BALKAN BLOG: Romanian protestors seek deep political change

By bne IntelliNews November 5, 2015

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After surviving multiple scandals – including becoming the first sitting prime minister in Romanian history to be formally indicted – Victor Ponta resigned on November 4 following the outburst of public anger after a Bucharest nightclub fire left 32 dead and over 150 injured.

On the face of it the nightclub fire on October 31 had little to do with the government – it is one of those tragic accidents that occasionally happen even in the most developed countries: a painful combination of a popular venue being overcrowded and safety regulations being woefully ignored. However, protestors saw it as part of a bigger picture of corruption and a government that doesn’t care enough about the people.

At least 20,000 protestors took to the streets on November 3 to demand the resignation of the prime minister, as well as deputy prime minister and interior minister Gabriel Oprea, and Cristian Popescu Piedone, the mayor of Bucharest District 4 (where the club is located), accusing the public administration of corruption and ineptitude.

In his resignation speech Ponta said that “I do this because in my years as a politician I put up a fight in any battle with political opponents. However, I won’t put up a fight against the people.”

On the economic front Romanians have little to complain about right now. The economy is growing relatively strongly and they are in general enjoying a better standard of living and more freedom of movement since the country joined the EU in 2007. However, there is a sense that while life has improved the political class has not.

Twenty-five years after the fall of communism many feel that nepotism and corruption still govern the decision-making of those in power, who are supposed to put the interests of the country and its citizens above all else.

In fact, on the evening of November 4, even after Ponta and Piedone had stepped down (and Oprea said he wouldn’t be part of any new government), more protestors took to the streets than the night before – potentially as many as 75,000 across the country, according to Romanian news reports. The sentiment was ‘You can’t buy us off with two resignations’. Instead, the protestors are seeking a whole new political establishment.

Last week’s tragedy finally brought down the government, but can it lead to significant change?

In the short term, some are predicting a new coalition government will rule until next December’s scheduled parliamentary elections, others a new election in the spring. Yet at the moment the most popular line of thought is that a technocrat would be appointed to act as interim prime minister – some have suggested Mugur Isarescu, the governor of the national bank and a one-time prime minister – until new elections.

There is little trust in politicians in Romania, with only President Klaus Iohannis still enjoying decent credibility. Could it be time for a technocrat to come in for a period (even if that period is just 12 months)? Many in the crowd on November 4 had banners calling for a technocrat government. 

This option may appear wishful thinking, with politicians and political parties rarely willing to miss an opportunity to hold the top job, but there are signs that it could happen. Following the emergency coalition meeting called after Ponta’s resignation, Liviu Dragnea, the Social Democratic Party (PSD) leader, said that: "It would be very hard to propose and support a political person as prime minister anymore.” He added that the next prime minister may not come from the party's ranks.

It will take much longer to change the country's political culture. Iohannis said late on November 4 that a simple change in the government won’t change the situation, and that the politicians need to listen to the citizens. If they don't more protests are likely.

Over the last few years Romanians have become good at protesting – huge crowds took to the streets last November during the country’s presidential election (which Ponta lost) over the difficulties Romanians living abroad were having in voting, while slightly smaller protests have formed over issues like fracking and the controversial Rosia Montana gold mine – but the protests over the last two days have been the biggest since the fall of communism in 1989 and feel like something different.

As protests continued on Novembe 4, with large crowds gathering in cities across Romania in there tens of thousands, some waved banners that read “They didn’t die, they woke us up.” It is a powerful sentiment after the tragedy of last week – we shall see if it leads to real change.

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