The twilight of the autocrat from the Carpathian Mountains

The aelegiac initial verse “What a difference a day made” from the eponymous legendary song by  Dinah Washington had an incredible political paraphrase on Sunday and Monday in Romania. By Sunday morning, Liviu Dragnea, the undisputed master of Romania, had everything under his control. As president of the ruling Social Democratic Party (PSD), he controlled parliament, the government, the judiciary, most of the media, was the autocratic ruler of the country that currently holds the rotating presidency of the European Union. Because of a suspended sentence on electoral fraud, he could not become prime minister when his party triumphed in the election in 2016, but was president of the Romanian House of Commons. He changed the prime ministers, the ministers and the directors the way he wished – ie. whether they serve him enough. One of his former political allies explained Dragnea like this: “His ideology is himself”. Dragnea, 56, took his center-left party to the populist axis of Budapest-Warsaw and began applying conservative social policies. In fact, the country had it good in the last three years with a growth of four to five percent. But the corruption … corruption is the one that eats all autocrats.

On Sunday, Romanians at home and in European cities came out to vote in two extremely important ballots – one was the European Parliament elections, and the second a referendum proclaimed by Dragnea’s arch-rival, right-wing President Klaus Iohannis, in which the citizens were asked to declare against the law allowing the government to give amnesty for corruption cases, to use emergency decrees to change legislation and to allow retroactive opening of completed trials dating before 2014. All this proposed legislation, in fact, was designed to ensure relief from court processes specifically for Dragnea.

Romania’s president has more power than his counterparts in the region and he timed the referendum to take place together with the European elections in order to secure the necessary turnout of at least 30 percent. Romanians, who are famously apathetic when it comes to elections (in the parliamentary elections three years ago turnout was 40 percent, PSD received 46 percent of voters’ support, and in the previous European elections turnout was barely 32 percent) this time had a massive turnout at polling stations – about 50 per cent. During the day, reports were received in Romania about the drama that took place at polling stations where the diaspora voted in Europe. Thousands of people in rows of several hundred meters waited five, six, seven hours to be able to vote because of the obstructions of diplomatic officials. Somewhere it was tense, the police in Germany and the Netherlands had to enforce the order among the angry Romanians who were furious over the “technical problems” at polling stations. Some of them did not manage to vote although they waited all day. Dragnea’s government knew that the diaspora was totally against it. The number of those who went to the polls despite the obstacles accounted for three percent of all citizens who voted. For a country of 20 million people, that’s really a lot. Diaspora results were devastating for Dragnea’s party – it managed to win only four per cent of its votes. Almost all other votes went to the account of the opposition and the “no” vote in the referendum.

These dramatic images from European cities additionally mobilized voters in the country. When the polls were closed and the ballots were counted, the PSD leaders were left agape. In the European elections, the ruling party won 23% of the vote (23% less than the parliamentary elections), and the two main opposition parties, the center-right National Liberal Party and the centrist USR-PLUS alliance together garnered 48% of the vote. Government laws on amnesty for corruption in the non-binding referendum were rejected by as much as 80 percent.

It was a shock for PSD and for Dragnea. On Monday, around midday, Liviu Dragnea, PSD president at a press conference with a sour face, said: “We are not happy with this vote” and ruled out the possibility to appear as a rival to Iohannes in the presidential elections at the end of this year.

The next, even greater shock for Dragnea and the entire governing structure of the party came hours later. The Supreme Court rejected Dragea’s appeal for a verdict rendered in June 2018 for unlawful conduct by which he was sentenced to 3.5 years in prison. The decision was final. By the end of the day, he had to report to prison. Media teams assembled in front of his house, as well as angry citizens. Here, in North Macedonia, things can be delayed when court clerks are unable to find the defendant and hand them the verdict in person, which is not the case in Romania. After he failed to report himself in an hour or two in a police station, police officers came to take him to the Rahova prison, a few kilometers from Bucharest. When Dragnea came out of the house, some waved with handcuffs in front of him, others threw toilet paper over the car he was taken in, and others greeted him with a banner in front of the prison which read “Corruption paths end up in Rakhova”.

An incredible fall in just one day for the man who seemed all-powerful. Also, an incredible collapse of the entire ruling structure that fed on its power. The big question is whether the Supreme Court would have made such a decision if citizens hadn’t turn their backs on the government and him personally in the European elections and the referendum. It was the grand final of the one-year citizens’ protests against corruption. Dragnea’s transgression, according to Macedonian standards, would seem insignificant. Just like a lot of people wanted to weigh in on the prison sentence for Nikola Gruevski for the “Mercedes”. Dragnea was sentenced to jail because he abused his post as a mayor in his hometown of Telerorman (in one of the poorest regions of Romania) in the early 2000s, ensuring that two secretaries in the local branch of the party receive salaries from social services. A striking example of abuse of office.

Laura Kovesi, the renowned anti-corruption prosecutor, brought him to court and sentenced him to three years in prison. Then in another case, in an attempt to rig the vote in the referendum in 2012 for the impeachment of the president, he was sentenced to probation and therefore could not become prime minister after his party’s election victory. In addition, the European anti-corruption office is investigating that it has embezzled 21 million euros from European funds for personal purposes. Dragnea has repeatedly complained that this is a “political persecution”, a “witch hunt” of the “deep state”.

During that time, his party made changes to the criminal legislation with the sole purpose that he avoids , and with that drew criticism from the European Union for undermining the rule of law. Last summer he received support from Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudolf Giuliani, who wrote to President Klaus Iohannis, criticizing the anti-corruption moves in the country. And yet, last month, 12 embassies in Bucharest issued a joint statement criticizing the changes in the judiciary and demanding that the government give up on them. The United States were one of the signatories of the statement.

Earlier in Romania, the biggest demonstrations after 1989 took place, in which citizens demanded no forgiveness for corruption. But Liviu Dragnea, safe with the coalition majority in parliament, ignored this. He forced a recent justice minister to prepare an investigation against Laura Kovesi that she allegedly abused her office and the government decided to remove her from her post. Then, when Kovesi became the most serious candidate for the head of the new European Prosecutor’s Office, the Minister lobbied his European counterparts to undermine her candidacy. When this failed, the prosecution launched an investigation against Kovesi for illegal operation. When her interviews in Brussels reached the final stage of the election (along with her there is another candidate), the authorities have decided that because of the investigation she must not leave the country so she can not leave for the last hearings. The Supreme Court abolished this ban some time ago.

The policeman’s kid from Teleorman policeman, who transformed himself from obscurity into Romania’s master, ended his political circle in prison. For now. The party is in chaos, the foreign minister apologizes for the blockade during the vote in diplomatic posts, the PSD is looking for a successor for Dragnea as Speaker of the House of Commons. The question is whether the government will survive despite the majority. This is how one of the well-known fighters against corruption in Romania explained the situation: “Dragnea is a result of petty corruption, his imprisonment is a small victory, but this is not the end of the fight against corruption.” Indeed, this is not the end of the fight against corruption in Romania that has eaten all of its social fabric. But, although it is small, it is a significant victory. It is proof that one should believe that even the most powerful man can overnight end up in prison. Naturally, when the conditions are met.

Ljupco Popovski