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Romania fights back against sham reforms

Robert Schwartz
November 9, 2017

The government in Bucharest wants to change the country's justice system and is also planning tax reforms. Civil society, opposition parties, unions and employers' associations are up in arms.

Protesters wave flags in front of the government palace in Bucharest
Image: DW/C. Stefanescu

Bucharest in November: An icy wind sweeps through the streets, though it does not seem to bother the more than 2,000 protesters gathered here this Wednesday. The storm originating from the Palace of Parliament and buffeting Romanians is far more serious – and far more dangerous, says a young man who has been protesting against so-called government reforms for days. "It is just too much. First the justice bill and now this tax adventure that will destroy the private sector. We have no choice, we have to protest," explains Victor. Another demonstrator tells us that it is not desperation that has driven ever more people out on to the streets of Bucharest and other cities around the country over the last 280 days. Rather, it is the determination of those who feel the need to stand up and protect the rule of law.

Protesters shine their lights while marching in the streets of Bucharest
November protesters shine their cell phone lights in Bucharest's streets. Protests like these have been regularly occurring since the year's start.Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/A. Alexandru

The message is clear. Romania's civil society is displaying steadfastness and is not buying the empty promises that its government is selling. More than 600,000 people took to the streets at the beginning of the year in protest when the social democratic government announced its plan to subordinate the country's justice system. Images of a sea of illuminated cellphones held up by protesters were seen around the world. It was the first highlight in an ongoing protest that has continued day-in, day-out, in front of the Romanian prime minister's office, the Victoria Palace. Sometimes there are no more than a dozen protesters, last Sunday more than 20,000 people turned out to decry the planned watering down of the judiciary.

Criticism from the president

That which leaders were unable to rush through in the winter of 2017 is now to be accomplished under the guise of democratic parliamentary order. The thrust of the proposal aims at weakening the country's anti-corruption authority and redefining what constitutes abuse of power, as well as the political subordination of the judiciary. The beneficiaries of the new laws are, above all, those politicians that have already been legally sentenced, or against whom investigations of corruption or abuse of power are ongoing. Yet it is not only civil society that sees a threat to the rule of law: representatives of the public prosecutor's office, judges, and not least, President Klaus Iohannes have all harshly criticized the proposed changes.

President Klaus Iohannis in the Romanian parliament
President Iohannis believes the reforms threaten Romania's rule of lawImage: REUTERS/Inquam Photos/O. Ganea

The most prominent beneficiary of the sham judicial reform would be none other than Liviu Dragnea, Romania's parliamentary president and leader of the ruling social democratic PSD. Dragnea was prohibited from assuming the post of prime minister when his party won power, due to the fact that he was serving a suspended sentence for election fraud and is also the subject of another ongoing investigation. Since then, he has had to content himself with pulling the strings of a puppet regime from behind the scenes. Dragnea is receiving assistance from the PSD's junior coalition partner, the pseudo-liberal splinter party ALDE. Currently, its leader, and the president of the Senate, Calin Popescu-Tariceanu, is being investigated on perjury charges in a privatization scandal. 

A tax adventure

But governing from the wings does not appear to be going as smoothly as Dragnea would like. Just six months after coming to power, the party's pretend prime minister was forced to abandon his post because it seems that he refused to go along with leadership's plans. The "new hope" of the social democrats, Sorin Grindeanu, was forced out of office by his own party in the summer of 2017 and replaced by someone who seemed more "willing" to toe the party line. However, the first rifts have also begun to appear between the new head of government, Mihai Tudose, and his party boss. Now, it seems that Tudose may suffer the same fate as his predecessor should he fail to push through the oft-announced and delayed "tax revolution" that his party so desperately seeks to pass. A new tax law has been rammed through the legislative process and is to be passed by parliament within the next few days. 

Among other things, the package proposes raising the country's monthly minimum wage, currently around 320 euros ($373), by about 100 euros. In exchange, however, all incidental wage costs will be paid by employees themselves. 

Rumänien Ministerpräsident Sorin Grindeanu und Vorstizender der Sozialisten Liviu Dragnea
When Dragnea (R) could not assume the prime minister's office, Grindeanu (L) stepped into the role until mid-2017. But Dragnea still pulls the strings.Image: picture-alliances/AP Photo/O. Ganea

Not only are employer's associations fighting against the controversial changes, so are unions, opposition parties and civil society. President Iohannes has sternly warned against embarking on this "tax adventure with a tragic outcome." The consequences already seem to be manifesting themselves: Romania's currency, the leu, has fallen to its lowest level against the euro in five years.

Tampering with the justice system

Several employee associations have called for a general strike to voice opposition to the planned transfer of incidental wage cost liabilities. Bogdan Hosu, the head of the Cartel Alfa union confederation, told DW that it was unacceptable that an employee would be forced to turn over half of his or her wages for taxes. "Despite wage hikes and lower taxes, employees will be further burdened by the transfer of incidental wage costs. It is an economic and social disaster," said Hosu.

Andrei Taranu is interviewed by DW
Taranu criticizes the proposed reforms for only serving those in powerImage: DW/C. Stefanescu

Prominent Romanian political scientist Andrei Taranu, vice dean of the National School of Political Studies and Public Administration in Bucharest, agrees. Speaking with DW, Taranu said the proposed laws represented illegal meddling in the judiciary and tax systems, the benefits of which fell solely to governing politicians. "These sham reforms harm Romania domestically and internationally. Now it is up to the president to use every means at his disposal to block the obsessive tactics with which the government is pursuing its plan." 

The liberal opposition has declared that it will call for a vote of no confidence against the government in parliament. The chances of success, however, are slim. All too often the parliamentary majority has shown itself to be nothing more than a rubber stamp for the ruling PSD-ALDE government. Mass protests are set to take place over the coming days.