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Anticorruption Laws Threatened in Romania

Hannah Thoburn

While most European eyes are trained on German and British political intrigues and instability, the far more fragile state of Romania is teetering.

Since the Social Democratic Party (PSD) gained control of Romania’s Parliament in December 2016, the country has seen political scandal, mass anti-corruption protests, and the resignations of two prime ministers. Both men lasted only seven months in office.

Like his predecessor, Mihai Tudose left his post in early January after losing the confidence of the PSD, which is controlled by Liviu Dragnea, the PSD head and the President of the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of Romania’s parliament. Dragnea would himself prefer to ascend to lead the government, but is legally barred from becoming prime minister as he was convicted in 2015 of electoral fraud.

The result has been an unending power struggle between Dragnea and whomever he approves for placement in the position of prime minister. Tudose lost the confidence of Dragnea and PSD after he attempted to dismiss his interior minister. The previous prime minister, Sorin Grindeanu, also lost a vote of no confidence orchestrated by PSD when he was accused of moving too slowly on implementing a reform package. At the time of his dismissal in June 2017, Grindeanu said “anyone who would have been or who will become prime minister has no chance of exercising the role of prime minister” thanks to Dragnea’s lust for power.

Throughout this period of political turmoil, the PSD-controlled parliament under Dragnea has worked relentlessly to push through a series of laws apparently designed to weaken existing anti-corruption laws in a country that struggles mightily with that affliction. In response, hundreds of thousands of outraged Romania’s citizens have taken to the streets to protest these proposed laws. The first round of protests during the winter of 2017 were somewhat successful, forcing the resignation of the justice minister and a repeal of new laws that would have decriminalized corruption under $48,000 and pardoned thousands of criminals—perhaps including Dragnea.

A second wave of protests is now growing in defiance of the hasty passage of a PSD-sponsored package of yet-to-be-promulgated laws in late December (originally proposed last August)  that would reorganize the justice system. The changes would bring the Judicial Inspectorate – an independent oversight body that keeps watch over the untoward deeds of judges, prosecutors, courts – under the direct control of the Ministry of Justice, and would curtail the use of video and audio testimony or evidence in trials.

In addition, the new law stipulates that “A higher, politically appointed body will be given the right to proceed against unfavorable decisions by public prosecutors and judges. At the same time, people under suspicion will have to be informed when they become the object of an investigation. They will also be allowed to be present when witnesses are questioned.” And, conveniently, “it will be possible to close down an investigation if politically appointed senior public prosecutors deem it unfounded or illegal.”

Opponents of the changes argue that they would give the Justice Ministry too much control over magistrates, leave prosecutors vulnerable to political pressure, and weaken one of the most important checks on the legislative branch’s powers—the president’s ability to veto the appointment of chief prosecutors. The US State DepartmentEuropean Commission, and Romanian President Klaus Iohannis agree.

They are further troubled by laws proposed on December 26 that would weaken the strictures on corruption and other financial crimes like graft. Reuters reports that in addition to lessening sentences for taking a bribe, allowing prison terms of less than three years to be served at home, and decriminalizing the use of sexual favors, the proposal would make unprosecutable any “abuse of office offences that cause financial damage of less than 200,000 euros.”

Those in opposition note that the latter proposition would benefit PSD leader Dragnea, who—in addition to his earlier conviction for vote rigging—is currently on trial for abuse of power and is also being investigated for having formed a criminal group that has misappropriated funds from both the European Union and domestic budgets. In the latter case, the Romanian National Anticorruption Directorate has frozen Dragnea’s funds.

Viorica Dăncilă, a member of the European Parliament and close ally of Liviu Dragnea, has been nominated and approved as Romania’s next prime minister. The country’s first female prime minister, she is seen as Dragnea’s puppet and explicitly supports both sets of laws. Saturday, January 20, saw tens of thousands of Romanians flood the streets of the capital Bucharest and other large cities to again protest the new laws on the judiciary.

Many had hoped that the Constitutional Court would overturn the laws, but one portion—the new mechanism for overseeing judges—has already been ruled legal. Other portions of the judicial law will be assessed by January 30. Once the Constitutional Court has weighed in, President Iohannis has only one chance to send the laws back to parliament before he is obligated to sign them. A vocal opponent of the laws, he is expected to do so, and when he does, the protestors hope that their vocal stance, combined with pressure from the European Union and international community will force the PSD-controlled parliament to backtrack.

But such pressures have been tried—and to date failed—in both Hungary and Romania. The PSD government surely knows that they are low on the EU’s list of priorities and are happy to take advantage of their low profile.

Romania has come far since it first joined the European Union eleven years ago, but it still has many demons yet to exorcise. The past year’s explosion of civic activism and the tireless work of anti-corruption reformers has paid some dividends, and seen the PSD turn back from some of its most hated proposals. But societies do not change overnight, nor do perfectly formed polities emerge unscathed from the yoke of dictatorship. Romania’s citizens seem sure of their European course—they deserve the support to help them stay it.

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