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People Power Rise Up Against Corruption in Romania

In a world that seems to be awash in bad news, there's a terrific story shaping up in Romania.

The government of Prime Minister Sorin Grindeanu took office only a month ago, but one of its early decisions brought hundreds of thousands of Romanians to the streets to protest.

Grindeanu, who represents the Social Democratic Party (PSD), was not his party's first choice to be prime minister. After winning 46 percent of the vote in 2016's parliamentary election, PSD formed a governing coalition but was unable to make its leader, Liviu Dragnea, the prime minister. Mr. Dragnea is currently serving a two-year suspended sentence after being convicted of attempting to rig a 2012 vote on whether to impeach the then-president.

This conviction made him ineligible to serve as the country's prime minister, an unusual situation in a country where it is generally assumed that the leader of the winning party will take that post. He is, however, the chairman of Romania’s parliament, the Chamber of Deputies. The first proposed prime minister was rejected by the president for being too much an agent of Dragnea. The second was Grindeanu.

Sworn into office on January 4, one of Grindeanu's first acts was to announce a new decree that would effectively decriminalize graft and corruption by elected officials as long as the amount stolen was under 44,000 Euros, or about $48,000. By sheer chance, his party boss, the aforementioned Liviu Dragnea, is under investigation for defrauding the Romanian government of 24,000 Euros.

For the ordinary people of Romania, where around 25 percent of the population live below the poverty line, and the average yearly income of a person is just over $3,000, such a proposition was an insult. Romania has long struggled with corruption and kleptocracy, but a concerted campaign has finally begun to make a visible dent in the problem; the country’s anti-corruption office currently has over 2,100 pending investigations. That Grindeanu’s decree would also have stopped all of those investigations in their tracks, including the case now open against Dragneu, only exacerbated the affront.

In response to this attack on the young country's hard fought political progress, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in cities around the country to protest this move backward. In the capital, Bucharest, crowds of 100,000 to 200,000 citizens protested for five days, demanding the abrogation of the decree. In smaller cities like Sibiu, Constanţa, Timisoara, and Iasi, the numbers were equally as impressive.

Although the prime minister held his ground for several days, the largest protest movement in Romania since the Ceaucescu regime was bloodily removed in 1989 seems to have convinced him to recall the decree five days before it was set to come into effect.

But the protesters haven’t left the streets just yet. The crowds are smaller, but those that remain are upset about the direction that the new government has taken. There also remains a proposed law that would pardon certain criminals who have short or suspended sentences or are on probation. While Romania does have a problem with the overcrowding of its prisons, many worry that this new law would be used to pardon Mr. Dragnea, making him eligible again to become prime minister.

Others are calling on this government to resign, arguing that in their short time in power, the PSD has shown itself to be interested only in protecting its members and leaders, not working for ordinary Romanians. They are encouraged in this fight by Romanian President Klaus Iohannis, who has joined the protests in the streets, and announced last week that “Starting today, my mission is to reestablish the rule of law. I will do everything within my power to turn Romania into a country freed from corruption! I will fight for this until the last day of my mandate!”

For their part, the opposition parties in the Romanian parliament forced a vote of no-confidence, which was easily defeated thanks to the large majority held by PSD and its allies. But even within PSD, the protests have caused visible fissures. The Minister of Justice, who helped orchestrate the order, may be asked to leave his position, and the Minister of Business and Trade resigned in protest of the decree.

It survives for now, but the PSD government has been put on notice that Romanian civil society has finally matured and will not allow abuses—particularly in the realm of corruption—to continue as they did in the past. Perhaps emboldened by the experience of their Ukrainian neighbors in 2014, Romania’s protest movement has once again shown that mass protest can be successful when it is real, spontaneous, and driven by a concrete concern.

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