Over the past two decades, Romania has enacted several democratizing reforms, including founding the National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA), repealing defamation laws, and finally joining the European Union in 2007. Under the current administration, however, the government has begun to demonstrate signs of democratic backsliding in an effort to fight back against anti-corruption reforms.
The Social Democrats Party of Romania, or PSD, are the current leading party of the Romanian parliament, having won 46% of the vote in the 2016 election. This position gives them power to help designate a candidate for Prime Minister, as well as other cabinet positions, and grants them broad legislative support and coalition flexibility. The ways that the PSD has been using their power in parliament, however, has not inspired confidence in the democratic ideals or the accountability of the regime.
Nancy Bermeo, in her paper On Democratic Backsliding, outlines new trends in democratic backsliding that are less obvious or more gradual than older forms of backsliding, but still chip away at the democratic systems they take place in. One of the major varieties of this more gradual democratic backsliding is executive aggrandizement, in which elected officials slowly weaken the checks on the power of the executive through apparently legal avenues. 
Under this definition, Romania has begun to engage in behavior consistent with elite aggrandizement, weakening the checks on the PSD and affiliated political elites. In January of 2019, the Justice Minister of Romania announced a proposed emergency decree that would reduce the statute of limitations on several criminal offenses, shutting down several active corruption cases and freeing those accused from any consequences. Another proposed emergency decree would make it possible for politicians convicted of graft since 2014 to challenge the High Court for Cassation’s rulings on their cases, because the country’s Constitutional Court ruled that one of the judges on the High Court was not appointed properly in 2014. Together, these decrees would protect corrupt politicians in office, and allow Romania’s issue with corrupt politics to continue unchecked.
These emergency decrees are only the most recent development in the PSD’s weakening of checks on elite political power. In August of 2018, over 150,000 people joined protests in cities across Romania against the PSD-led government’s attempts to weaken anti-corruption legislation. In July of 2018, Laura Kovesi was dismissed from her post as head of the Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office (DNA) following a ruling from the Constitutional Court, which added weight to the PSD’s previous demands for her removal on charges of abuse of power. Before her removal, Kovesi investigated and indicted a number of legislators and ministers, including current PSD party leader Liviu Dragnea. Furthermore, Parliament passed legislation soon after Dragnea’s conviction that partially decriminalized abuse of office. These factors have led many commentators to assert that Kovesi’s dismissal was politically motivated.
Despite his criminal charges, Liviu Dragnea remains the current leader of the PSD, due in part to the legislative changes and emergency decrees that have reduced or invalidated corruption charges for politicians. However, his past criminal charges do legally prevent him from being elected Prime Minister. As a result, Romania has rotated through several different Prime Ministers since the 2016 elections, but Dragnea has been seen as the power behind the position for the entire time. Further attacks on the independence and strength of the judiciary could allow Dragnea to overturn his own criminal charges and those of his fellow PSD members, which would allow him to finally become Prime Minister himself, and similarly allow incumbent allied politicians rely upon continuing corruption to protect their own interests.
By reducing the power of the DNA and working to issue decrees that overturn previous corruption convictions, the PSD is systematically removing checks on the ruling elites of the PSD, and especially on party leader Liviu Dragnea. Such elite aggrandizement could allow Romania to slide back into the more widespread corruption it experienced prior to its admission into the EU, and could also pave the way for further democratic backsliding through election manipulation or further aggrandizement. If Dragnea succeeds in dismantling judicial checks on corrupt politicians, he could become Prime Minister and extend the current elite aggrandizement to executive aggrandizement. Recognizing the current reforms in Romania as signs of democratic backsliding could allow governmental institutions with power over Parliament to fight back against the trend, but only if they take action before Dragnea and the PSD weaken all substantive checks against their power. Bermeo, N., 2016. “On democratic backsliding.” Journal of Democracy, 27(1), pp.5-19.
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