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 by issuing legislation that increased mayoral discretion over local spending. Mayors are the PSD’s main power brokers in the party’s patronage system.

At the beginning of February, the Socialists began their offensive against the judicial system, through which Romania’s anti-corruption agencies were actively investigating illicit activities. The centerpiece of this attack was legislation seeking to modify the penal code by decriminalizing for public officials a number of corrupt practices. Such changes were likely to benefit several politicians of the ruling coalition who were either under investigation or facing trials for previous offenses. Liviu Dragnea, the current leader of the Social Democratic Party, is awaiting trial for corruption and vote rigging, and would have been a beneficiary of the new legislation.

In an effort to bypass parliamentary deliberations, the government passed the legislation using an emergency decree. Using media channels that it controlled, the government denounced the anti-corruption efforts as “partisan,” “repressive,” and “Stalinist.” And it made the decision to enact this controversial legislation during a closed-door meeting held in the middle of the night. The proposal threatened to roll back significant progress that Romania had made during the past decade in its effort to combat graft.

The adoption of the emergency decree triggered an unprecedented wave of protests throughout Romania. It brought together several hundred thousand people across large Romanian cities and towns. In smaller localities, which were controlled by PSD mayors, protestors were at significantly more risk of political harassment and economic repression. The underlying strategy of protesters was to demand the respect of fundamental democratic norms and to forge a nonpartisan, cross-class alliance. The formulation of these demands by large numbers of citizens succeeded in undercutting the PSD’s claim that the recent election had given the government a mandate to enact such changes in legislation and contributed to the government’s decision to reverse the controversial decree.

A fundamental feature of the protest was its appeal to individual dignity rather than material compensation. Protesters portrayed the decree as serving the interests of politicians, thus violating the equality between citizens and elected politicians. Similarly, protesters objected to their leaders’ undemocratic efforts to shield such decisions from public deliberation. Protesters compared the decision-makers, who were responsible for the adoption of the decree, to thieves operating in the middle of the night. Such appeals cut across socioeconomic classes and political allegiances and helped build a broad opposition to the government.

In attempting to create an encompassing alliance, the protesters also sought to undercut the government’s claim that it had acted in the name of “the people.” Protestors appealed to voters who had supported the PSD during the latest election by bringing signs that urged Social Democrats to stop lying to elderly voters, the party’s main constituents. In fact, the protest movement refused any formal affiliation or financing from opposition parties, which exercised restraint and did not try to get involved. In the absence of political connections, the dividing line became a moral rather than a political one. It became a choice of siding with citizens or corrupt officials.  

The PSD, for its part, characterized the demonstration as an angry mob looking to create chaos and disorder. In an intervention on the floor of the European parliament during its discussion of recent political developments in Romania, PSD-affiliated members of Parliament argued that conceding to the demands of the protesters was equivalent to giving in to “mob rule.” The government compared the protest to Ukraine’s Maidan and insinuated that prolonged demonstrations could lead to violent conflict. Avoiding violence thus became key for protestors. Many of them brought infants and small children to the demonstrations, with the explicit intention of minimizing the risk of violence. Many also distributed flowers to neutral bystanders and offered hot tea to those in attendance. The peaceful nature of the marches contributed significantly to their success, raising the moral and political costs for a violent repression.

The protesters also sought to impose an electoral cost on the ruling party. They appealed to individual parliamentarians and other politicians affiliated with the ruling coalition to disavow the controversial legislation. These attempts to break up the political unity of the ruling party were only partially successful. Only a small number of politicians resigned from their positions in government or from the ruling party. An even smaller number of European Parliament members spoke up in opposition to the proposal. The failure of the protest to generate a deeper wave of dissent within the ruling party may have consequences in the near future, however. In the coming weeks, SPD leaders may attempt to strengthen internal party discipline, while attempting to find other opportunities to put similarly anti-democratic initiatives back on the political agenda.

Many of the political strategies employed by Romanian protesters, such as the use of moral rather than material appeals, the avoidance of violence, and the efforts to establish encompassing cross-class alliances, remind us of tactics used during other well-known acts of social resistance, such as the U.S. civil rights movement. And thus, although the political context of global populism is new, the repertoire of strategies used by protesters is a familiar one. With democratic institutions and practices under attack in both advanced and developing democracies—whether in Turkey, Poland, or Venezuela—Romania’s “winter of discontent” demonstrates the power of collective resistance once again. In that, it should inspire reformers in other contexts looking for effective strategies for change.

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  • ISABELA MARES is Professor of Political Science at Columbia University. Her forthcoming book Conditionality and Coercion investigates electoral corruption in eastern Europe.
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