Are you keeping up at the back of the class?
Romania’s current political crisis is becoming increasingly complicated. Here’s the story so far.
On December 11th last year, Romania held a general election. Turnout was catastrophically low and the populist PSD emerged as a clear winner, with its ally ALDE as a minor coalition partner. PSD leader Liviu Dragnea (unable, as a convicted criminal, from becoming prime minister himself) at first nominated the unknown Sevil Shhaideh for the job, only for her candidacy to be rejected by President Klaus Iohannis when it was revealed that her husband was an ally of Syrian monster Bashar al-Assad. Dragnea then turned to the even more obscure Sorin Grindeanu, who was duly appointed PM on December 30th.
Almost immediately following the investiture of Grindeanu’s new government on January 4th, rumours began circulating that one of its top priorities would be passing a law granting an amnesty to hundreds of convicted corrupt politicians and officials, as well as making changes to the legal system which would cause hundreds of other ongoing cases to collapse. Despite de facto prime minister Dragnea insisting on a number of occasions over the following ten days that his government was planning no such thing, it became clear last Tuesday night that the laws would be passed – by government emergency ordinance (OUG), by-passing parliament – at the following morning’s cabinet meeting.
In an effort to head off the PSD at the pass, Romanian President Klaus Iohannis hijacked the cabinet meeting and succeeded in delaying the OUGs. Large protests against the OUGs in Bucharest and around Romania on Wednesday night made clear the feelings of ordinary people.
There then followed a few days of relative calm, as both Dragnea and Grindeanu were in Washington cravenly trying to get a photo opportunity with Donald Trump. Tensions rose again on Sunday night however when Iohannis joined as many as 30,000 protesters on the streets of Bucharest in one of the largest demonstrations the city has seen in years, calling the government a ‘gang of politicians with legal problems who want to change legislation in order to weaken the rule of law’. Dragnea called the protest a ‘coup’.
On Monday evening Iohannis continued to go on the offensive and announced that he would be calling a referendum on the issue. Romania’s president has few actual powers, but calling referendums is one of them. Iohannis said that it was time for Romanians to decide once and for all ‘what kind of country they want to live in’. Dragnea responded by saying that he wanted to hold two referendums of his own: one which would redefine marriage as being between a man and a woman (more on that here) and another which would strip parliamentarians (and the president) of their immunity.
On Tuesday, Iohannis called Dragnea’s I’ll see your one referendum and raise you another two tactics as ‘childish’ before heading off to a meeting of the European Council in Strasbourg. Dragnea meantime convened an informal yet highly secret government meeting: so secret in fact that even ministers apparently had no idea where it was being held until their cars arrived. The meeting was ostensibly to discuss the budget (there is still a country to run, after all) but in all likeliness Dragnea used the opportunity to make sure that his government continued to back him, and still had the resolve to go through with issuing the OUGs.
Further evidence of Dragnea’s paranoia came later on Tuesday when Mihai Chirica – PSD vice-president and Mayor of Iasi – was expelled from the party. Chirica had been the only senior PSD figure to publicly declare that Sunday’s protests were perfectly within the law.
Finally, on Tuesday evening Dragnea backtracked somewhat on earlier statements and said that the PSD was ‘as committed to the fight against corruption as any other party’. He also said that he ‘in theory’ supported the president’s plan for a referendum, but that he saw ‘little need for it’. Is that because he plans to issue the OUGs at this week’s cabinet meeting?
The meeting is scheduled for tomorrow at midday. Iohannis will still be in Strasbourg. And that – if you are still with us – is where we stand tonight.
So, what’s next?
Tomorrow’s cabinet meeting. If the OUGs are issued, all hell is let loose (alongside, of course, a number of high-ranking corrupt politicians). The inevitable protest tomorrow night would almost certainly be bigger than anything Bucharest has ever seen. And yet if the OUGs are delayed again, Dragnea begins to look weak and his position within the PSD becomes increasingly untenable.
Remember: not only does Dragnea face prison himself (if convicted in his rapidly approaching trial), but no fewer than 62 parliamentarians from the ruling PSD/ALDE coalition are in trouble with the law (alongside another 37 MPs from the PNL, PMP, UDMR and National Minorities. There is a full list here). These people (not to mention those already convicted) want their records wiped clean. If Dragnea can’t deliver, they will find another leader who can.
Watch this space.