Romania Fights Graft

What the Recent Protests Can Teach Us

Protesters display the colors of the Romanian national flag during a demonstration in front of the government building in Bucharest, Romania, February 12, 2017. Liviu Florin Albei / Inquam Photos via Reuters

In early February, nearly half a million citizens poured out onto Romania’s streets to protest the passage of an emergency decree decriminalizing several low-level corruption offenses. The law, put forward by a coalition government led by the Social Democratic Party (PSD) and enacted without parliamentary deliberation, was seen as reversing a decadelong process of fighting graft. After six days of demonstrations, the government relented and reversed the decree. In this era of rising populism, the Romanian protest was the first that had succeeded in fighting against government infringements on democratic practices. And with a number of countries around the world facing similar erosions of democratic norms, it is worth examining the factors that explain the success of popular resistance in the current era of global populism.

The PSD’s recent decision to decriminalize corrupt activities and disregard parliamentary procedures is not new. In fact, it is consistent with its previous attempts to infringe upon democratic norms. The PSD is the successor of Romania’s Communist Party, and during the postcommunist period it evolved into a populist one. The PSD’s campaign during the most recent parliamentary election in December 2016 combined economic populist messages and nationalistic rhetoric. The PSD courted low-income voters by promising higher social assistance benefits and pensions, even if it offered only vague suggestions on how such fiscal expansion could be financed. At the same time, the Social Democratic Party mobilized its electorate by denouncing political competitors as agents of foreign countries and calling for national unity against external enemies. This two-pronged populist approach was successful. Taking advantage of the political fragmentation of the opposition parties, PSD won 46 percent of the popular vote.

After its electoral victory, the party began its offensive against established constitutional practices. During the formation of a governing coalition in Parliament, the PSD threatened to impeach the president, who represents one of the opposition parties, if he refused to nominate the government it had proposed. The PSD then quickly advanced its populist economic policies

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