Only a year after massive, week-long demonstrations—the likes of which had not been seen in Romania since the demonstrations leading up to the fall of the Communism—Romanians took to the streets again.
A year ago in January, 2017, the streets of Bucharest were filled with angry citizens, protesting a decree made by the then newly elected government that would have decriminalized cases of official misconduct amounting to less than 200,00 Lei, which is equivalent to approximately €38,000 or $47,000. The Romanian government responded to its people’s cries and revoked the decree.
While the response by the Romanian government was a step in the right direction for Romanian democracy, it appears that the government has backtracked as evidenced by the protests in January.
This time, demonstrators were protesting a law passed in December, 2017, which critics argue may weaken the independence of judges and magistrates. In particular, the law creates a special task force whose purpose is to investigate and prosecute judges and magistrates for potential crimes. The vagueness of this investigative unit’s authority is alarming. It provides the executive with the power to prosecute judges and magistrates for, essentially, anything that could be potentially criminal.
Romanian citizens are protesting because it, effectively, gives the executive the power to prosecute judges and magistrates who rule or might rule against its favor. This law presents a threat to judicial independence in Romania, thus raising a red flag for the state of the country’s democracy.
Though democratic institutions remain in place, a judiciary that is under the control of the executive lacks the independence to be a neutral check on errant administrative practices (Varol, 2015). An independent judiciary is essential to a functioning democracy. The leftist regime in Romania appears to be using the courts to maintain an appearance of democracy, but, as evidenced by the massive protests in response to the passing of the law, it appears Romanians are not fooled.
This action to undermine judicial independence is the same type of stealthy, autocratic action that Varol (2015) describe. The Romanian government is making less-extreme autocratic moves through democratic means. Last year, it was the corruption policy, and even though the government revoked that policy it is still evidence that the Romanian government is committed to finding a way to undermine democracy.
Additionally, the Romanian executive appears to be undermining democracy by weakening opposition within the government (Levitsky & Ziblatt, 2018). With the authority to prosecute judges and magistrates so easily, the Romanian government can silence opposition in the judiciary that could pose a threat to power. By drastically weakening judicial independence, this new law, effectively, revokes the most important neutral check on power a democracy has.
Despite these apparent attempts by the Romanian government to undermine democracy, the Romanian people are making it clear they will not lose their rights without a fight. The massive protests in 2017 coupled with the recent demonstrations in January of this year suggest a lack of faith in the government. Perhaps, the Romanian government has lost some legitimacy among its people.
Democratic governments maintain legitimacy through institutions and, more importantly, through the faith of the people (Linz and Stepan, 1978). A democracy is legitimate if despite its shortcomings the people still believe that it’s better than any alternative government—that is, the democracy in place is the least evil form of government (Linz & Stepan, 1978).
From these massive demonstrations over the past year or so, the world can see that Romanians are losing faith in their democracy and have been for some time now.
It’s been a well-known fact for years that Romania’s democracy is less-than-perfect. During its transition into the European Union, there were concerns that Romania would not meet the standards required for an EU country. Transparency International, an organization that collects and analyzes data to determine perceived corruption among public officials, gave Romania a score of 48/100 on its Corruption Perceptions Index in 2017—0 being highly corrupt and 100 being very clean.
All things considered, Romanians are rightfully worried about the state of their democracy. Romania is all too familiar with dictatorships in the past. Its communist dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu was notorious among the leaders of the Eastern Bloc. Romanians lived under his autocratic reign from 1965 until he was executed in 1991 after massive protests.
While, clearly, the current Romanian government is not the same kind of dictatorship it was in the past, there are still elements of authoritarianism that are concerning. Instead of moving in the right direction, it seems that Romania’s democracy is backsliding. The Romanian government responded appropriately to last year’s demonstrations and revoked the antidemocratic legislation that would have legalized misconduct by officials, but it has yet to backtrack on the legislation that weakened judicial independence.
The world should keep its eye on Romania. These moves to weaken the judiciary and provide unchecked power to the executive and Parliamentary officials are a warning sign. The protests are a good sign that the people will not be complicit, but only time will tell if the government will listen to its people or continue to undermine democracy.
Levitsky, S., & Ziblatt, D. (2018). How Democracy Dies. New York: Crown.
Linz, J., & Stepan, A. (1978). The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes. The John Hopkins University
Varol, O. (2015). Stealth Authoritarianism. Iowa Law Review, 100(4), 1673-1742.