June 4, 2015 | by CORINA MURAFA
Klaus Iohannis' election as president was a signal that Romania is on a good path towards more political participation. But can the political will to reform outlast election euphoria?
Romania’s digital generation is on the rise. Facebook recently announced that there are today 8 million accounts in Romania, a 5 percent increase from the beginning of 2015. For a country with just slightly above 20 million inhabitants that is a lot.
One of the most popular politicians on Facebook is the new Romanian president Klaus Iohannis who has been in office for over 5 months now. He currently has over 1.5 million followers.
In fact, on Facebook Iohannis is the most popular politician in the whole of Europe, surpassing in terms of followers for instance German Chancellor Angela Merkel (about 1 million) or British Prime Minister David Cameron (about 600,000).
Sociologists and political pundits agree that the surprising victory of the 55-year old former physics teacher in Romania’s presidential elections last November was to a large extent due to the masses of young people who decided to reject political apathy and cast their vote. Social media was one of the essential tools to mobilize them.
Romania’s diaspora community played a decisive role too. Officially, about 2.5 million Romanians are living abroad and, in reality, probably more than twice that. Romanian expatriates are not allowed to cast their votes by mail; instead they can only vote at the country’s consulates and embassies.
In last year’s elections, many expats had to wait for hours outside the polling stations due to the high voter turnout. Some could not even cast their votes at all. In Germany, for instance, there were only five polling stations open for about 200,000 expats. The authorities’ refusal to open more polling stations or extend the voting hours of those existing was seen by many as a factor adding to the defeat of the incumbent prime minister and presidential candidate of the Social Democratic Party, Victor Ponta.
The diaspora community for the most part supported Mr Iohannis and its fury over half-day long waiting lines on the ballot day in front of Romanian consulates and embassies added a great deal to their support.
The “no non-sense mayor of Sibiu”, a small town in Transylvania, had campaigned above all on the promise to fight corruption, one of the most persistent problems facing Romania. This touched a nerve particularly among many young Romanians.
For them the country’s National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA) has become somewhat of a cult symbol. In street protests and political rallies in the run-up to the presidential elections they shouted, “We love DNA” and “We vote DNA”, and they invented dozens of witty charades that were making headlines in social media.
Since the beginning of 2015, few days have passed without a high-profile politician being sentenced or prosecuted by the DNA. It’s a strange sight to say the least – and an embarrassing proof of Romania’s rotten political institutions – when evening television shows focus only on the latest major-league corruption cases being brought to court. Journalists have set up nearly permanent stations in front of the DNA’s headquarters, waiting for the next public figure to appear.
Thus far, several former ministers, at least seven members of parliament and one minister in office have been convicted. This added to last year’s over 1,100 convictions by the DNA which included 24 mayors, five members of parliament, two former ministers and one former prime minister.
Yet despite this development, Romania is still one of Europe’s most graft-ridden nations. In Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, Romania hasn’t made any progress since 2013. In the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Sustainable Governance Indicators (SGI), which compares all countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the European Union (EU), Romania is at the bottom ranks internationally on democratic quality.
The SGI confirms that although anticorruption measures in the country have improved, corruption remains a fundamental problem.
When it comes to Romania’s much needed structural reforms, corruption is not the only topic that the new president must tackle. Among others, the country’s civil society has long been pushing for more transparency and accountability of political parties and for an opening of the country’s political scene to newcomers.
Hard for political newcomers
Romania currently has some of the most restrictive laws in the world for setting up a new political party. It needs 25,000 founding members from more than half of Romania’s territorial-administrative units. A coalition of NGOs and activists has called upon all presidential candidates last year – including the current prime minister and the current president – for “Politica fara bariere” (“Politics without barriers”) and to change the country’s restrictive laws.
They demanded that only three people are required to create a party, to increase transparency in party financing, and to allow voting by correspondence (or e-voting).
Both the governing coalition and the opposition promised to support such reforms. A special committee to debate concrete amendments of existing laws was set up in parliament. Yet, once the electoral euphoria subsided, it remains to be seen what has come out of these plans.
Elena Calistru, President of the NGO Funky Citizens and one most fervent promoters of reform, believes not much has changed for the better. “At first, the committee showed transparency and openness towards civil society proposals,” she says in an interview with SGI News. “However, after a few weeks in which all major political parties seemed to have learnt their lessons from the elections, the committee was split into three sub-committees which returned us back to square one. Now we are experiencing a new form of political hypocrisy: whilst the official line is that the political scene wants reform, the establishment finds new ways of preserving its monopoly."
As often, the devil lies in the details.“ In February 2015, for instance, the parliamentary commission changed the law so as to allow for citizens to form a political party with only three members and no geographic restrictions,” says Elena Calistru. “However, several other amendments facilitate the dissolution of parties. For example, when a party now fails to register its candidates in two consecutive elections, it automatically dissolves. This means that if a local party is founded this year and manages to win some local elections next spring, then unless it nominates candidates for the parliamentary elections in November 2016, the party will be dissolved.” This means that the purpose of the new legislation – to provide more opportunities for local politics – has in practice no effect because it forces any new political initiatives to have a national reach.
Romania is heading in the right direction. Now it is important to ensure that its society and political class are able to stay focused on solving the country’s essential policy problems.
Corina Murafa is an energy policy expert advising international organizations in Bucharest. She holds a Master in Public Policy from the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin. Since fall 2014, she is a PhD candidate with the Romanian Academy for Economic Studies.