Romania: Biggest street protests since 1989

What position should the left take?
Mass street protests erupted at the end of January in several Romanian cities over the plans of the new social-democratic government to pass two executive orders that would weaken the anti-corruption legislation. The protests reached their peak this week, on Wednesday, with approximately 400,000 people taking the streets across the country in the biggest mass demonstrations since the Revolution. Despite some of the right-wing features of the protests, the left needs to intervene and pose an alternative to both the government and the right forces trying to capitalise on the popular outrage.

The Social Democratic Party (PSD) won the general elections last December with a comfortable 45%. However, that win had less to do with its agenda (a hybrid of neoliberal and protectionist economic measures) than with the lack of a real alternative tackling the socio-economic problems that millions of Romanians are facing; hence, the low turnout of under 40%, with only 18% of the electorate voting for PSD. 

The first measure of the new government was to increase the minimum wage, which nevertheless remains the lowest in the EU after Bulgaria’s. The increase mainly came to support domestic capitalists, increasingly worried that they are running out of cheap labour, who would rather go and work on the minimum wage in Western countries. This way, PSD wanted to bring some comfort to the poorer layers of the working class (part of its traditional social base) while also serving the interests of national capital that they truly represent.

But PSD also represents the interests of much of the central and local bureaucracies, including party members who are currently being investigated or have already been convicted of corruption. The party leader himself, Liviu Dragnea, is currently serving a two-year suspended sentence for electoral fraud from the 2012 presidential impeachment referendum, which is the reason he could not become prime minister this time, but gave the position to a loyal party colleague, Sorin Grindeanu. Moreover, he is currently being investigated for allegedly embezzling 108,000 lei (roughly 24,000 euro) and a conviction in this case too would send him to prison for both sentences. 

That is why in January the government announced its plan to pass through two executive orders that had not been stipulated at all in the electoral programme of PSD. One would bring amnesty to some of those serving both prison or suspended sentences for corruption and the other would decriminalise abuses of office entailing losses under 200,000 lei, which would obviously benefit Dragnea in case he is found guilty in his on-going trial. Despite the attempt to justify these executive orders as a much-needed reform of the criminal law and a way to address the overpopulation of Romanian prisons, it led to street protests in several major cities and big pressure on the government – from both the protesters and the right-wing opposition – to either overturn its plans or at least subject them to public debate. 

After hasty public consultations at the beginning of the week, the government decided to send the amnesty proposal in the Parliament for debate but still pass through the executive order regarding abuse of office, which they did at midnight, on 1 February. This triggered huge protests on Wednesday evening, the biggest in Romania since 1989, with 150,000 people in Bucharest only and 400,000 across the country calling for the scrap of the order and even the resignation of the government and snap elections.  

The popular outrage is entirely justified. Under the pretext of otherwise legitimate issues such as the reform of the criminal law or the overpopulation of prisons, PSD’s executive order regarding the abuse of office is clearly meant to protect its leader from prison. Indeed, the change would entail an amnesty of all those already convicted for abuses of offices that resulted in losses under 200,000 lei. But maybe the most worrying provision of the modified law is the decriminalisation of those creating or implementing laws that violate human rights or that discriminate people on the basis of their gender, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, income or political affiliation! That basically means that we could potentially have racist laws in Romania without anyone having to go to prison for creating or implementing them.    

With this executive order, PSD proved once more that they are not a left-wing party, who represents the interests of the working class and of oppressed social groups, but a party for the corrupt oligarchs and bureaucrats, a party whose slight social measures are taken for the benefit of domestic capital. Rather than reforming the labour law, which is one of the most anti-labour laws in Europe, PSD is concerned with reforming the criminal law for the benefit of its own leaders. Rather than defending the millions of Romanians exploited and abused in their workplaces (such as the workers from the De’Longhi factory near Cluj, who are being forced to sign resignation letters for going on strike in December over their unpaid bonuses), PSD defends corrupt bureaucrats – this is their number one priority in a country ridden with poverty and inequality.

Some of those in the media defending the executive order argue – just like those defending Tump these days – that democracy requires us to allow them to govern as they wish because they have won the elections democratically. But democracy is not limited to electing a capitalist party or another every four years. Democracy also means the right to protest against the government, especially when that government plans to make abusive changes that were not included in the agenda based on which it won the elections. 

