Chants of “Thieves resign!” echoed through the Romanian capital Bucharest last Sunday as up to 50,000 people took to the streets. A further 20,000 people joined protests in other towns and cities demanding the fall of the government.
This wave of mass protests, now in its second week, has forced the ruling social democratic party into a head-long retreat.
First prime minister Sorin Grindeanu passed a decree watering down punishment for corruption. Those found guilty of abuse of power would only have to face jail if their corruption case involved more than £38,000.
An immediate beneficiary would have been Liviu Dragnea, leader of the social democrats, who is facing corruption charges of £24,000.
Faced with a nationwide revolt, the government repealed the decree but it is now trying to push a bill through parliament. While the number of protesters dropped, many remained on the streets and their demands have radicalised.
In the hope of staving off the crisis, Grindeanu pushed the bill’s architect justice minister Florin Iordache to resign last Thursday. But his attempts have been in in vain as the social democrats barely survived a vote of confidence in parliament tabled by the right wing opposition parties.
The National Liberal Party and the Save Romania Union have jumped on the protesters’ demands, but they offer no alternative. They are supported by the European Union (EU) and argue that the social democrats are “turning back the clock” to before the 1989 popular revolution.
The social democrats trace their origins to the National Salvation Front. This was a wing of the old Stalinist regime that broke with dictator Nicolae Ceascescu and put itself at the head of the popular revolution in 1989.
But right across Eastern Europe the hope of 1989 was betrayed, as many from the old Stalinist ruling class kept their power. Managers of state-owned firms became the bosses of privatised firms and Stalinist politicians became “democratic” politicians of all stripes.
But the new ruling class is divided—and it’s this competition and jockeying for position that ultimately causes the corruption.
The right has seized on the protests to revive itself after social democrats were swept into office last December on a wave of anger against austerity.
The right wing president Klaus Iohannis is a staunch supporter of the National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA). This is a sprawling institution, backed by the EU, which works closely with the Romanian spooks.
This section of part of the ruling class hopes to tap into people’s anger and mobilise a section of society behind it to do over their opponents. When movements against corruption spring up in eastern Europe, many look to the EU and free market as an alternative to corruption.
Many protesters have voiced support for the DNA and the EU.
These divisions at the top opened up the possibility for anger from below—but those divisions have also shaped that anger. To succeed against corruption, protesters will have to articulate independent demands that go beyond the different wings of the ruling class.