Europe wins a big anti-corruption battle

Romania’s reelection of an anti-graft president reflects the success of both the EU and Romanians to push for honest governance in one of the union’s most corrupt countries.

President Klaus Iohannis waves while posing with members of the media after voting in Bucharest, Romania, Nov. 24.

For the past 12 years, ever since it joined the European Union, Romania has been the epicenter of the bloc’s attempts to boost the integrity of public officials in its 28 member states. The EU itself, according to watchdog Transparency International, “still has a long way to go to tackle corruption effectively.” Yet in an election on Sunday, Romania showed how a European country can make steady if erratic progress toward honest governance – with frequent nudges from the EU.

By a wide margin, voters in the Black Sea nation reelected President Klaus Iohannis for a second term. Since 2014, the former physics teacher has championed anti-corruption efforts, mainly by standing up for an independent judiciary. He even joined a mass protest in 2017 against a corrupt ruling party in Parliament. The protest was one of many in recent years that signaled a rising public mood against corruption and toward what Mr. Iohannis calls a “modern, European, normal Romania.”

His reelection comes after the ouster of the ruling Social Democratic Party in October. Its former leader, Liviu Dragnea, was sent to prison for corruption last spring. The party also lost big in elections for the European Parliament in May. Voters were fed up after the party eroded law enforcement institutions that had won hundreds of convictions against corrupt officials. Romania even has a party, the Save Romania Union, almost solely dedicated to eradicating graft.

These successes are remarkable in a country where more than a quarter of the 20 million population makes less than $5.50 a day. About half of Romanians are peasants, the highest percentage in the EU.

A new prime minister, Ludovic Orban of the National Liberal Party and an ally of the president, now faces the task of restoring rule of law and reducing a bloated bureaucracy built on nepotism and political loyalty. High levels of corruption have kept Romania out of the EU’s passport-free travel zone and hindered its adoption of the euro. Like other former communist states, this NATO member-state needs stable and corruption-free governance to fend off Russia’s attempts to restore its Soviet-era influence.

While the EU was instrumental in pushing Romania to clean up its government, just as effective has been the rise of civil-society groups along with frequent mass protests – one as large as half a million people. The protests, said Mr. Iohannis, reflect “the desire of people to have their ... dignity respected.” In gratitude, the people have reelected him as president.

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