Veronica Anghel: take corrupt Romanian politicians, keep the corrupt Romanian parties

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Photo: Erakogu

Romanian politicians tend to go down with a bang. Or, more accurately, with the slam of a prison door, preferably on camera. The ethical standards to which politicians are romantically upheld are in total contrast to the displays of corruption and dishonesty to which we are daily witnesses. Add to this their hope for more likely electoral victories through false promises and indifferent speeches and it’s like asking for a shovel when you are already on the bottom of the pit… The greatest damage being done is not to themselves, but to the faith of citizens in the political party – the backbone of democratic governance. In order to restore it, both voters and politicians need to lower their expectations from this relationship.

We can see all the cracked eggs, but where is the omelette?

Despite some improvement, corruption in Romania remains a serious problem. As benefiting from state resources has been one of the easiest and most productive means to get rich fast after 1989, politicians have become prime targets of public scorn and prosecutors. It is a sore sight that keeps the public attention wanting more after approximately 5 years of open hunting season by the National Anti - Corruption Agency (DNA). According to their last end of the year report, only in 2015 the DNA “indicted over 1,250 defendants for high and medium level corruption crimes. Five times more ministers and members of the Parliament were sent to trial compared to 2013: 1 Prime Minister, 5 ministers, 16 Deputies and 5 Senators.” The anti-corruption cases continued in 2016, resulting in a recent resignation (Sept. 28th) from the chairmanship of the National Liberal Party (PNL) of one of the most influential post-communist Romanian politicians, Vasile Blaga, after being questioned for taking a bribe in exchange for awarding a state contract. The largest political party, the Social Democrats (PSD), is presided by Liviu Dragnea, who is sentenced to two years in prison, with a suspended sentence, for influence peddling.

Fighting corruption is rightfully compared to fighting a cancer. Its existence leaves the door open for the loss of faith in democracy and in the benefits of the rule of law and strong institutions. A corrupt environment eats away at a nation’s security through state contracts misattributed in defiance of national interest or strategy, through controlled media outlets, by politicians who give other nations signs they could be bought, by judicial courts that may not be independent etc. The country may look weak and with a high degree of personalisation of power relations, an unfriendly terrain for serious foreign investment.  It also looks frail in the eyes of not only its disenchanted citizens, but also in the watchful eyes of difficult neighbours. But, to make an omelette, one must crack some eggs. Heads (important heads) must fall. In Romania, cracked eggs are everywhere, yet where is the omelette? What has the live broadcasting of this “witch hunt” changed for the better on the front of democratic consolidation?

It will get worse before it gets better

In the everyday lives of Romanians all this translated in ongoing shows of arrests or indictments, televised denouncements, early morning raids of homes of party leaders and politically connected businessmen.  As parties are made of politicians, this also resulted in plummeting levels of confidence in political parties. In the last parliamentary elections (2012), the voter turnout was the lowest among European countries (together with Kosovo), only slightly above 40%. For the recent 2016 local elections, the turnout was also below 50% of the registered voters. There is little sign that the legislative elections scheduled for December 11th 2016, will produce a surge of voters’ interest. The anti-corruption campaign hit left and right. As a result, parties are viewed as blurry masses made up of the same fraudulent characters. Who cares which one of them gets to form the government? It’s all the same in the end.

This vicious circle is reinforced by the newcomers into public administration. They prefer to keep themselves sheltered from too much political association, fearful of losing capital. The president, Klaus Iohannis, keeps only a distant connection to his party of origin, the National Liberals. The incumbent technocrat PM (since Nov 4th 2015), Dacian Ciolos, a former European Commissioner, is reluctant to enter a future political race on the ticket of a political party although he gives signs of wanting to continue a national political career and enjoys some good approval ratings. His potential allegiance to a party, becoming a “politician”, is already seen as a minus. Similar attitudes are shown by technocrat ministers in the incumbent government. Challenger, new parties timidly appear in the spotlight and so far only to vanish again. Although the electoral system favours the existence of large parties, as an organisational force too, they have seen better days.

If parties are no longer appealing, what remains as a legitimate interface between the voter and the act of governance? The loss of confidence in the vessel for its unappealing contents is also not a good symptom for the status of democracy. It leaves rooms for high personalisation of politics, dreams of a post-party world of direct democracy, extreme positions making their way into mainstream politics to attract some attention, increased populism etc. 

In Romania, under all such contemporary strains and more, the vital relationship between voter and party will get worse. And then it will get better – with the realisation there is no alternative to party government.  Hopefully, the resistant vessel will not be filled by extremism and populism alone. For this to happen, the voter has to lower expectations that politicians are saints. Sainthood should also not be pursued by those who want to be a part of the act of governance and plunge into the sauce of party politics.  Only there, the two sides can reconnect.