Romania: conflict within the ruling class spills out onto the streets in the form of mass protests

With around 500,000 protesters on the streets last Sunday (5 February), the ongoing anti-government protests have seen the largest number of people on the streets of Romania since the collapse of the Ceausescu regime in 1989. But we need to ask ourselves what the nature of this movement is.

These protests come after a year of rising unrest and political crisis. A mood of anger and resentment has been on the rise. However, the lack of a determined working class leadership means that the two major wings of the ruling class - represented by the Social Democrats (PSD) and National Liberals (PNL) -  have been able, for the time being, to manoeuvre and channel this mood to their own benefit.

Tensions

The protests began on 18 January when the government publicly announced amendments to the Penal Code, where specific crimes would be pardoned, officially for the sake of reducing prison overcrowding. Prison overcrowding is of course a serious problem, with average occupancy rates above 150% (and peaks of 200% in a few prisons), but the main purpose was to stop ongoing prosecutions or free corrupt politicians who had ties to the government party, the PSD.

On the very day of the announcement several thousand people throughout Romania came out onto the streets in protest. Later, on 22 January, the number of protesters rose to over 30,000 in Bucharest alone, and the number also increased in cities such as Timișoara (4,000) and Cluj-Napoca (5,000).

Anti-corruption was the main issue demagogically used by the conservative right-wing parties in the recent parliamentary elections in December won by the PSD. Thus, President Klaus Iohannis and his opposition party PNL, intervened to co-opt this movement and to strike blows against the PSD. Arriving in the University Square, he declared that, “A gang of politicians with criminal problems want to change the law in Romania, want to weaken the rule of law, and such a thing cannot be tolerated”. Of course, Iohannis himself has ties to all the most corrupt capitalists of Romania.

The leader of the ruling party, PSD, Liviu Dragnea, accused Iohannis of promoting “the beginning of a coup”. We have no sympathies for Dragnea, but he was not far off the mark. The movement quickly came under the domination of the opposition wing of the bourgeoisie and became a reflection of the deep splits within the ruling class and the state apparatus itself. A very perceptive article in criticatac.ro explained:

“Indignation is normal and the protests are natural. But we find ourselves in an impossible situation. The protests against the PSD gave birth to a wide coalition in which well meaning and decent people got together with all sorts of opportunists – yet again. The fact that opposition politicians joined in only made things worse. Inadvertently, as in the past, the PSD managed to revive a moribund Right. Furthermore, the aestheticism of the protests, their paraphernalia, their national flags and singing of the national anthem – despite their clever and creative slogans – had an obvious right-wing flavour to them. The governmental decree and the street reactions to them reduced the slim chances of a re-articulation of the local Left. In fact, the first victims of the protests were the few leftist voices in the PSD which are now discredited because of their silence.

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“People in Bucharest’s corporations were offered free days off work to be able to stay up at night and protest against the government. McDonald's offered free tea to protesters to stay warm and rehydrate. The local head of Raiffeisen bank, a bank accused of cheating on tens of thousands of Romanians through the trick of slipping abusive clauses into their contracts, brought his family to the protests. Journalists and other media pundits, who in the past already decried the social measures of the government as reckless spending, tuned in and added their messages against the government. Little wonder, in this context, that the protests quickly moved from a specific demand regarding the decree, to the resignation of the newly appointed government as a whole.”

By 29 January, approximately 90,000 protesters were out on the streets across the country chanting slogans such as “Thieves!”, “Shame!” and “Resignation!”. Anti-communist and reactionary slogans such as calling the PSD “the red plague” were also heard. Flags of the European Union, the United States and Germany were present, together with the dominant Romanian national flag. A large part of International and Romanian media also swung behind the movement with news channels such as Digi24 hailing it as the “the largest protest in Romania for the past twenty years”.  Soon after, the protests began to spread throughout the whole country, taking place in cities such as Cluj-Napoca (with around 25,000 protesters), Timișoara (15,000), Sibiu (20,000), as well as 55 other cities.

The Ministry of Justice first tried to manoeuvre and organised a public debate on the proposed amendment for the following day. It was decided by the Minister of Justice, Florin Iordache, that the law would be modified, after which it would either be adopted by the government, or passed on to parliament for more debate. Then on the night of 31 January, at around midnight, Iordache declared that the modifications to the penal code had been passed by the government as an emergency ordinance.

This led to 15,000 people marching on the government buildings demanding the minister’s resignation, which also resulted in clashes with the police. Similar protests spread throughout the whole of Romania, including in Cluj-Napoca (10,000), Timișoara (2,500), Iași (2,000), Sibiu (2,000), Brașov (1,500), Arad (200), Craiova (200), Ploiești (100) and many more. Iohannis declared this “a day of mourning for the rule of law”.

On 1 February, the number of protesters rose to 300,000 in different cities around the country, a number not seen in the last 28 years. Of these, 150,000 occupied Victory Square in Bucharest, and 40,000 protested in Cluj-Napoca. Others, as declared by Digi24, include: Sibiu (20,000), Timișoara (20,000), Iași (15,000), Brașov (8,000), Bacău (6,000), Târgu Mureș (6,000), Baia Mare (5,000), Constanța (5,000), Alba Iulia (4,000), Craiova (4,000), Oradea (4,000), Arad (4,000), Galați (3,000), Pitești (3,000), Suceava (2,000), and Piatra Neamț (1,000).

