Recent developments in Romania indicate that the country seems to be on a path of defending its rule of law and pro-European reputation. However, corruption, weak media and attacks on the rule of law continue to haunt Romania's political system.
The recent re-election in November of President Klaus Iohannis, who has been a staunch defender of the rule of law, provides Romania with much-needed stability. Although Romania’s economy has been growing, the country is faced with multiple challenges, including an unstable political system, rampant corruption, an assault on the rule of law and declining media freedoms.
The new governing coalition, led by Prime Minister Ludovic Orban, positions itself as a defender of the rule of law and it enjoys the support of President Iohannis. However, the governing coalition is extremely diverse, made up of all forces that opposed the ex-communist Social Democrats (PSD) and it may not survive until the scheduled end of term in late 2020 or early 2021.
At the same time, the growing strength and popularity of the anti-corruption movement and the party Save Romania Union, which was built on the back on the movement, suggest that Romania may be turning a corner in its fight against corruption.
Growing economy and political corruption
Following its violent deposition of communism marred by a civil war in 1989, Romania has never really been seen as one of the block’s stable member states. However, until recently Romania was believed to emerge as a star performer in Central Europe, outpacing other former communist states on the rates of growth and its pro-European attitude.
Whilst Romania remains one of the poorest EU member states (only Bulgaria is poorer in per capita measure) it has experienced dynamic growth rates in recent years averaging over five per cent per annum. Unemployment at the level of 4.1 per cent is one of the lowest in the EU. Romanians are also famously pro-European: until recently, they experienced smoother relations with the EU than the Eurosceptic governments in Hungary and Poland.
However, since the ex-communist PSD won the elections in 2016 the country politics has become ever more volatile and its discourse more radical increasingly fitting in the regional pattern of rising populism marred by an assault on the rule of law, declining media freedoms and the enticement of anti-LGBT sentiments.
Following the 2016 elections, the ex-communist PSD formed a coalition government with a supposedly liberal party calling itself ALDE. Whilst the coalition secured a steady majority and initially the support of the centre-right party of the Hungarian minority UDMR, it was mired from the outset by the allegations of corruption and criminal investigations run against some of its most prominent members, including the PSD leader Liviu Dragnea.
Although his party won the elections, Dragnea was unable to become Prime Minister because of charges for electoral fraud and corruption. Consequently, Dragnea continued to rule from the back-seat via a string of prime ministers.
Over the period of 2017-2019, Romania had three Prime Ministers, Sorin Grindeanu, Mihail Tudose and Viorica Dancila. The first two governed between 2017-2018 and were ousted by their own party whilst Viorica Dancila stepped down do run for President in November 2019.
The period of PSD-led government was marked by numerous attempts to break down judicial independence and drop the corruption charges against Dragnea and other leading party figures. In June 2018, the PSD-dominated parliament approved a number of measures to hamper anti-corruption policies including a law that effectively decriminalised corruption.
The government also attempted to weaken anti-corruption efforts by firing the chief prosecutor of Romania’s National Anticorruption Directorate Laura Codruta Kövesi.
In conflict with the European Commission
The European Commission and Romania’s own courts immediately protested the laws decriminalising corruption. The Commission, which by the time already opened the rule of law procedure against Poland and Hungary, asked Prime Minister Dancila for clarification and threatened to extend the procedure to Romania, which would be deeply embarrassing since Romania was holding EU rotating presidency at the time.
The government also ran into conflict with the EU over the treatment of Laura Kövesi, trying to prevent her from becoming first EU Chief Prosecutor and even barring her from leaving the country.
As the PSD government was embraced in deepening conflict with the European Commission, its formerly demonstratively pro-European attitude was replaced by the rhetoric known in Poland and Hungary – arguing that the EU unfairly discriminated Romania.
For example, when Prime Minister Dancila was called in to testify in the European Parliament and respond to the charges of assault on the rule of law she stated: “I am not here to give account. I request respect for Romania”. In the meantime, Dragnea declared: “Romania will no longer accept being treated as a second-rate country”.
The PSD and its ally ALDE also chose to pick another method from the populist playbook, namely, to entice anti-LGBT sentiments. In September 2018 Romania Constitutional Court ruled that LGBT couples should have the same rights in Romania, including marriage, as heterosexual couples.
The court’s ruling was opposed by the government who proceeded with a referendum on the matter (held less than two weeks after the ruling) in which the citizens were asked if they approved of same-sex marriage. However, the referendum was invalid because of the low turnout. Only 21 per cent of eligible Romanians voted whilst the required level for a referendum to be valid in Romania is over 30 per cent.
The PSD government’s assault on the rule of law and its push to decriminalise corruption was actively opposed by President Klaus Iohannis, which boosted his popularity and eventually led to the downfall of the PSD-led government.
The PSD-ALDE government finally collapsed by the end of November 2019 and was replaced by a coalition of all other parties in the Romanian parliament who supported a candidate of National Liberal Party, Ludovic Orban, to become the next prime minister.
In the subsequent presidential elections, held on 24 November, the incumbent President Klaus Iohannis, won 63 per cent of votes and soundly defeated PSD’s candidate. Former Prime Minister Viorica Dancila only got only 37 per cent of votes, which represented the worst-ever result for her party.
With these recent developments taking place on the Romanian political scene, the country seems to be on a path of defending its rule of law and pro-European reputation. However, the recently achieved stability remains very fragile.
The majority that deposed the PSD government and voted in favour of Ludovic Orban was very slim. 240 voted in favour of Orban and 233 (all from PSD) objected. Moreover, the current majority is extremely diverse and it includes parties from all possible ideological streams in Romania, including some MPs who broke away from PSD.
Furthermore, whilst the National Liberal Party is currently benefiting from the anti-corruption sentiments in Romania, the party itself co-governed with the PSD before 2016 and was at the time also accused of engaging in corrupt practices.
Romania’s political system has remained unconsolidated since the change in 1989, with the ex-communist PSD dominating national politics for most of the last 30 years. Even at the rare intervals when PSD is not in government, it exercises power through the party-loyal oligarchs who have also dominated the media market.
The last few years have seen a deepening conflict between the PSD and the institutions of the rule of law. The endemic corruption in the PSD means that the party, and in particular its leader Liviu Dragnea, will continue their assault on the institutions of the rule of law, in which the PSD will be supported by most of the Romanian media.
It is also expected that in order to consolidate their support base, the PSD will appeal to the xenophobic and anti-LGBT sentiments, which is a tactic widely used in other Central European nations.
Thorough reforms needed
In recent years, Romanian civil society and its courts have relentlessly fought against corruption. Whether they succeed or not will ultimately depend on their ability to reform thoroughly Romania’s political system. The EU and other external actors have a role in supporting the independence of judiciary and media freedoms.
The EU has already taken a principled stance and exercised an effective influence on the PSD-government to stop its harassment of the anti-corruption prosecutor Laura Codruta Kövesi. However, as long as the PSD leadership is in the hands of corrupt politicians, there is no doubt that the party will not refrain from further attacks on the rule of law.
It is essential that the EU will maintain its principled stance on the matter and that it is joined in this effort by the US Congress.
The Romanian media are in a dire position. Most of it is in the hands of politically linked oligarchs, some of whom (Sebastian Ghita) are on the run operating from abroad because of charges of bribery, blackmail and money laundering. The key problem of the Romanian media scene is ownership, with the biggest share of the market being controlled by corrupt oligarchs, such as Dan Voiculescu, who used their media market position to trade favours with the government.
Recently Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty returned to Romania and Bulgaria. There is no doubt that Romania needs more initiatives like this and that it needs external help to develop a diversity of the media market.