A coup against corruption in Romania

The country’s most powerful figure goes to prison, one of a several signs that one of Europe’s most corrupt nations has turned a corner.

Hundreds in Bucharest, Romania, celebrate the May 27th imprisonment of Liviu Dragnea, the leader of the ruling Social Democratic party, for official misconduct in a graft case.

If one country in Europe has been ground zero for a campaign against corruption by the European Union, it has been Romania. The former communist bloc nation, which joined the EU in 2007, has seen its ruling elite prevent judges and prosecutors from rooting out graft. The EU, along with the United States, has demanded that this strategic ally on the Black Sea avoid internal turmoil caused by sleazy politicians.

Last Sunday and Monday, Romania delivered three dramatic blows against corruption. It is on its way to becoming a poster child in the EU on how to clean up government.

The most visible blow was the imprisonment of the country’s most powerful politician, Liviu Dragnea, after his conviction for padding government payrolls. He was given a 3-1/2 year sentence. As head of the ruling Social Democratic party, he pushed for changes that weakened the justice system in its ability to put corrupt officials – like himself – behind bars.

A second blow was an overwhelming vote in a referendum in favor of rolling back those changes. The referendum was organized by President Klaus Iohannis, who has been a strong voice for open and transparent governance.

And finally, in voting for the European Parliament election, Romanians dealt a strong blow against the Social Democrats. The party won less than 24%, nearly half of what it got in 2016. It now faces a difficult future, especially without its strongman, Mr. Dragnea, in charge.

All this would not have been possible if Romanians had not taken to the streets at key moments to protest corruption or the efforts to protect the corrupt. Those protests were as significant as the ones that helped fell the communist regime a quarter century ago. The country’s former lead prosecutor, Laura Kövesi, says her anti-graft efforts in recent years were made easier because Romanians are changing the culture of corruption, especially by resisting petty demands for bribes.

While the EU now has a better chance of influencing Romania in further pushing back corruption, the people themselves have clearly showed their preference for clean governance.

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