However, the situation is more complex than it seems and the protests display several limits that reflect the current subjective conditions in Romania. These shortcomings do not apply to all protesters though and the extent to which they will characterise the future development of the protests also depends on how the left will position itself towards the protests. 

Firstly, there is a tendency to diabolise the entire electorate of PSD, often in class terms, as they are deemed as “benefit scroungers” who ‘sell’ their vote to PSD, despite the fact that we have the fewest percentage of people on benefits in the EU and that many of the protesters are PSD voters themselves, who did not vote for the amnesty of corrupt politicians back in December. Indeed, this diabolisation comes packed with a lazy narrative about ‘the two Romanias’: on the one hand, the urban, middle-class, educated half that wants a democratic and modern country and which is now in the streets; on the other hand, the rural, poor, uneducated half that holds us back by voting with corrupt parties like PSD. One of the tasks of the left now is precisely to reject this false dichotomy and show that most Romanians, whether they are now on the streets or are sitting at home, have common interests as a class, such as having better wages, secure jobs, affordable housing, quality public services and, indeed, less institutional corruption.

Secondly, the protests tend to overlook the abuses committed by the anti-corruption fight itself, particularly by the National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA), who has used quasi-legal methods of investigation, including testimonies made under pressure, threats against family members of suspects and witnesses, pre-trial detention as a form of leverage etc. (see the Henry Jackson Society’s report). Indeed, this has often happened with the help of the Romanian Intelligence Service (SRI), the heir of the previous Stalinist Securitate, with very little oversight from elected state officials and which, despite some legal constraints, has infiltrated all strata of Romanian society, from politicians and journalists to the business environment. Moreover, the anti-corruption struggle in Romania has been rather limited to political and bureaucratic corruption, thus fuelling the perception that it has partly become an instrument in the power struggle between different sections of the ruling class. Indeed, particularly in a country as poor and unequal as Romania, genuine anti-corruption needs to also target the corruption of capital, such as the shady privatisations that have ruined the country’s industry or the abusive banking practices, which the head of the central bank is unashamedly defending as we speak. Thus, while clearly opposing the corruption of PSD, the left also needs to draw the attention to other forms of corruption that the likes of DNA and SRI have been ignoring.        

Thirdly, the left should also expose the right-wing features that have partly characterised the protests so far, such as slogans glorifying sexual abuse in prisons or calling PSD “the red plague” (a term used by Romanian fascists in the 1930s to describe the communists). Indeed, some of the right-wing political forces, including the President Klaus Iohannis, have attended the protests and are clearly trying to capitalise on them, although these forces are just as much part of the problem as PSD. That is why it is important that, just like in the previous street movements of 2012 and 2013, protesters express their opposition towards the entire political establishment for their collective responsibility in making Romania a country where 40% of the population lives on the verge of poverty. 

Nevertheless, despite these limits – that partly indicate the level of consciousness in Romanian society but also the poor organisation of the left here – these protests are perfectly legitimate in their outrage. The left cannot stay aside just because of the right-wing slogans or the right-wing forces trying to benefit from the protests. Indeed, the left needs to intervene not despite such right-wing overtones but precisely because of them, because it needs to put forward an alternative, class-based voice to the anti-PSD and the wider anti-establishment anger. Indeed, only by intervening in people’s struggles can the left develop politically and, at the same time, expose PSD even more clearly as the right-wing party that it is. Otherwise, the right will keep monopolising such outbursts of popular disillusionment in the future.

Therefore, as Mâna de Lucru (CWI supporters in Romania) argued in a statement published on Friday, the left has to categorically denounce the PSD government with all its undemocratic abuses and right-wing agenda, while at the same time draw the attention towards the limits of the anti-corruption struggle as well as to the right-wing features of the protests, particularly the diabolisation of PSD voters and the false dichotomy of “the two Romanias” it rests on. For such a dividing narrative serves well all political parties, precisely because it obscures our common interests as workers and the absence of any real political representation of these interests. The main task of the left these days is to highlight these common interests of our class and the need to build a socialist political alternative that would genuinely fight for them.

LATEST UPDATE: On Saturday night, the prime minister Grindeanu announced that there will be a government meeting on Sunday, where the executive order will be withdrawn and re-sent to Parliament for debate, with the 200,000 lei threshold for criminalisation of abuses of office possibly being scrapped. It yet to be seen whether the protests will continue or not.

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February 2017