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Romania: A superhero coming of age story

For a few years now I have been attending an informal meeting of libertarians, Liberty Café, that takes place every Tuesday in Bucharest – you could call it the Romanian equivalent of the Wednesday Meeting in the US.

We're quite the geeks:  a mix of lawyers, economists, more lawyers, IT people and a web designer. We drink tea, swap stories of flawed economic reasoning on TV, Rothbard gets mentioned a lot. One of us recently got elected to Parliament – I refer to him as "The State" behind his back.  However, despite questioning the state’s authority over camomile tea, we are hardly revolutionary types. 

Nevertheless, on Tuesday 31st January, that changed. When we learnt that two emergency decrees decriminalising abuse of office had been passed, it didn’t take long for us to march out of the tea house and head for Victory Square, – the seat of the Romanian Government.  

The decrees were, in the eyes of many Romanians, a significant step backwards in our country's long fight against corruption. The decision to pass them in the dead of night only added to the general outrage.  

Like all spontaneous demonstrations though, we had no real plan. As the crowd began to swell it was clear that we were angry, but, as temperatures dropped below ten Celsius, another more subtle emotion was being felt: embarrassment. 

It was as if our government had turned into that friend who has had one too many drinks and was now clearly embarrassing us all. So, we had come out to Victory Square to try to save the situation, put our friend in a cab and bring the whole torrid affair to a swift end.  

The midnight anti-corruption emergency decrees caused more than half a million people to take to the streets. The lingering question now is what will get those people off the streets and back to their normal lives. The protests are unlikely to stop until some significant advances have been made regarding the repeal of those embarrassing decrees. 

The Grindeanu government was formed shortly after the landslide victory of the social democrats (PSD) in December’s parliamentary elections. Partnering with a centrist party allied with the ALDE group in the European Parliament, the social democrats ran on a platform of cutting taxes and increasing entitlements because, hey, who doesn't want to have their cake and eat it. 

Romanians, like all good democrats, quickly accepted the result and I prepared myself for four years of preposterous economic policy and fiscal debauchery, all wrapped up in a triumphalist "Make Romania great again" nationalism. 

Decriminalising abuse of office was not on the party’s manifesto and PSD and their ALDE coalition partners are not known for taking a tough stance on corruption. In the December elections they went as far as to put forward 25 candidates that had been convicted, investigated or prosecuted for various charges. 

PSD continues to be run with an iron fist by Liviu Dragnea who is currently serving a suspended sentence for electoral fraud and awaiting trial on an abuse of office charge, while ALDE's front man, Călin Popescu Tariceanu, has been charged with perjury.

On that cold Tuesday night, as the Grindeanu government appeared to completely lose its marbles, thousands of Romanians with jobs and families found themselves shouting "Repeal the ordinances!" at an empty building at 1 in the morning.  

Romanians are generally sceptical of politics and politicians. Years of communist rule, and the tribal nature of the country’s post-communist democratic reawakening has often lead to politicians simply appointing their relatives to public offices. 

The more optimistic expectations that Romanians have of their elected officials are not good or principled governance, but rather the simple absence of blatant theft.

The more optimistic expectations that Romanians have of their elected officials are not good or principled governance, but rather the simple absence of blatant theft. They'd be very content with some common sense and some ‘western-style’ corruption, where tax money is used to buy things from friends of friends. However, we are growing increasingly impatient with politicians or state institutions using our tax money to purchase things that do not even exist, at 5 times the market price.

One week after the protests began, an additional emergency decree was passed that sought to repeal the original decrees decriminalizing abuse of office. Romanian President Klaus Iohannis has called for a referendum on anticorruption and the Minister of Justice publicly responsible for the decrees has resigned.

Decriminalizing abuse of office has now become a legislative proposal and no longer the object of midnight emergency decrees. But the damage to the government’s reputation has been done. Despite the announcement that the decrees would be repealed, 600.000 people marched and protested in various cities across the country on February 6th. As this article goes to print, it remains unclear whether the emergency ordinances have actually been repealed or not. 

This may just be another example of PSD’s tried-and-tested tactic of confusing the general public into exhaustion. Others say disrespectfully that the legislative intricacies are so complex that the PSD does not have the skills needed to now fix its own blunder. Either way, on Sunday, February 12th, two weeks since that first memorable midnight decree, over 60.000 people once again took to the streets of Bucharest demanding that the Government resign because it has shown it can no longer be trusted. Victory Square is abuzz with discussions about the constitutional technicalities of the repeal process; civic cultural understanding is building up quickly as we many of us have taken it upon ourselves to start guarding our guardians.

What is needed for people to return to their previous lives? Returning to the allegory of our alcoholic friend for a moment, the first step is admitting there is a problem. PSD and ALDE, together with their supporting network of newspapers and TV stations have to admit there is a problem – that people's concerns are legitimate and that protesters are democratically voicing their opinions. 

Romania’s most popular TV stations are parroting the leaders of PSD and ALDE who preposterously claim that the protesters are being paid (roughly 22 euros per person, 11 for a child and 7 for a dog, to be more precise), that multinational companies are coordinating the protests and that George Soros is using this as a decoy to give Transylvania to Hungary. 

PSD Chairman Dragnea went even much further, comparing the protests to the infamous Mineriade of the 1990s when miners were called to Bucharest by PSD Honorary President Iliescu to violently repress a peaceful student protest.

The resignation of the Grindeanu Government is now really the only acceptable outcome for many of us.

The resignation of the Grindeanu Government is now really the only acceptable outcome for many of us. The government has lost the people’s trust and most of its credibility. People expect the rule of law to be maintained. One of the defining hashtags for the protests is #VaVedem (#WeCanSeeYou) – it is both a warning and a request that those in power govern with honesty, care and concern.

Two positives have emerged from the chaos of the last few weeks. First is the heartening realisation that politicians must and can be held accountable for their actions. It is the realisation of a fundamental principle of democracy: that governments should be afraid or at least aware of the people over whom they govern – that the rule of law and an active citizenry can act as great bulwarks against discretionary power. 

Secondly, it has made a rather shy society take pride in its flag, its national anthem and its nation. Romanians are more aware than ever before that their country does not belong to whichever politicians happens to be in power at a given moment in time, but rather it belongs to the quiet, hard-working, tax-paying masses. 

Romanians have just discovered that they have the power to defend their democracy, and, like the comic book hero that discovers their new superpower, Romanians now feel compelled to use this power for the good of their society.