Before delving into the matter at hand, it is important to keep in mind that when we refer to democracy today, we are talking about a constitutional or liberal democracy, a “regime protecting the rights of individuals and minorities and which guarantees the freedom or liberty of its citizens” thus tempering anti-majoritarian tendencies with laws and institutions. According to Plattner, among other political science authors and scholars, there is a permanent tension between majoritarianism and liberalism within every democracy.
The Romanian Social-Democrats, now in government, are masters of swaying the masses with promises and hate. With a spend-all, tax-none economic language and a nativist, protectionist narrative directed against NGO-financer George Soros that I had described in a a previous article, PSD managed to win almost 45% of the vote in the last parliamentary elections in Romania. A month later, after doling out tax money as if it were their own in order to “buy over” the population (especially students) into submission, the newly invested government made an emergency ordinance concerning a retroactive decriminalization of acts of abuse of power that caused less than 44.000 euros in damages its primary objective. As a result, some 2.100 cases prosecuted by the acclaimed National Anti-Corruption Directorate will be affected. In response, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets across the country to defend the rule of law.
The mystery ordinances
How did it all start? To begin with, it is well worth mentioning that the “fourth power” in the Romanian democracy – the press – largely belongs to “press moguls”, shady figures tapped into state money through their political connections and comparable only to the Russian oligarchs. Especially powerful since 2012, two of these mogul-owned TV stations – RomaniaTV and Antena3 – have since been conducting a media campaign against prosecutors, smearing judges and activists who dared criticize and expose the illegal businesses of their bosses.
Therefore, up until mid-January, there were only rumors of amnesties hanging in the air and the top story was that the now-famous PSD president Liviu Dragnea met with the new president of the United States, Donald Trump. The fact that the “meeting” was bought and paid for with tax payer money, and that it most likely had no impact on foreign relations, did not seem to bother the typical Romanian voter. However, while Dragnea was out of the country – so as to not be blamed for benefitting from the measures – the PSD government attempted to issue two emergency ordinances, one pardoning a series of crimes and the other modifying the Criminal Code. Their intention was to present the situation as a fait accompli. These ordinances were not published beforehand as being topics for the government meeting so the press had absolutely no idea of the acts until President Iohannis literally dropped by and constitutionally presided the meeting, keeping the press – whom PM Grindeanu tried to usher out – inside. Later on, as the government did not renounce its intention to pass the ordinances, the president called for a consultative referendum to be held on the matter.
The plan failed. The journalists and TV stations not subjected to the before mentioned “moguls” immediately started asking questions directed at the ever-confused Minister of Justice Iordache and other leading figures of the party. Since then, the 20th of January, protests that now seem minuscule have been held every Sunday in the usual protest space allocated in Bucharest – University Square. Peaceful and rather timid, some of the protesters brought their children and pets, causing one commentator from RomaniaTV to say that each of them was paid extra by George Soros per dog. The comment itself became a trending meme and a joke between protesters.
in photo – President Klaus Iohannis (left) and PM Sorin Grindeanu (right), source: Ziua Veche
The first day of protest
On Tuesday the 31st of January around 10 PM, the government, ignoring the president’s previous call for a referendum, issued an emergency ordinance decriminalizing acts of abuse that caused damages of less than 44.000 euro – which applies to mayors as well. Immediately, people starting pouring into Victory Square and blocking the entrances of the headquarters of the government, forcing its members to later exit out the back in police vehicles. Angrily forcing the gates, the protesters remained otherwise peaceful and only dispersed after 3 AM.
The second day of protest
On the following day, 1st of February 2017, 300.000 people, half of which in Bucharest alone, took to the streets of 55 cities in Romania despite the biting cold, making it the largest protest in Romania since the fall of Ceausescu. Walking among the protesters, one could hear chants of “Thieves! Thieves!”, “Shame!” or “During the night, like thieves!” slowly being picked up from one group of people to the larger mass, all daringly facing Victory Palace, the headquarters of the government, now empty. Multiple creative signs popped up from the crowd, some asking EU institutions for help.
At 11:00 PM, bands of hooligans leaving a handball game nearby started to make their appearance in Victory Square, driving the peaceful protesters away through displays of violence against the police forces. The remaining protesters grouped together away from the hooligans and started to cry out “Not like that!”, some of them attempting to physically stop the violent individuals who set fire to a news stand and began throwing ice, rocks and torches at policemen and even the protesters in their way. Later evidence showed that these groups of “ultras” – about 300 in number, out of which the police detained a third – had a degree of coordination, primarily originating from two fan clubs whose financers have ties with certain political figures. Moreover, Molotov cocktails were found on a retained hooligan.
The third day of protest
On the 2nd of February, opposition leaders Nicusor Dan from USR (8%), the party whose MPs occupied and refused to leave the plenum in the parliament, and interim president Raluca Turcan from the right-wing PNL (20%) appeared together, announcing that they initiated a motion of censorship against the Grindeanu government. Victory Square was again filled with people on Thursday, showing that protesters would not be deterred by the violent actions of the hooligans from the day before. Moreover, now having the experience of the Wednesday night protests, people started working with the police, signaling those who appeared to have violent intentions.
The current Minister of Justice, who was the initiator of these laws of amnesty and decriminalization while an MP, refused to resign and refused to communicate with the press, trying to delegate his attributions to a Secretary of State, finally taking a 7-day vacation. Similarly, despite the criticism coming from the US Embassy and the EU Commission, PM Grindeanu and unofficial PM and convicted criminal Liviu Dragnea refused to back down. Meanwhile, their ALDE allies began claiming that the Commission-imposed Cooperation and Verification Mechanism, a report which assesses the judicial reform and fight against corruption in Romania and Bulgaria and which naturally criticized their attempt of decriminalization of abuse, is a form of colonialism, an insult which Romania should not accept.
Dealing with “outsiders”, PSD president Liviu Dragnea refuses to talk about the protesters, their accusations and their demands. While interviewed by the Swiss Public Radio, he got annoyed that the journalists mentioned this “bullshit” (audio provided by journalist Urs Bruderer) and that all he wanted to do was talk about the governing program. The Minister of Interior Carmen Dan, a longtime ally of Dragnea since his early days in local government, claimed that she had no knowledge of the hooligans as they made their way to the protest. Instead, she produced a list of journalists critical of the government that supposedly incited to violence, and demanded they cease.
in photo – minister of Justice Florin Iordache surrounded by USR MPs with signs saying “Shame!”, source: Digi24.com
In the words of the father of the minimalist theory of democracy, Joseph Schumpeter, “a party is not, as classical doctrine would have us believe, a group of men who intend to promote public welfare…a party is a group whose members propose to act in concert in the competitive struggle for political power. The psycho-technics of party management and party advertising, slogans and marching tunes, are not accessories. They are of the essence of politics. So is the political boss.”
In Romania, we have had enough of cynical, power-hungry, institution-stomping political bosses and strongmen. We have seen them duplicitously claim in front of EU officials that they are champions of the fight against corruption, while their bloodied hands were strangling the life of political independence and efficiency out of our institutions. Liviu Dragnea perhaps represents this typology best. As I am writing this, it is the 4th day of protests in Romania, hundreds of thousands have been in the streets already, taking back their country from the clutches of corruption, and the weekend is only beginning. Over and out.
Joseph Schumpeter – Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy
Marc F. Plattner – Populism, pluralism and liberal democracy