At least the Romanian government didn’t trot out the usual justifications when it enacted a measure easing penalties for official corruption — that it greases the wheels in moribund bureaucracies, that it augments the wages of underpaid civil servants, that it rewards enterprise. It made its move stealthily on the night of Jan. 31 with an “emergency decree,” which does not require parliamentary approval.
The only evident emergency was that a lot of officials had been rounded up for corruption, including the man who holds the real power behind the Social Democratic government. It was hardly surprising that hundreds of thousands poured into the streets to protest the government’s backward move on corruption and demand that it resign. By Sunday, the government had revoked the decree, and on Thursday the justice minister took the fall for the measure and resigned. But the protesters, aware that this was not yet a victory, have stayed in the streets.
Official corruption runs deep in Romania. In recent years, however, Romanians have been heartened by the successes of a special anticorruption agency, the National Anticorruption Directorate, which has brought thousands of cases to court, including some that involve senior officials.
Among them is Liviu Dragnea, the powerful head of the Social Democrats, who is ineligible to be prime minister because he is serving a two-year suspended sentence for electoral fraud and is facing abuse-of-power charges. His party decisively won elections in December, a year after it was ousted by similar protests. Like the elected leaders in Hungary and Poland, the Social Democrats took their victory as a mandate to do whatever it takes to pursue their aims. The party proposed a law to pardon those serving five years or less for certain crimes — a measure it said was intended to ease overcrowding in prisons. Then came the “emergency decree” that, among other things, would not send officials to prison if their take was less than 200,000 lei ($47,000).
It is not entirely clear whether the measures would have cleared Mr. Dragnea to serve as prime minister. But it looked that way to the public. Even after the decree’s withdrawal, protesters persisted — under Romanian law, if the decree was in effect even briefly, the exonerations may have taken effect.
Mr. Dragnea and his allies blamed political foes for the protests. But the Romanians in the streets were not there to assail a specific party. They were there to demand a real end to the corruption that pervades their political culture and saps their economy and their democracy.
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