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In early September, Romania’s right-wing Prime Minister Florin Cîțu attempted to pass an emergency decree against the will of his party’s own coalition partners, the anti-establishment Save Romania Union (USR) party. As a result, USR withdrew its support from the coalition, leaving the main right-wing party in power, the National Liberal Party (PNL) unable to govern as they failed to secure a majority in the December 2020 elections.
As it stands, the PM and his government are yet to receive a vote of no confidence from Parliament, which is expected to mark the government’s collapse. This news does not come as a surprise to Romanians. If the motion passes, Romania will have changed its government for the fifth time in five years.
Why can’t this EU democracy seem to overcome its long-lasting political turmoil? According to parliamentary advisor Răzvan Petri, “What people see is a conflict, not of ideas and visions, but of egos. The political crisis has no real substance and wasn’t triggered by conflicts over policy choices”.
How the turmoil started: the attempts of a strongman
The year 2016 was a turning point in Romanian politics, as the events that followed those elections sparked protests of a calibre unseen since the 1989 Anti-Communist Revolution.
Most votes were received by the left-wing Social-Democrat Party (PSD), which then led the newly-formed government coalition. Few doubted that the multiple PMs that PSD changed over time were merely puppets as real power lied with the party leader Liviu Dragnea, considered the most powerful politician in Romania at the time. Mr Dragnea could not serve as PM because he was previously convicted for electoral fraud and was later sentenced to jail for corruption.
Mr Petri accounts how in January 2017, the newly sworn-in government approved of an emergency decree imposing judicial reform without it being discussed in Parliament. “The changes were announced at a press conference held at midnight by the Justice Minister”. These reforms were amending the Criminal Code by pardoning certain acts of corruption. Many speculated that they were designed specifically to pardon Mr Dragnea since he had an ongoing abuse of power lawsuit. The European Commission later advised against the reforms because they were undermining the efforts to combat rampant levels of corruption. However, the EU was late to the party, as another entity reacted that very night: the people.
Wake-up call and the rise of the new political class
“In a matter of minutes, people started gathering in front of the government and in a few hours more than 35.000 people were challenging the government’s decision in front of Victoria Palace. By the 5th of February, the day that marked the withdrawal of the emergency decree, around 600.000 took to the streets all around Romania in what was to become the largest protest in the post-1989 period”, Mr Petri recalls.
These protests eventually turned into the larger “Rezist” (resist) movement that expressed citizens’ outrage towards corruption and sparked multiple waves of protests between 2017 and 2019.
Mr Petri emphasizes the relevance of this citizen-led movement that contradicts the minuscule turnout at the polls: “Even though the 2016 elections were marked by an all-time low voter turnout and one could argue that the quality of democracy in Romania was taking a turn for the worse, the size and intensity of the protests showed two important things: that there is a solid civil society in Romania, ready to defend its values and that legitimacy is something that the government needs to constantly fight for. Election wins are not blank cheques”.
Unfortunately, Rezist did not last long, or at least not long enough to bring about substantial change. Two years later, the movement is nowhere to be seen.
Grassroots failure: the rebels turned mainstream
The movement put enough pressure on the government to withdraw the emergency decree, but their agenda remained largely unchanged. Instead of passing government decrees, PSD discussed the judicial reforms in Parliament.
The institutionalised brother of Rezist, however, is still present. USR, the anti-establishment party that branded itself as anti-corruption and pledged to change the ways of Romanian politics gained massive support following the protests. However, it has since lost much of its appeal and only secured 15% of the votes in the 2021 parliamentary elections. USR then entered a governing coalition with PNL, the mainstream right-wing party which represents precisely the corrupt establishment they protested against.
When I asked Mr Petri about USR’s credibility in presenting itself as anti-establishment while being part of a ruling coalition, he shook his head. According to him, it is next to impossible for the anti-establishment to remain contentious while at the same time designing policy approved by mainstream parties.
However, USR’s latest stance begs to differ. When the current PM, Mr Cîțu, attempted to pass a government decree to fund local projects without any corruption-preventing conditions, USR proposed EU-inspired anti-fraud criteria. Since PNL refused the amendments, USR is now leaving the coalition and demanding Mr Cîțu’s exclusion from the new government. Although PNL recently chose Mr Cîțu as its leader and seems to stand by him, there is no way out of the political crisis as PNL does not have a majority of votes and can not govern without a coalition. Coalizing with other parties such as PSD is excluded due to its ‘Boogie Man’ of corruption status.
That is why Mr Petri’s prediction is gloomy: “Romania’s new government will most likely be similar to the last one, except for the PM. Whatever the outcome, the government will have to deal with rising energy prices, dissatisfied voters who were promised fundamental reform and a 4th coronavirus wave hitting the unvaccinated 70% of the population. Nothing seems to have changed, at least not for mainstream parties that seek to secure their position in public administration. Their goal is identical – when in power, make sure that state resources flow in the right direction.”
Nina is in her second year of studying Politics and International Relations at UCL. She is one of the 2020-2021 Deputy Editors of the IPPR. Passionate about discovering the explanation behind the headlines, she aspires to work as a journalist.