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Political Corruption: The Threat of Democratic Erosion in Romania by Nicole Wells @ American University

Over the last four years, Romania has been rocked by major protests and riots not seen since the Revolution of 1989 that ended the brutal Communist dictatorship of Nicolae Ceaucescu. Major corruption scandals plaguing politicians and government officials have been the cause of the protests. Romanian pique reached fever pitch in the winter of 2017 when Members of Parliament met in the dead of night to pass an emergency ordinance that would decriminalize graft under $50,000. The intense backlash ended in the ultimate repeal of the law. A lack of accountability, degradation in transparency and outright theft has caused a significant loss of confidence in the government and major decline in political participation. As a result, Romania’s democratic institutions are eroding as widespread corruption allows politicians to get rich and stay in power.

According to Transparency International, Romania is one of the most corrupt countries in the European Union, with a score of 48 out of 100[1]. Politicians come to power by democratic means in the form of elections but many Romanian politicians become involved in the theft of public money and use illiberal means to hold onto their office by dismantling democratic institutions and removing the checks and balances that are supposed to hold them accountable. Paul Sum and Ronald King argue, “Romania focused on “triage democratization.” The consequence of this was a leadership class experienced in currying favor, practiced in clientele relationships, and oriented toward satisfying demands placed from on high. The result was a politics of secretive and self-serving opportunism in which actors learned to respond from the mixture of rewards and punishments but tended toward inaction or worse towards corruption.”[2]

Romania’s short history with democracy has been marked by major corruption scandals with politicians working to change laws to prevent investigations and jail time. From 2001 to 2004 Prime Minister Adrian Nastase illegally amassed 1.5 million euros for his campaign.[3] He was found accepting bribes and together with his wife, was also accused of ordering officials to violate customs regulations in order to bring construction materials and household goods from China to furnish his houses in Bucharest and a holiday retreat.[4] He tried to commit suicide by shooting himself in the neck when convicted and sentenced to jail in 2012. Around the same time, Member of Parliament and former Transport Minister Miron Mitrea of the Social Democratic Party (PSD) was accused of accepting 30,000 Euros in bribes while he was Minister of Public Works.[5] He resigned and eventually served time. Several of former Prime Minister Nastase’s cabinet members have been under investigation for crimes of corruption but only Mitrea and Nastase have served jail time.

In 2012 Victor Ponta became Prime Minister and began his tenure by “launching an unprecedented onslaught against several democratic institutions. He attempted to dismantle checks and balances, which received harsh criticism from the European Union, culminated by an unsuccessful July impeachment referendum against the then President, Traian Băsescu.”[6] He has removed and replaced several members of the government to eliminate competition. “Ponta sacked the speakers of both chambers of parliament, fired the ombudsman, threatened the constitutional court judges with impeachment, and prohibited the constitutional court from reviewing acts of parliament with the aim of making it easier for Ponta to remove President Basescu from office.”[7] Ponta’s time in office was marked by massive corruption scandals dating to before his time as Prime Minister. He faced charges of fraud, tax evasion, and money laundering. He was also investigated for corruption stemming from a visit with Tony Blair in 2012. “They accuse Ponta of offering Sebastian Ghita, a local businessman, a seat in parliament in exchange for paying 220,000 euros to cover the costs of a visit by a political figure. Ghita told the Mediafax news agency that this figure was Blair.”[8] Liviu Dragnea the current President of the ruling party PSD, is suspected of forming a “criminal group” to siphon off cash from state projects, some of them EU-funded.[9] Mr. Dragnea is currently on trial for abuse of office for the misuse of $25 million in EU funds. In 2016 he was convicted of electoral fraud and vote rigging, this conviction prohibited him from becoming Prime Minister. Viorica Dancila is Romania’s third Prime Minister in seven months because of Dagnea’s conviction fraud. The 2017 emergency ordinance decriminalizing graft under $50,000 is widely seen as benefiting Dragnea. The law would dismiss his current charges and unfreeze his $32 million in assets.

