25-29 Dec 2017

Guerrilla tactics to defend democracy in Eastern Europe

While the governing social-democrats (PSD) try to take political control of the judiciary in Romania, citizens and a small opposition party employ creative tactics to resist. Poles might find this story sickeningly familiar. 

Claudia Ciobanu
Claudia Ciobanu NewsMavens, Central & Eastern Europe
Guerrilla tactics to defend democracy in Eastern Europe - NewsMavens
Protests in Romania. Image from Wikimedia Commons

Why this story matters:

politics, illiberalism

Despite the weather, it's been a hot week in Romania. The parliament got to the final stages of adopting a law that would grant the governing party control over prosecutors and judges (which will sound sickeningly familiar to Poles where a similar attempt is currently underway).

The proposed legislation is part of a larger package of justice laws, through which PSD is trying to kill off independent judiciary and reduce penalties for corruption.

Their ulterior motive is the current investigation of Liviu Dragnea, the PSD leader. It is not the first time that he is accused of fraud -- he has already been convicted for falsifying a vote. PSD tried this trick before, in January 2017, but massive social protests forced them to withdraw.

In the past week, people took to the streets again. The force of the protests was such that Bucharest mayor, Gabriela Firea (from PSD), decided to build a Christmas market in Piata Victoriei, the square in front of the government building, where demonstrators gathered daily. In response, a group of determined citizens got together and peacefully dismantled the fences and the stage of the market. Thus, Firea was forced to give up on her smoke screen idea.

On Wednesday night, it was the turn of the MPs from a small opposition party The Save Romania Union (USR) to continue the guerilla war for democracy, as Cristian Hrituc put it in his piece for stiripesurse.ro.

While PSD tried to pass the new justice law without a proper debate, USR representatives blocked the main platform of the hall holding banners with the slogan “Thieves!” on them. Through a megaphone, they were shouting their proposed amendments to the law, which they had not been allowed to put forward for discussion. They stalled the parliamentary session for so long that eventually PSD members gave up and went home to sleep.

At around 22:00 on Wednesday -- while the parliament was still in session and USR was trying to resist PSD -- citizens gathered outside of the building with a huge banner warning “We are watching you!” They protested not only against the new law but also the abusive way, in which PSD intended to pass it.

Poles, by the way, were doing precisely the same thing at precisely the same time that night, while a parliamentary committee met at 22:00 to discuss the justice laws that would put the judiciary under the control of the governing Law and Justice party.

Upon leaving the building, PSD representatives were booed. The ones from USR mingled with the protesters at the end of the session (many of USR members are former representatives of civil society as the party was inspired by the civic energy of last years' protests in Romania). As they walked away, they held up their lit mobile phones, a symbol of the January 2017 protests in defense of an independent judiciary.

For the first time in years, Romanian citizens, freezing on the streets across the country, felt that someone inside the parliament building was standing up for them. According to Hrituc, while USR is a young, self-conflicted party with still a long way to go, after Wednesday night they may have established themselves as “the opposition”.

Details from the story:

  • On Wednesday night, the parliamentary opposition fought a guerilla war against the governing coalition's attempts to take control of the judiciary, with the opposition using a broad range of tactics.
  • While many used to think that parliamentary democracy was dead in Romania, it may have been resurrected on that night. Thanks to the efforts of a small opposition party, the parliament is no longer seen merely as a defender of the corrupted.
  • As they were leaving the parliament building late in the night, USR members lit up their phones, in a gesture popular during the January 2017 protests in defense of the judiciary. This image had enormous symbolic power. It seems that on that night, USR established their status as the preferred opposition force.
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