Violent clashes broke out in Bucharest, where protesters, especially organised football fans, started throwing firecrackers at the gendarmes, who intervened by using pepper spray. This resulted in five people being injured, of which three were civilians and two gendarmes. On the following day, Iohannis addressed the constitutional court to discuss the proposed amendments to the penal code. Meanwhile, the  national executive committee of the PSD met and decided to uphold the position recently taken by the party. Not only that, but Dragnea accused Iohannis of being the “moral instigator” of violent protests. This during the third consecutive day of protests, with over 220,000 people in all the main squares of the largest cities in Romania.

On Friday, 3 February, the Attorney General of Romania, Augustin Lazăr, declared that he would challenge the amendments to the penal code. Meanwhile, the number of protesters rose to 330,000, of which 150,000 in Bucharest.

On 4 February, in the early evening, 40,000 people joined arms around the People’s House (the Parliament building), from where they marched towards Victory Square, where a total of 180,000 protesters gathered.

However, on that same day the government backed down and announced that the amendment would be repealed on the Sunday. PSD senator, Ecaterina Andronescu, deemed it a mistake on behalf of the government.

Instability

The movement succeeded in dealing a blow to the plans of the government. This gave it a boost of confidence, which is why the protests even increased on Sunday, 5 february with over 500,000 protesters demanding the downfall of the government. The government has now been weakened and it is clear that political instability will only increase in the next period. Romania in crisis has seen growing instability in the past period. The political crisis has deepened and the social situation is dire.

The transition to capitalism left Romania devastated, with enormous poverty and unemployment. The situation has not improved much since then. While the economy has seen a relatively high 6% growth, the World Bank still considers 70% of the country’s rural population to be living below the poverty line. 51% of children under 18 are at risk of falling into poverty.  After the 2008 crisis, the share of GDP going to Romanian workers fell from 45% to 37.4% in 2011.

This deteriorated condition for the majority of Romanians is in stark contrast to the profits of the rich. Consequently, in the past year the number of strikes and protests has been gradually on the rise.

At the same time an endless string of scandals and corruption cases has haunted all sections of the ruling class. The resentment towards the establishment was shown in the historically low 40% turnout at the December parliamentary elections.

This has added fuel to the ongoing political crisis. The so-called Social Democrats and the PNL were in a government coalition together, until the PNL left it in 2014. Ever since then, with the election of Iohannis as president, the two parties have been engaged in a fierce struggle.

The harsh anti-worker stance of the previous government, which was seen to be close to Iohannis, led to a landslide victory for the PSD in the December 2016 parliamentary election. The PSD stood on a mildly anti-austerity programme which called for higher minimum wages. This allowed them to gain from the collapse of support for the PNL which got only 20.04% of the vote against 45.5% for the PSD. Support for the PNL collapsed from 6 million votes in the presidential elections of 2014 to just about 1 million votes last December.

This marked an important victory for the PSD and a threat to Iohannis’s PNL. The two parties have been battling it out ever since the last presidential elections in 2014, where Ponta of the PSD lost to Iohannis of the PNL. Nevertheless, during Băsescu’s last years of presidency, as the leader of the now defunct party of Democratic Liberals (PD-L), he was responsible for sending a large number of corrupt politicians to prison, under the pretence of “fighting against corruption”, whilst turning a blind eye to the corrupt politicians of his own party.

After the new PSD government led by Sorin Grindeanu came to office in early January 2017, it proposed the pardoning of specific crimes committed, as well as an amendment to the Penal Code (especially in regards to the abuse of power), as we have seen, with the justification that the prisons were too overcrowded. This was the spark to the protest movement, but what it really reveals is the deep social crisis in Romania.

The present crisis comes on top of a year of rising class struggle and strikes, which is a phenomenon that can be seen across the rest of Eastern Europe. Moreover, there is also a process of class polarisation taking place at the moment, both within the ruling class, as well as among the lower classes.

These events mark not only the beginning of one of the largest protests in the history of Romania after 1989, but also the re-emergence of the crisis, which had been averted several times beforehand.

In the case of the ruling class, the split is between Iohannis’s PNL, that leans more towards the Western powers, the EU in particular, and Grindeanu’s PSD, that claims to stand for a sovereign and independent Romania.

The western ruling classes are also behind Iohannis. Many EU parliamentarians have criticised the acts of the Romanian government, and the president of the EU Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, even demanded that “the fight against corruption must continue” in Romania. The Social Democrats of other EU countries, who are part of the Alliance of Social Democrats of Europe, also came out publicly against the PSD government.

More importantly, however, the working class has not yet entered the political scene with an independent position. The absence of an independent leadership of the working class has meant that sections of the working class have been rallying behind different wings of the ruling class. Without a leadership to pose a clear independent class position, any movement will be vulnerable to fall under the influence of one or another wing of the ruling class.

Capitalism

Although all these events have been declared a victory by the liberals in general, the main issue facing them is that they would like the protesters to bring their mobilisations to a close, as they have “already won”. However, what is clearly not taken into account by the liberal media is that several protests like this one have already occurred before in Romania, for example, the protests against the government from January to February 2012, which resulted in the resignation of the then prime minister Emil Boc. Although that represented a victory for the working class against the austerity of the PD-L led by President Băsescu and prime minister Boc administrations, the new government of Ponta’s PSD just continued with more austerity.

None of the dominant blocs in Romanian politics represent the working class. What their infighting represents is a division within the ruling class, between a pro-EU side on the one hand and a more domestic based one on the other.

As we have seen, the anti-corruption movement in 2012 only led to a change in government between these two main bourgeois factions and could not achieve its goal of putting an end to corruption. Corruption is an essential part of capitalism and no wing of the ruling class has any interest in ending it. If the Romanian workers and youth want to truly fight against austerity, and corruption, they must not follow the liberals. The only way to end corruption is to build an independent working class movement against all wings of the ruling class and overthrow their system.