Romania is where politics is synonymous with hyper-corruption and Byzantine machinations. So, it is hardly a surprise that the country is celebrating its tenth anniversary as an EU member and toasting the new year with a fresh political crisis. One among dozens in the last 27 years of post-communist democratization, this latest mess began with the Social Democratic Party winning the December 11, 2016 parliamentary election.
Little changes in this land of all possibilities precisely because it is “not a meritocracy…and substantively immoral,” as Alina Mungiu-Pippidi, professor of policy analysis and democracy at Berlin’s Hertie School of Governance, has put it. The PSD leader, Liviu Dragnea, proved the professor right by nominating as prime minister a political and professional non-entity, Sevil Shhaideh, who was unquestionably to serve as his puppet. In and of itself this was no scandal – after all, many of the 18 individuals who have served as prime ministers since 1990 have hardly been dynamos of talent, knowledge, and innovative energy, or even independent agents. Shhaideh, however, had an additional problem: her Syrian-born husband is a vocal supporter of Bashar Assad and the Hezbollah terrorist organization.
Romania’s president, Klaus Iohannis, said No to Shhaideh, fulfilling his constitutional duty to accept or reject a nominee. This prompted Dragnea, convicted of bribery and forging ballots during the 2012 parliamentary election and thus barred by law from becoming prime minister, to threaten to have the president suspended. The Constitutional Court was unlikely to do so and Dragnea instead provided a new nominee, Sorin Grindeanu, whom Iohannis accepted on December 30.
The new PM and his problem
The 43 year-old Grindeanu, a former vice-mayor of the city of Timișoara parliamentary deputy, and minister of Communication during Victor Ponta’s government (2012-2015), is a relatively better choice on the meritocracy scale. He has no obvious ethical challenges that have surfaced to date, the kind that make good fodder for the country’s quarrelsome, corrupt media or for legitimate political gripes. His one great unlawful act, according to media reports, is that he disregarded the ban on smoking in public buildings by lighting up in the office of the president of the Chamber of Deputies.
He has amassed no great wealth despite his association with some questionable businessmen in his home region of Banat, and his postgraduate degree in Military Sciences, Information and Public Order from the National Intelligence Academy of the Romanian Intelligence Service may mean nothing as regards who will pull his strings.
Grindeanu’s biggest problem is his admission that he will have a “subordinate relationship” vis-à-vis Dragnea, the clearly identified éminence grise of the new government. Grindeanu faces three related ethical issues. First, as prime minister he is answerable to the country and its people and not to the head of his party. Second, he is signalling thereby subordination to a man who is a poster child for illegal acts threatening the democratic edifice and who openly refuses to renounce his ambition to become prime minister. Third, together with the PSD-ALDE (a partner party) majority in parliament, Grindeanu will be used to change the law preventing Dragnea from realizing that ambition. In a parliament with the opposition in disarray and perhaps without enough votes, that could well happen. Besides, PSD members also head the judicial commissions in the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate, with 12 out of 25 and five out of 11 seats, respectively.
Dragnea gave a revelatory media interview just days after he nominated Shhaideh. He hinted that her tenure might be temporary, that when she “tires” on the job, he would take over, once the law barring him had changed. There is no indication that he thinks any differently now.
Immorality on the move
It is the immorality of this possibility and the way it is pursued that is offensive and harmful to democracy. But then again, was it any more moral for Dragnea not to permanently retire from politics after his conviction? He is not alone, of course. Hundreds of local, regional and national politicians have been indicted and convicted in the last few years of an impressive array of corrupt practices, yet some continue their so-called public service. Former PSD Prime Minister Ponta, for example, indicted in 2015 for alleged conflict of interests, forgery, complicity in tax evasion and money laundering, was re-elected to the Chamber of Deputies in 2016. The conscience of Romania’s politicians has never driven them to behave better, be penitent for their various unlawful and unethical acts, or develop the good sense and decency to leave public life after being convicted in a court of law.
Despite corruption in every area of public life, Romania has made progress in the last 27 years. It is not threatened by right-wing populist parties as are other countries in the neighbourhood and there is no danger from left-wing populism either. Its economy has been improving, grew in 2016 and is expected to grow by 3.6 percent in 2017. Unfortunately, political maturity and the stability it brings are sadly lacking – since 1989, Romania has changed prime ministers faster than Italy did from the end of World War II, although not quite as fast as Greece. While its fight against corruption has significantly picked up in recent years, it appears to be a case of using a teaspoon to bail out a leaky boat in the middle of a vast ocean.
Mungiu-Pippidi’s cautiously optimistic view that in the aftermath of December’s election, “corruption will not grow again (it did not decline, however, at least not to date),” has sadly and blatantly already been refuted. This begs the question: what did Grindeanu mean when he said on January 4 that he wants a Romania that is “normal”?
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