* The Romanian government has been acting like an authoritarian bully, thumbing its nose at criticism from the street and Brussels as it pushes ahead with plans to take direct control of the the justice system
Another illiberal democracy
The attacks on judicial independence in Romania, and the violence at the August 10 protest, have drawn comparisons with the so-called “illiberal democracies” in the Visegrad region. Poland, like Romania, has clashed with Brussels over its judicial overhaul, while the values of the governments in both Budapest and Warsaw are at odds with those of the bloc. The root of these illiberal democracies is the pull and push of where ultimate political power lies: in the hands of politicians or in the institutions they are supposed to manage that are specifically designed to cap personal power and make it accountable.
- Where Romania differs from, for example, Poland or Hungary is that the agenda of the government doesn’t appear to be driven by idealism, but by the need to protect its politicians from the consequences of their past actions.
- Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban has repeatedly expounded his concept of illiberal democracy, first outlining the basic ideas at an infamous address in the Romanian town of Baile Tusnad in 2014 where he claimed to be building an “illiberal state”.
- Speaking to ethnic Hungarians in Romania, the PM declared liberal democracy a failure, and held up Russia, China and Turkey as models for Hungary if it wished to stay competitive globally. Both Russia and China have institutions, as both are simply too large to run on the basis of personal relations with key officials alone. But they are hybrid models where the client-sponsor relations are key and epitomised in Russia’s “vertical power” model.
Four years later, again in a speech to ethnic Hungarians in Baile Tusnad, Orban called for the advent of “Christian democracy”, an ideology he defined as “anti-immigrant” and “anti-multicultural”, standing for the Christian family model.
“There is liberalism in the West, there is no democracy,” said Orban, going on to call the European Commission a “symbol of failure.”
The ruling Fidesz’ demonisation of immigrants, which was stepped up ahead of the April 2018 election that Orban’s Fidesz won by another supermajority, successfully tapped into the fears of many Hungarian voters, but was motivated by concerns over and above political expediency.
Romania’s PSD has also toyed with conservative ideas, for example with plans (later dropped) for a mass rally in support of the “traditional family” and discussions of a referendum against same-sex marriages (not yet scheduled). There popularist ideas are the façade behind which attacks on liberal institutions can be mounted, as they are easy to sell to the population.
However, one of the top grievances of the protesters in Romania is that the changes there — that they fear could destroy the fight against corruption and distort the justice system —are so blatantly motivated by self interest – legalising corruption is a very hard sell indeed.
Specifically, they are seen as benefitting one man: Liviu Dragnea, the leader of the ruling PSD and arguably the most powerful man in the country even though he is barred from holding an official position because of his two criminal convictions.
- The decree adopted back in January 2017 set the bar for abuse of office being a criminal offence at damages of RON200,000 (€44,500 at the time); the damages in the case where Dragnea had been indicted amounted to RON108,612.
- Had the decree stood, the charges against the PSD leader would have been dropped. Instead the politician, who had already been issued a suspended sentence in an earlier case concerning voter manipulation, went on to stand trial and was given a three year, six month prison sentence – the first time such a senior figure has been convicted.
- Similarly, the new changes approved in July stipulate that the offence would be applicable only to public officials whose actions bring benefits to themselves or their close relatives — this would again allow Dragnea to evade justice as the case concerned two county council employees who were working on PSD business, thereby benefitting the party rather than Dragnea himself.
After the events of August 10, even some within the PSD have said the relentless focus on judicial changes and its undermining of the anti-corruption fight have to end. A senior member of the party, former education minister and leader of the PSD’s Bucharest branch, Ecaterina Andronescu, wrote in an open letter quoted by Hotnews.ro that “What is happening now within the PSD and in the country is not all right, it has gone … too far.” Andronescu went on to ask Dragnea to resign, though it’s unlikely that he will. Other PSD members who have stepped forward to criticise the authoritarian party leader tend to be summarily expelled.
The EU didn’t remained silent while Hungary and Poland set about adopting changes that went directly against the core values of the union. At issue is the very foundation of the principles of government on which the EU is built: liberal and accountable institutions that are designed to protect the interest of the population and place checks and balances on those in power. The accession countries signed up to this model of government when they joined in 2004 and rejecting it now is not an option for Brussels.
In December, the European Commission triggered the “nuclear option”, Article 7, against Warsaw in December, which may lead to it stripping Poland of its voting rights in the EU for undermining the rule of law.
Moreover, the Visegrad 4 states have increasingly been acting as a bloc to increase their leverage on issues like migrant quotas, where they have strong differences with the “old” EU members to the west. Poland and Hungary have said they will support each other when officials in Brussels try to call either state to account.
Budapest has made it clear that it would veto any decisions to penalise Poland by stripping Warsaw of its voting rights, and the Polish government returned the favour the same after the European Parliament adopted a resolution to trigger Article 7 against Hungary in May after the government approved controversial legislation on asylum seekers and NGOs and the Central European University.
Since major decisions like these require unanimity, this means there are no really effective sanctions against infringers.
In Romania, international criticism coming on top of the enormous protests managed to act as a check on the government the first time around in spring 2017. But the government pressed on, and eventually fatigue meant that protester numbers fell — even on August 10 they didn’t reach the hundreds of thousands seen in early 2017.
The PSD and its allies are relatively secure in their majority in both houses of parliament, and may have assumed the protests will have subsided sufficiently not to affect their chances when the next general election comes around in late 2020 or early 2021. Anti-corruption protesters are more or less by definition not going to be PSD voters in the first place.
This means the PSD most likely is taking the gamble that its tinkering with the judicial system and criminal law won’t alienate its support base to the extent that it loses the next election. And while the international criticism is unwelcome, Brussels has proved itself toothless in similar standoffs with Budapest and Warsaw.
As a result, the Romanian government — driven by the self-interest of its top politicians rather than illiberal ideology — is taking its place alongside the challengers to the EU’s value system from CEE. And the bigger the cohort of illiberally minded CEE nations within the EU becomes, the more power it has within a union that is still grappling with Brexit and other crises.
The publication is not an editorial. It reflects solely the point of view and argumentation of the author. The publication is presented in the presentation. Start in the previous issue. The original is available at: intellinews.com