Romanian Protesters Demand Drastic Changes

29 February 2012

The current economic slump has brought people to the streets in all four corners of the European continent. Protesters demand better salaries, lower taxes or job protection in the face of recession. However, this is not the case in Romania, where ongoing manifestations against the government were triggered not so much by recent worsening of living conditions, but by the resignation of a well-regarded state official, Raed Arafat. The so-called reform of the healthcare system leading to Arafat’s reaction was, in fact, a political and economical aberration and was therefore withdrawn, at the first sign of electorate discontent, yet protests have continued and numbers are increasing.

Could it be that Romanians have only just now rediscovered the ability of making their voices heard through street protests in a system that, according to them, no longer qualifies as a democracy? Hard to believe that a country, which, not more than 20 years ago, fought for its freedom in a historical bloody revolution against communism, has gradually fallen into apathy and political sleepiness. Yet this has been the case for the past two decades following the dictator Ceausescu’s execution, reason why a vast majority of today’s protesters are chanting “Wake up, Romania!”

When the Germans and the French were having a go at their domestic executives for the austerity measures brought by the economic crisis, Romanians were making satirical drawings and songs and dancing outside Government headquarters. Wages had taken a serious dive, thousands of people laid off, yet protests only lasted for several days, after which life retook its regular course and Romanians simply adapted to this new set of impositions. The peaceful and idle landscape of Romanian public opinion has only been stirred a couple of more times since then, still in support of a charismatic public figure, entertainer Mircea Badea, openly affiliated with the opposition.

So, yes, when pushed or provoked, Romanians remember that they also have a say in the democratic decision-making process, yet they hardly ever do stand up for themselves in the face of what they believe to be political abuse. The reason why the current protests are still continuing, even after resolution of the policy issue, is the snowballing effect of keeping quiet for too long and only recently rediscovering the power to influence legislation affecting their own lives.

The bigger picture is even more worrisome. Democracy stands to lose plenty if one the people themselves overlook one of its main principles - representation. MPs are no longer in touch with their constituency’s concern and citizens don’t make their voices heard. Once-in-four-years elections don’t suffice to maintain the checks and balances system on which democracy is based. People need more active ways of expressing themselves and getting involved in the political process, before it’s too late and they feel they no longer stand a chance against authoritarianism. Therefore, my personal chant, as Romanian, and as citizen of a democratic world is: “Democracy, wake up!”

Lorena Papamanci

UCL - The School of Public Policy