The ABCs of Romanian Politics: Activism, Bribes and Corruption
By Hariett Hooper Published Mon Feb 08 2021
I sat with Radu, a member of the USR (Union for Saving Romania) Youth National Bureau, to explore what has been happening in recent years, and the harsh reality of the political scene in Romania.
On the 15th of January 2017, a series of protests took place in Piata Victoriei, Bucharest, protests which quickly turned into one of the biggest nation-wide rallies since the fall of Communism. All participants were anguished, cheated and determined for change following the general elections in December 2016, where the Social Democrats (PSD) secured a majority of 52% in parliament despite the leader of the party, Liviu Dragnea, being investigated for corruption. And despite Romania's legislature forbidding anyone with an ongoing case with the National Corruption Directorate to occupy the position of Prime Minister. Just one week after the installation of the new government, a new law was created to pardon corruption for an amount which, by no coincidence, was only slightly above the unjustified amount in Dragneas wealth declaration. Essentially, as Radu puts it, this law risked “throwing away years of fighting against corruption by making it legal”. Only 2 hours later, by 12 that same night, around 10 thousand people gathered in front of the parliament building protesting against the new law.
In the end, the law was abandoned and the Justice Minister dismissed. The government was under immense pressure by the opposition to resign after less than 1 month in office, though this didn’t happen till some time later. For the PSD, this scandal wasn't a one time thing. In between laughter, Radu tells me how the “PSD is being voted for by dead people”. Seeing my confused face, he goes on to explain that “in 2012, when they won the campaign, 1 million of their 'voters' were registered dead citizens”. Corruption that is so obvious it becomes comical. I grew to understand the lack of hope many Romanians feel towards a future of fair politics from these two examples alone: it is hard to keep up anti-corruption efforts with little power to make substantial difference.
When Dragnea finally went to jail, it was what Radu describes as an “end of an era”. His case and prison sentence were broadcasted nationwide, and with his conviction, Romanians sat and watched what they hoped was at least one door closing on corruption.
Apparently not, because in October 2019 the PNL (National Liberals) party replaced the PSD, but the passing of contracts beneficial to government officials continued. No wonder voter turnout is low, when fraud and corruption repeats itself irrespectively of the party in power. How do you change a system where the only ones with the power to make a difference benefit from it too much to act?
One person who nevertheless shows clearly and proudly he has not lost hope is Radu: “A week after I turned 18 I joined the USR, a political party in Romania, despite still having a lot of school work and university applications on my plate. But the hard work paid off, because now I’m the leader of seven county organizations of the USR Youth”. Determined, and perhaps naive, Radu found a party he felt he could believe in. Previously known a dealt with withins USB (Union for Saving Bucharest), the USR scaled up into a political party in 2016. It is composed of well-educated people who have changed careers in order to fix the political system, and is now part of the majority coalition in power, with its members as Minister for Justice, Minister for the EU and Minister for Transport. Through these seats, the USR hopes to end the era of backhand contracts in these Ministries, which previously saw million euro contracts being awarded by the government with up to 70% of the funds often unaccountable for: a “perfect triangle to ensure things run smoothly”. The current Health Minister is also from the USR, which is especially important in times of COVID-19. So far, Romania's vaccine response has been running quickly and smoothly, which is perhaps evidence of an efficient government finally coming to the fore.
Given what I have discussed so far, where on the political scale would you believe the parties discussed above stand? Would it shock you to learn that the PSD is left wing while the USR is center right? Perhaps, in a system lacking core structural essentials, the 'left, right' debate isn't even an important one. There are bigger problems, and according to Radu “if you’re being realistic, then the concept of wings doesn’t really apply in Romania, there is no party that acts like that.” Though it makes sense, as a young opinionated person it's hard to hear there isn’t consistency or even so much importance on the orientation of the party. Perhaps best fit options are what should matter in the end.
A new disturbance of perhaps more worry, however, is a rising far right extremist group called AUR, which in the recent presidential elections attracted 9% of the votes compared to the previous 0.85%. This quick and substantial rise can somewhat be attributed to the Covid-19 pandemic, and to the AUR being the only anti-EU party. There are many other reasons for this rise, all as troubling as the next. In the words of Radu: “They are holding these massive protests; they’re loud, they’re anti-covid, they’re anti-vaccine, and the fact that it is present in the Romanian parliament is a massive alarm, and something we have to be very careful of.”
I think it is reasonable to lose passion, hope, and even interest in the tedious politics of Romania. But not for Radu: “We have made progress,” is what he would always tell you.