Ohio State University

Back and Forth: Romanian democracy is teetering by Marissa Kelly @ The Ohio State University

Only a year after massive, week-long demonstrations—the likes of which had not been seen in Romania since the demonstrations leading up to the fall of the Communism—Romanians took to the streets again.

A year ago in January, 2017, the streets of Bucharest were filled with angry citizens, protesting a decree made by the then newly elected government that would have decriminalized cases of official misconduct amounting to less than 200,00 Lei, which is equivalent to approximately €38,000 or $47,000. The Romanian government responded to its people’s cries and revoked the decree.

While the response by the Romanian government was a step in the right direction for Romanian democracy, it appears that the government has backtracked as evidenced by the protests in January.

This time, demonstrators were protesting a law passed in December, 2017, which critics argue may weaken the independence of judges and magistrates. In particular, the law creates a special task force whose purpose is to investigate and prosecute judges and magistrates for potential crimes. The vagueness of this investigative unit’s authority is alarming. It provides the executive with the power to prosecute judges and magistrates for, essentially, anything that could be potentially criminal.

Romanian citizens are protesting because it, effectively, gives the executive the power to prosecute judges and magistrates who rule or might rule against its favor. This law presents a threat to judicial independence in Romania, thus raising a red flag for the state of the country’s democracy.

Though democratic institutions remain in place, a judiciary that is under the control of the executive lacks the independence to be a neutral check on errant administrative practices (Varol, 2015). An independent judiciary is essential to a functioning democracy.  The leftist regime in Romania appears to be using the courts to maintain an appearance of democracy, but, as evidenced by the massive protests in response to the passing of the law, it appears Romanians are not fooled.

This action to undermine judicial independence is the same type of stealthy, autocratic action that Varol (2015) describe. The Romanian government is making less-extreme autocratic moves through democratic means. Last year, it was the corruption policy, and even though the government revoked that policy it is still evidence that the Romanian government is committed to finding a way to undermine democracy.

Additionally, the Romanian executive appears to be undermining democracy by weakening opposition within the government (Levitsky & Ziblatt, 2018). With the authority to prosecute judges and magistrates so easily, the Romanian government can silence opposition in the judiciary that could pose a threat to power. By drastically weakening judicial independence, this new law, effectively, revokes the most important neutral check on power a democracy has.

Despite these apparent attempts by the Romanian government to undermine democracy, the Romanian people are making it clear they will not lose their rights without a fight. The massive protests in 2017 coupled with the recent demonstrations in January of this year suggest a lack of faith in the government. Perhaps, the Romanian government has lost some legitimacy among its people.

Democratic governments maintain legitimacy through institutions and, more importantly, through the faith of the people (Linz and Stepan, 1978). A democracy is legitimate if despite its shortcomings the people still believe that it’s better than any alternative government—that is, the democracy in place is the least evil form of government (Linz & Stepan, 1978).

From these massive demonstrations over the past year or so, the world can see that Romanians are losing faith in their democracy and have been for some time now.

It’s been a well-known fact for years that Romania’s democracy is less-than-perfect. During its transition into the European Union, there were concerns that Romania would not meet the standards required for an EU country. Transparency International, an organization that collects and analyzes data to determine perceived corruption among public officials, gave Romania a score of 48/100 on its Corruption Perceptions Index in 2017—0 being highly corrupt and 100 being very clean.

All things considered, Romanians are rightfully worried about the state of their democracy. Romania is all too familiar with dictatorships in the past. Its communist dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu was notorious among the leaders of the Eastern Bloc. Romanians lived under his autocratic reign from 1965 until he was executed in 1991 after massive protests.

While, clearly, the current Romanian government is not the same kind of dictatorship it was in the past, there are still elements of authoritarianism that are concerning. Instead of moving in the right direction, it seems that Romania’s democracy is backsliding. The Romanian government responded appropriately to last year’s demonstrations and revoked the antidemocratic legislation that would have legalized misconduct by officials, but it has yet to backtrack on the legislation that weakened judicial independence.

The world should keep its eye on Romania. These moves to weaken the judiciary and provide unchecked power to the executive and Parliamentary officials are a warning sign. The protests are a good sign that the people will not be complicit, but only time will tell if the government will listen to its people or continue to undermine democracy.

References

Levitsky, S., & Ziblatt, D. (2018). How Democracy Dies. New York: Crown.

Linz, J., & Stepan, A. (1978). The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes. The John Hopkins University

Press.

Varol, O. (2015). Stealth Authoritarianism. Iowa Law Review, 100(4), 1673-1742.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3 Comments

  1. Hannah Hoey

    April 29, 2018 at 6:20 pm

    The ruling regarding judicial investigation in Romania is suspicious and transgresses an independent judiciary, an important institution of democracy. Lack of trust in the judiciary by the people is common in countries with significant democratic erosion in recent years, for example it is also the case in Serbia, Romania’s neighbour. There are similarities between these two countries and their slide to authoritarianism, as Serbia also displays markers of Stealth Authoritarianism as outlined by Varol, which you mention, and both suffer rampant corruption and clientelism. I would be interested to also compare the freedom of Romanian media, as that is the most prevalent indicator of democratic backsliding in Serbia. For example, it would have been interesting to note how the protests have been covered by Romanian media. I appreciate that your discussion of recent protests in Romania was framed to include the protests from last year, as oftentimes these events only receive coverage at their height, and then there is no follow up to the events or consideration of their impact in the long-term. It is important to revisit these occurrences in the days, weeks, months following, to see if they sparked improvement, or led to harsher crackdowns. It is also important to monitor for how long there has been public discontent and protest, as this shows that dissatisfaction with the government and criticism of its measures has been persistent over the years. Evidently, Romanian democracy is still precarious, but continued protests demonstrates that the people are still engaged and still determined to make the government accountable.

    1. Nicole Wells

      May 7, 2018 at 7:36 pm

      I am also interested in the state of Romania’s democracy. I find it intriguing that voter turn is so low, less than 40% of Romanians are participating in elections. Yet, they are protesting in large demonstrations across the country. Romanians must feel that they have less of a voice in elections than if they are in the streets demonstrating. It also seems to be a very effective way to change legislation that protects corruption in the government. I wonder if demonstrations and protest will strengthen civil society and hopefully increase accountability. I also wonder why Romanians do not sanction politicians by voting them out of office? I am concerned that Romania’s democracy is on the verge collapse, especially because voters continue to elect communist successor parties into office. The corruption and lack of democratic parties is certainly eroding the progress the country made in the 90’s when transitioning. I am pleased to hear that the DNA director has not been fired and is continuing to investigate corruption but I think that participation is essential to a functional democracy. Perhaps the prosecution of corrupt officials will give Romanian’s greater trust in democratic institutions.

  2. Eliana Durante

    February 28, 2019 at 11:48 pm

    This democratic backsliding in Romania is evident through lack of checks and balances in the judiciary systems. I am intrigued by this post because I know little about Romania’s democracy today, but it seems as if the government needs to feel accountable for the recent change of law in prosecuting judges for any type of crime. With the majority of people who are demonstrating against this law, it is obvious that they do not feel heard by the government and their trust is deteriorating. I hope that in the next elections Romanians will stand strong and continue to vote, electing politicians and officials that benefit their society.

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