The European Union has criticized Romania for the level of corruption permeating politics that affects the daily life of citizens and has urged for political reforms to curb corruption. The National Anti-Corruption Directorate (DNA) is an independent investigative branch headed by Laura Kovesi. She is responsible for investigating and charging hundreds of officials and businessmen accused of graft. “The Anti-Corruption Directorate has won widespread acclaim, both nationally and abroad, with a reported conviction rate of around 90%, spreading serious fear among Romania’s political and business classes.”[10] Romanians are pleased with the work of Ms. Kovesi and the DNA. “Last year the agency indicted five government ministers, 21 parliamentary deputies and senators, and more than 100 local mayors and heads of county councils; filed charges relating to more than 430 million euros in alleged bribes, and ordered the seizure of assets worth almost 500 million euros.”[11] There is speculation that Member of Parliament, Liviu Dragnea is working to overhaul the judiciary, to pass an anti-corruption law that would remove Ms. Kovesi as chief of the DNA and prevent her from further investigating graft crimes. Ms. Kovesi warns, “the proposed changes to the law and judicial system would have a very serious and negative impact on the efficiency of combating corruption.”[12] Transparency International warned Romania that the use of emergency ordinances is problematic for public trust in democratic institutions. “The use of emergency ordinances shows the limits of the Legislature’s independence. It also diminished its accountability and people’s trust in its functions.”[13] Corruption and lack of transparency in the government has led to decline in public trust in political parties and institutions. “In 2004 a study showed that 68% of respondents answered that they do not trust political parties, by 2010 the response climbed to 89%. 2016 saw a slight improvement where 77% had negative views of parties.”[14] Voter turnout has suffered dramatically, “in the 1990 elections, voter turnout was almost 80% since then it has dropped to below 40%.”[15] Most Romanians do not see change occurring through voting but major demonstrations and protests have occurred in reaction to corruption.

The 2017 ordinance that would decriminalize graft outraged Romanians and they angrily took to the streets to protest. This marked the fourth straight year of violent clashes with the government. “It’s Romanian lawmakers’ latest attempts to overhaul the justice system, which many see as an effort to politicize the judiciary. Many are worried that Romanian politicians appear determined to get away with graft.”[16] The State Department issued a statement that it is concerned that the proposed legislation could undermine the fight against corruption and weaken judicial independence.[17] After 5 days of protests the Romanian Parliament reversed its decision and withdrew the decree. However, the reversal of the law has not restored the faith of Romanians who continue to distrust the government. Frustrated Romanians continued protests into 2018, fearing that the governing party, the Social Democrats (PSD), might remove the Chief of the National Anti-Corruption Directorate. Protesters continue to demand the resignation of politicians, however PSD won an overwhelming majority of the seats in the December 2017 elections. PSD is the former National Salvation Front, a communist successor party. Many of those accused or indicted on charges of graft are members of PSD. Romanian civil disobedience has made a concerted effort to force the government to reverse decisions that would hold them less accountable and reduce their ability to steal from the public. “It’s not about an ordinance,” said Manuel Costescu, a Member of Parliament from the Union to Save Romania, a new party focused on anti-corruption efforts. “It’s about questioning our identity. What kind of country do we want to live in? Is it a nest of thieves or is it a European country?”[18]

Romanian democracy is under threat. If the Social Democrats (PSD) remove Laura Kovesi from her position as the chief of the National Anti-corruption Directorate this leaves Romanian democracy further vulnerable not only to the get rich quick schemes for politicians but for the opportunity for authoritarianism to return. Any challenge from the DNA threatens PSD’s control of power and carries jail time. Romanian politicians have already demonstrated the use of legal mechanisms to dismantle checks and balance. What would stop them from dismantling the rule of law or removing the constraints of democracy to maintain power and wealth? For the moment Ms. Kovesi’s position is safe and President Iohannis will not fire her at the behest of Prime Minister Toader. If the government limits the role of the DNA and continues to protect politicians involved in graft then democratic erosion will surely lead to authoritarianism. If the DNA remains independent to continue investigations and prosecutions of corruption then the trust of democratic institutions can be restored and hopefully lead to an increase in political participation.



[1] Coșpănaru, Iulia. 2011. “National Integrity Assessment Romania” Transparency International In Transparency International’s methodology, a score of 0 is very corrupt and a score of 100 is very clean.

[2] Sum, Paul and Ronald King. 2011. Introduction: Triage Democratization. Ed. Paul Sum and Ronald King. Lanham: Lexington Books.

[3] BBC. 2012. 20 June.\

[4] Reuters. 2014. 6 January.

[5] 2014. 17 December.

[6] Freedom House. 2012.

[7] New York Times. 2012. 5 July.

[8] The Guardian. 2016. 6 September.

[9] Reuters. 2017. 13 November.

[10] LA Times. 2017. 26 December.

[11] Irish Times. 2016. 8 December.

[12] Financial Times. 2018. 15 February.

[13] Coșpănaru, Iulia. 2011. “National Integrity Assessment Romania” Transparency International

[14] Olteanu, Tina. 2017. “The Romanian People Versus Corruption: The Paradoxical Nexus of Protest and Adaptation.” Partecipaziona Conflitto 10( November): 797-825

[15] Olteanu, Tina. 2017. “The Romanian People Versus Corruption: The Paradoxical Nexus of Protest and Adaptation.” Partecipaziona Conflitto 10( November): 797-825

[16] LA Times. 2017. 26 December.

[17] LA Times. 2017. 26 December.

[18] New York Times. 2017. 4 February.

Photo by Randy Colas on Unsplash

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