Romania’s turn at cleaning up government

Reflecting a global trend in anti-corruption protests, Romanians oust a prime minister, demonstrating an embrace of equality before the law.

AP Photo
Protesters hold banners reading "Corruption kills" during a rallyin Bucharest, Romania, Nov. 4. Prime Minister Victor Ponta announced the resignation of his government Wednesday following huge protests the day before in the wake of a nightclub fire that killed more than 30 people.

A common link in many recent political upheavals, notes the watchdog group Transparency International, is a surge in popular demand for honest governance. In September, for example, outrage over corruption in Guatemala helped oust the president. Now the trend has reached Romania, which has long been seen as one of the European Union’s most corrupt countries.

This week, massive street protests forced the country’s prime minister, Victor Ponta, to resign. The trigger was a deadly fire in a nightclub in Bucharest. But people connected the tragedy to government corruption and poor safety supervision. Mr. Ponta, who already faced corruption charges, had to go.

The protests reflect “the desire of people to have their condition and dignity respected,” stated President Klaus Iohannis, a former small-town mayor who was elected last year on an anti-corruption platform.

Romania’s chief anti-corruption prosecutor, Laura Codruta Kovesi, cites a big change in public thinking as the country has moved to embrace clean and accountable government. More people are resisting demands for bribes out of a better understanding of each person’s equal rights and liberty before the law.

It takes courage to stand up to a superior-minded elite, as Ms. Kovesi knows from the many personal attacks on her for successfully prosecuting hundreds of powerful politicians in the past few years.

In order to join the EU in 2007, Romania had to start tackling its post-communist culture of corruption. Key to the effort was the idea of independent prosecutors (many are now women), who will not feel beholden to elected officials or other powerful figures. A special anti-corruption agency was set up, known by the acronym DNA. Its team of prosecutors has come to embody the hopes of young people who want Romania to reflect the values of the EU.

A collective movement against cynical politics took hold in 2013 after protests over a plan for a gold mine that would have destroyed a village. Now with the latest protests, elected leaders know they must listen more to social activists.

“We can’t believe that just a government change will solve Romania’s problems. There is more to be done,” says Mr. Iohannis. After the resignation of the prime minister, he decided to consult civil society groups– or what he called “the street” – on who should lead the next government. It was a clear sign of a new mentality in yet another country seeking moral leaders.

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