft, including many high-ranking officials. In 2015 it indicted Romania’s then-sitting prime minister, Victor Ponta; the case against him continues. It has become one of the most trusted institutions in the country, behind only the church, the army and the gendarmerie. Among the placards at the protests were many that read “Hands off DNA”.

Romanians had braced themselves for opposition to the anti-corruption campaign after the PSD resoundingly won last December’s elections. It took 45% of the vote; its closest rival, the National Liberal Party, won just 20%. The party’s leader, Mr Dragnea, was blocked from becoming prime minister because of an earlier conviction for election fraud, for which he carries a suspended sentence. If convicted of abuse of power, he would face jail.

The government has blamed the protests on poor communications, scheming by the country’s president, Klaus Iohannis (who is a Liberal), and even professional agitators. A month after Mr Grindeanu’s swearing-in, there is already speculation that he may resign. Florin Iordache, the justice minister, is unlikely to survive for long.

The long-term impact of the protests is uncertain. Many of those who marched last week had helped bring down the government in 2015, only to watch some of the same faces return to power. Other proposals to lighten or shorten sentences remain under discussion. The government insists they are aimed at relieving overcrowded prisons, but many Romanians think they are excuses to let corrupt officials go free.

One of the protesters in Bucharest, Paul Morosanu, a psychologist, carried a placard that read “89 Reloaded”, referring to the protests that brought down Romania’s communist regime. He was on the streets not to roll back one new law, he said, but to overthrow an entire political constellation that has been developing for 27 years. “Before, we didn’t have a face for what we were fighting,” Mr Morosanu said. “This law gave it a face.”

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Julio Marchi ©

Publisher / Editor at BS News & Media Services
A free thinker, not labelled as anything, not associated with any party, not part of any group or engaged with any religion... A simple guy tired of the nowadays bullshit who decided to promote more serious debates about what is really happening hoping to bring back intelligence to the superficial and shallow news & headlines that unfortunately took over the existing media scene.
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