‘Corruption kills’ protests won’t stop with Ponta

Protesters hold flags as they demonstrate against the political class and Romanian authorities during the third day of protest in Bucharest on November 5, 2015. Romania's president on November 5, 2015, appointed Education Minister Sorin Campeanu as interim prime minister to replace Victor Ponta, who quit following mass anti-government protests sparked by a deadly nightclub fire. The wave of discontent has roots going back to Romania's emergence from Soviet rule in the 1990s and its struggle to shrug off endemic corruption.  AFP PHOTO / DANIEL MIHAILESCU        (Photo credit should read DANIEL MIHAILESCU/AFP/Getty Images)

Protesters hold flags as they demonstrate against the political class and Romanian authorities

BUCHAREST — “What happened over the past few days is just the beginning,” said 27-year-old entrepreneur Andrei Constantin, one of tens of thousands of people to take to the streets in Romania this week to demand an end to the corruption that pervades the political system.

“Corruption kills” is the slogan of a movement galvanized by the deaths of 32 people in a fire at the Colectiv nightclub a week ago, blamed on lax safety standards permitted by authorities who allegedly turn a blind eye if their palms are greased.
That is certainly Andrei’s experience, in the construction industry where he works: “You want a permit, they ask for money. You want to start building something, they ask for money. Whatever it is, they ask for money. It has to change, and I think a lot of people are here for this reason.”

“They” are Romanian politicians and public officials, whose approval rating is the lowest in Europe, at 12.6 percent. Protesters secured the resignation of Prime Minister Victor Ponta Wednesday but are far from satisfied, as witnessed by the growth of the daily protests to an estimated 30,000 people on Thursday night.

“We are here because any of us could had been in that club,” said Raluca, a 28-year-old web developer who, like most people in the the crowds, did not want to give his full name. “Corruption kills. It took 32 deaths for people to understand it.”

Romanian politicians and public officials have the lowest approval rating in Europe: 12.6 percent.
According to a study by Alina Mungiu-Pippidi, a professor at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin, corruption costs Romanian taxpayers “billions a year” while the tax actual collection rate is “a full 10–15 percent of GDP lower than in most Central and Eastern European countries.”

For the disparate crowd of protesters, where students and young professionals jostle right-wing football hooligans, anarchists and religious groups held banners stating their demands such as a reduction in the number of MPs to 300 from the current 583, new anti-corruption laws and higher pay for doctors and police to make them less prone to seeking and taking bribes.

In Bucharest’s Universitate Square — where the crowds first gathered 26 years ago to oust the communist dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu — a banner draped from a wall proclaims: “In 1989 we fought for liberty, today we fight for justice.”

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Unlike that revolution, which ended with the palace being stormed and the dictator and his wife being executed, the new protesters seem determined to keep the peace. There were immediate shouts of “no violence, no violence” when someone set off a loud firecracker.

They appear equally determined to remain untainted by association with any established party, and no politician or public figure has shown up. Even Laura Codruța Kövesi, an anti-corruption prosecutor who has made headlines over the last year by fiercely prosecuting crooked politicians and bureaucrats, has kept silent.

The Orthodox Church is also in the firing line, after Patriarch Daniel failed to show solidarity with the victims of the nightclub fire and said young people could avoid accidents by going to church rather than nightclubs.

It took him six days to apologize, by which time protesters were calling on his church to start paying taxes on its properties and halt the construction of a cathedral in Bucharest estimated to cost around €300 million of taxpayers’ money. Orthodox priests have been accused of corruption too, and criticized for driving expensive cars in the second poorest nation in the EU.

The civil society movements backing the protests, such as Uniți Salvăm (United We Save), are determined to keep up the momentum and build on the seething discontent on social media to stage an even bigger protest on December 1 if their demands are not met. One Facebook group organizing the December rally already has 100,000 followers.

“We know our politicians will procrastinate for as long as they can and that’s why we are getting ready,” said Alina Daniel Bogdan, one of the Uniți Salvăm coordinators.

The next parliamentary elections in Romania are scheduled for November 2016. As an interim measure, President Klaus Iohannis, who was elected a year ago on a promise to clean up politics, has appointed ex-education minister Sorin Câmpeanu as caretaker prime minister.

The choice has not satisfied the protesters, who want someone with no prior involvement in politics at all.

This article was written for Politico Europe

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