Romania's government under pressure as protests force cancellation of controversial decree

Romania's government under pressure as protests force cancellation of controversial decree
These are the largest mass protests in the country since the collapse of communism.
By Iulian Ernst in Bucharest February 5, 2017

Romania is experiencing its own version of Ukraine’s Maidan popular revolution. Mass protests in recent weeks have gone from calling for the cancellation of a controversial law to water down tough anti-corruption measures, to an outright demand for the resignation of the government. And as some 300,000 gathered in central Bucharest on February 5, by far the biggest crowds so far and despite a government announcement to cancel the law, the month-old government looks close to collapse.

Romania’s government endorsed a decision on February 5 to cancel the controversial Ordinance 13 that prompted the largest mass protests in the country since the collapse of communism. Announcing this with an air of “business as usual”, Prime Minister Sorin Grindeanu implied that no member of the government would step down. On the contrary, one day earlier Grindeanu announced the government’s step back as a concession made to protesters in order to prevent dividing the population. But the swelling crowds in the centre of Bucharest were not buying the government promises.

Protests continued after the government cancelled Ordinance 13, and will probably continue since the legal procedures set in motion are extremely complicated; small details can change the meaning of the bills. Nonetheless, what will predictably keep the people on the streets, or bring them back if necessary, is what prompted the protests in first place – namely not the details, but the ruling party’s insistence on enacting the ordinance despite criticism.

Remaining in office looks equally unacceptable for protesters. Speaking after his government abandoned Ordinance 13, Grindeanu told Realitatea TV he would not resign, implying that at most Justice Minister Florin Iordache might resign. 

Party pooper

Whether the senior ruling Social Democratic Party (PSD) can stay in office depends on how the recent developments will shift the balance of powers between the two members of the ruling coalition and to what extent the opposition parties (in disarray themselves after the December general election) can capitalise on this situation. The situation remains fluid and none of these questions can be answered with any reasonable degree of confidence.

A tentative guess would be that the PSD will suffer major internal disruptions, but remain in control of the ruling coalition, despite attempts by the junior ruling partner Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (Alde) to improve its position. The opposition, however, has proven weak during this political crisis and the absolute political winner, President Klaus Iohannis, does not seem willing to step in and reform the main opposition party, the National Liberal Party (PNL), at least for the moment.

What is making the situation so uncertain is the demands of the protestors are changing. Like what happened in Ukraine in 2014, the protests started with a simple demand: in Kyiv the protestors wanted their president Viktor Yanukovych to sign off on a proposed free trade and association deal with the EU that would take Ukraine closer to Europe, while Yanukovych balked at the last minute and did a deal with Russia. However, as the protests in Kyiv grew, these demands morphed into a more general demand for the ouster of Yanukovych’s kleptocratic regime.

The protests in Bucharest seem to be following a similar demand. The crowds have moved beyond demanding the government cancel the specific changes to the decree that waters down ant-corruption measures and on the night of January 5 were demanding the ousting of the government that was democratically elected in December, encouraged by what seems to be their first victory. This would bring the PSD back to square one where it was supposed to form the government during the Christmas season. The currently ruling coalition was difficult to form and any remake of the government will be even harder to form for PSD president Liviu Dragnea, who is now under pressure from street protesters, party members and the opposition alike.

Notably, Dragnea – identified by protesters as the originator and symbolic recipient of the controversial Ordinance 13 – had to replace his protégée and his first choice as prime minister Shedil Shhaideh with Grindeanu. This undermined his authority within the party. Failure to have Ordinance 13 enacted will put him in an even more difficult position with his party comrades. He needed to get the ordinance enacted quickly, but his failure will be seen as weakness. 

Weakened but not out, no one is expecting Dragnea to be replaced any time soon, or at least until all the alternative solutions to the crisis have been exhausted. B1 TV has already reported that a new bill with the same provisions as Ordinance 13 has already been registered with the government and will be submitted, as a replacement of Ordinance 13, to lawmakers for endorsement in the next week. The game is not over yet.

Peaceful coup on the cards

Regarding the tensions within the PSD, extreme scenarios include the replacement of Dragnea. Political consultant Cosmin Gusa, speaking on Realitatea TV, speculated an imminent coup is possible by Grindeanu within his party. This remain a risky possibility, particularly as Grindeanu no longer enjoys the support of the hardliners in the party; he owes his career to Ilie Sarbu, father-in-law of former Prime Minister Victor Ponta.

But it remains notable that the position of former minister Ecaterina Andronescu –  not among decision makers in the party but standing for a relevant faction of the party – more importantly typically reflects the views of Ion Iliescu. Iliescu, the honorary president and a founding member of the PSD – has not commented yet on the current developments, other than criticising the position of President Klaus Iohannis. But Andronescu said firmly that Ordinance 13 was a mistake. Other key members of the party, not so active recently, such as Ioan Rus, Vasile Dancu and Andronescu, might be needed to restore the credibility of the party.

The PSD’s position as the ruling party is current secured more by the weaknesses of the opposition parties than by its own strength. The PNL has already prepared a no-confidence vote in the government that could be heard in the coming week. But even if this motion is tabled, it is likely to be ignored by the protests since the credibility of all political parties, with the possible exception of the newly formed Save Romania Union (USR), is very weak.

Furthermore, the junior coalition party, the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (Alde) of former Prime Minister Calin Popescu Tariceanu, took a radical position against the protesters with the obvious aim of trying to become the leading force in the ruling coalition. Thus, Alde became an undesirable partner for a possible minority ruling coalition with PNL – an option circulated after the elections but rejected by all the parties involved including Iohannis, the alleged author of the attempt.

Finally, the political turmoil and uncertainty is likely to remain elevated for the coming weeks, but the PSD should retain power for the meantime, even if the prime minister is changed. The tensions within the PSD, however, might result in internal reforms that have been deferred over the past years since Victor Ponta (PSD president at that time) lost the last presidential election to Klaus Iohannis in 2014. It is unclear whether the much-needed reforms within the PSD’s main rival, the PNL, are imminent. After the severe defeat in last year’s parliamentary elections, former president Alina Gorghiu resigned and a congress was scheduled for June.

In the meantime, the government’s new fiscal policy, a risky combination of tax cuts and social incentives, is a ticking time bomb. Enacted quickly in the last few days by lawmakers, the populist measures are likely to result in taxes being hiked later this year to make up an expected shortfall in budget revenues. This could also result in arrears to public contractors that could flame more protests.


More from bne IntelliNews reports from the ground on Romania’s protests here: 

Children join parents in Bucharest anti-corruption protest

Romanian government to revoke controversial ordinance but protests continue

BALKAN BLOG: Romanian government’s ‘useful idiots’ line up to undermine anti-corruption drive

Bucharest protesters signal peaceful intent with flowers at latest mass anti-corruption rally

Violent incidents in Bucharest as up to 150,000 protest against corruption

Romania's govt under pressure as protests force cancelation of controversial decree

Half a million Romanian protesters demand government's resignation