May 13, 2019 | by LAVINIA STAN
This month’s referendum will test Romanian tolerance of corruption. But will it be enough to stall the epidemic of political graft and impunity?
President Klaus Iohannis’s decision to call a national referendum on 26 May seeks to challenge the ruling party’s track record for corruption as well as its recent assault on the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary. After the 2016 elections, the Social Democrat Party (PSD) secured a majority in Parliament with the help of two junior parties and then used this strong position to hammer out new criminal codes that endangered the rule of law for the sake of protecting corrupt party leaders. By cornering more than 45 percent of the vote despite its leaders’ involvement in well-publicized corruption scandals, the PSD interpreted its win as a carte blanche to block the fight against corruption and to weaken the national anti-corruption agency. With the upcoming referendum, held on the same day as the European election, Iohannis wants to signal to the PSD that it is acting against the wishes of ordinary Romanians.
The upcoming referendum will allow Romanian voters to air their opinion on the anti-corruption fight by posing two questions: “Do you support a ban on amnesty and pardon in cases related to corruption?” and: “Do you support blocking the adoption by the executive of emergency ordinances that stipulate punishment for crimes and re-organize the judiciary, and [also support] extending the period of time during which these ordinances can be challenged in the Constitutional Court?” The awkward phrasing of these questions means they might spark confusion, but they invite Romanians to take a stand against the criminal law changes that the PSD-dominated Parliament adopted on 24 April.
These changes sought to shut down several ongoing investigations and court cases involving high-ranking politicians and state dignitaries by shortening the statute of limitations and lowering sentences for some offenses, as well as decriminalizing negligence in the workplace. In addition, the second referendum question challenges the executive’s right to issue emergency ordinances which start producing effects immediately after being tabled in Parliament; even when the house votes against specific ordinances, there is no clear procedure to reverse their legal consequences. This means that the executive can use emergency ordinances to quickly enact legislative changes without giving parliament, especially the opposition, a chance to debate and reformulate them.
Corruption climbs, citizens criticize
Many citizens are acutely aware of the need to continue the anti-corruption fight in Romania, which numbers among the poorest countries in Europe as well as the most corrupt. As the latest country report by the Bertelsmann Stiftung's Sustainable Governance Indicators (SGI) stated, “corruption remains a serious problem and a key political issue” in Romania where “some integrity mechanisms function, but do not effectively prevent public officeholders from abusing their positions.” In terms of rule of law, also considering legal certainty, judicial review and the appointment of justices as indicators, the SGI study ranks Romania in 35rd place out of 41 countries surveyed.
Since its inception in 2002, and especially under the leadership of Laura Codruta Kovesi (2013-2018), the National Anti-corruption Directorate (DNA) has secured a spate of convictions against ministers, legislators, mayors, judges, prosecutors, public utility leaders, and other state dignitaries. Its annual reports for 2016, 2017 and 2018, available on its website, list a total of 2,823 indicted individuals, including seven ministers, 17 deputies, seven senators, 72 mayors, 20 magistrates and lawyers, as well as 38 national company directors. A significant number of those sentenced are from the PSD, although members of other parties have also been indicted for graft, cronyism, embezzlement, and traffic of influence.
The most prominent corruption investigation targets none other than the PSD leader, Liviu Dragnea. Since Dragnea will benefit from all changes that have been recently pushed forward by the PSD-dominated parliamentary majority, analysts consider him the brain behind the assault to the rule of law. By indicting Dragnea for abuse of public office and forgery while he served as Teleorman County Council president, the DNA blocked his bid to occupy the prime ministerial position after the 2016 elections. Instead, he became Speaker of the lower Chamber of Deputies. Dragnea has also been convicted for electoral fraud and investigated for his participation in a criminal conspiracy to fraudulently redirect European Union funds worth 20 million Euros.
A cross-party problem
Meanwhile, the highest-ranking government official currently investigated by the DNA (for forgery, money laundering and tax evasion) is former PSD leader Victor Ponta, who also became notorious for plagiarizing his PhD thesis. The thesis was supervised by former PSD Prime Minister Adrian Nastase, who received two years in prison for corruption in 2012 and attempted to commit suicide before starting to serve his sentence. In April 2019, the DNA also accused former Romanian MEP Petru Luhan for allegedly using 37 fake receipts to claim travel reimbursement from European Parliament funds. Luhan is a former member of the Democrat-Liberal Party, proving that the PSD has no monopoly over corruption in Romania.
With so many of its leaders being investigated for corruption, it’s no surprise that the PSD has identified Kovesi, the head of the National Anti-corruption Directorate, as its arch-enemy. In 2018, the PSD-dominated government dismissed Kovesi, thus leaving her organization in disarray. It went on to deploy an arsenal of methods to block Kovesi’s nomination as head of the new European Public Prosecutor’s Office. Kovesi has been prohibited both from leaving the country and from speaking to the press about her case.
With the upcoming referendum, Iohannis hopes go gain a political mandate to reverse the PSD’s bids to insulate themselves against corruption charges. But it remains one step in a long journey: Romania won’t be able to win its anti-corruption fight until it enforces its legislation and effectively challenges the embedded culture of corruption.
Lavinia Stan is Jules Leger Research Chair and Professor of Political Science at St. Francis Xavier University in Canada. Her research interests include post-communist politics, especially in Romania, transitional justice, as well as religion and politics. Since 2016 she has contributed to the Bertelsmann Stiftung's Sustainable Governance Indicators (SGI) report on Romania.
First published by The EU Observer.