Heavens did not fall, the world was not turned upside down, but anyone who fails to see the past ten days in Romania as anything other than a paradigm shift must have a very strange view of the world. The fire at a live music club, Colectiv, on October 30th, which as we write has cost 50 lives, will in future be a reference point for historians of modern Romania every bit as important as the earthquake of 1977 or the revolution of 1989.
For the first time in decades, public anger at entrenched, institutionalised and endemic corruption was fierce enough to get tens of thousands of people onto the streets of Romania’s major cities. At the peak of the protests last Wednesday evening, as many as 75,000 people were on the streets of cities and towns around Romania. That kind of general mobilisation, independent of party structures (the PSD can always get tens of thousands on the streets or into a stadium for Victor Ponta’s birthday party when it wants to), had not been seen in Romania since 1990. It was a wonderful sight.
That by Monday evening the demonstrations had fizzled out without the kind of genuinely radical, anarchic outcome some of us might have hoped for is of little importance. Small, yet important victories had been won. And this time every politician in the country is well aware of the fact that if they do not deliver, then there are more than enough people ready to come out and protest to make a difference.
So what was won?
1. Victor Ponta was finally forced to resign
Having refused to resign when it was revealed that he had plagiarised large parts of his doctoral thesis, or after he lost the presidential election, or after he was sent for trial on 19 counts of corruption and money laundering, Romania’s hated prime minister Victor Ponta – who led the most corrupt government in Romanian history – had, given the scale of the street protests directed at him, little choice but to resign. His government went with him.
2. The PNL was told that it was equally culpable
That the biggest street demonstrations came on Wednesday night – after Ponta had resigned – was a clear signal to the entire Romanian political class that public confidence in them was at an all time low. If the opposition PNL had thought for one moment that the vacuum created by the resignation of Ponta could be filled by one of their own (be it Alina Gorghiu or Catalin Predoiu) then they quickly had to think again. Indeed, add in the general rage against the more jihadist elements of the Romanian Orthodox Church (parts of which suggested that those killed in the fire had brought it on themselves for listening to satanic verses) and there are few sections of the Romanian establishment which have not emerged from the past ten days without getting a seriously bloody nose.
3. Civil society gets its shout
It may well be that Romanian President Klaus Iohannis was doing little more than going through the motions when he brought in a dozen or so representatives of what is known as civil society last Friday to consult them on what to do next. Equally true is the fact that there were no more than a couple of thousand of protesters in Piata Universitatii to greet Iohannis when he finally joined them – as he promised he would – on Sunday night. Yet both points are irrelevant. What’s important is that for the first time ever, civil society has its foot in the door of the presidential palace. In a country in which all political parties are morally bankrupt and no longer able to command public trust, it’s clear that Romanian civil society has an important role to play in the coming months, perhaps years. That Iohannis is prepared to give them his ear is a huge step in the right direction.
4. Romania has a new prime minister
Iohannis yesterday handed former European Commissioner Dacian Ciolos the opportunity to form a government. Non-political (at home at least: in Brussels he is a member of the centre-right PPE group), Ciolos – who is 46 – has an outstanding CV and will almost certainly see his government (likely to be made of equally non-political names) approved by parliament. Even the PSD is unlikely to vote against it at this stage. Ciolos certainly fulfills the first and most important criteria required of Romania’s new prime minister – to be squeaky clean – and as a capable administrator who successfully held one of the most politically difficult EU portfolios (agriculture) he has as good a chance of anyone as making a go of it. He will not be helped by a parliament which remains dominated by the PSD, but as long as he can retain the support of the streets, he will be more powerful than most commentators expect.
So what should he do first to keep the mob onside?
Well, he could start by tackling the list civil society put forward last week. This list includes:
– Handing more power to the Romanian anti-corrpution unit, the DNA
– Creating an agency to recover money stolen from the state by convicted criminals (including politicians). There is a vote on this matter in parliament today. The result will show which way the wind is blowing
– Sack managers of under-performing and corrupt government-owned businesses
– Introduce a lower threshold for parties wanting to enter parliament (or do away with the threshold entirely)
– Reintroduce two-round elections for mayor
– Sack all mayors and local councillors who have changed party since election (there are more than 6000)
We wish him luck, and – for the time being – he has our support. For what it’s worth.