Romanians rallying for rule of law derail populist bandwagon

Bucharest Letter: Scandal-hit governing party claims foreign forces behind protests

Romanian protesters turn on the lights of  mobile phones while standing under coloured papers during a protest in front of government headquarters in Bucharest on Sunday. Photograph: Mihai Barbu/EPA

Romanian protesters turn on the lights of mobile phones while standing under coloured papers during a protest in front of government headquarters in Bucharest on Sunday. Photograph: Mihai Barbu/EPA

 

The populism that is on the charge in the United States and much of Europe, putting pressure on the rule of law and civil society, has hit the buffers in a corner of the Balkans.

Every night for two weeks, Romanians have rallied to demand the resignation of a government that tried to weaken their country’s anti-corruption drive, which the ruling party has sought to cast as an imposition by foreign forces.

Ahead of parliamentary elections last December, the Social Democrats (PSD) pledged to raise pensions and wages and cut taxes, while also grumbling about the influence of the EU, big corporations and foreign-funded NGOs.

Faced by weak opponents and apathetic voters – only 39 per cent of whom cast a ballot – the PSD won with a landslide. On January 31st, the PSD-led government passed a decree that would have shielded dozens of politicians and businessmen from prosecution for fraud. The emergency measure was rushed through late at night, bypassing parliamentary approval and presidential oversight.

The response was immediate and overwhelming – thousands took to the streets of Bucharest and other cities that night, in protests that swelled to include hundreds of thousands of people on subsequent evenings.

“After an illiberal campaign to prepare Romanian public opinion with the idea of ‘unmasking’ human rights as dangerous imports from the West; with attacks against civic organisations; after the distribution of fake news; after promotion of conspiracy theories, they believed they had control of public opinion,” said Cristian Parvulescu, dean of Romania’s National School of Political Studies and Public Administration.

The ruling coalition was shocked by the size of the rallies, Parvulescu said, “because they didn’t feel any risk”.

Amid a storm of criticism from the streets – and from Romanian president Klaus Iohannis, the EU and US and much of civil society – the government agreed to withdraw the decree and to rule henceforth in consultation with the nation.

Foreign interference

Parliament has still not voted formally to quash the decree, however, and leading PSD figures continue to hint darkly at foreign hands behind the protests.

Their main target is familiar: George Soros, the billionaire whose funding for liberal pro-democracy and anti-corruption NGOs makes him the scourge of populist nationalists from US president Donald Trump to Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, by way of Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban and Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders, challengers for power in France and the Netherlands respectively.

“I have a problem with Mr Soros,” PSD leader Liviu Dragnea told Romanian television. “This man, with all the foundations and groups he has financed since the 1990s, has financed bad things in Romania. He has financed actions that have not done Romania any good.”

Dragnea offered no evidence of the harm Soros or other foreign donors have done to Romania since its 1989 revolution, when a brutal communist dictatorship was replaced by a corruption-riddled democracy.

The leader of the PSD – which was founded by former communists after 1989 – would have been a major beneficiary of the emergency decree, given his current fight against abuse-of-power charges and earlier conviction for electoral fraud.

“DNA – come and take them away!” the protesters chant outside government headquarters on Bucharest’s Victory Square, in support of a powerful anti-corruption agency known by those initials. The DNA has indicted scores of national and local officials – including former prime ministers and other powerful politicians and businessmen – but PSD members have long accused it of political bias and doing the bidding of Brussels.

European allegiance

Anti-EU rhetoric can play well in the PSD’s provincial heartland but is not a major factor in Romania, which still leans heavily on European funding and has several million citizens living in other member states.

“We want a government that listens to the people and works with Europe to fight corruption and modernise the country,” said protester Ion Dumitrescu. “We lived in a dictatorship until 1989, and we don’t want anything like that nightmare again.”

Many protesters cite the salutary example of Hungary, where Orban has removed democratic checks and balances and concentrated power in the hands of allies in politics, business and the media.

“Romanians looked at places like Hungary and worried about how long state institutions could withstand government pressure without help from the people,” said Laura Stefan, an anti-corruption expert at Bucharest’s Expert Forum think tank. “This is democracy at work,” she said of Romania’s biggest protests since 1989. “From now on, the people will watch closely and demand good governance and transparency, whichever party is in power and however large its majority.”

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