One crisis too many: power grabbing in Central and Eastern Europe

In the next contribution to our LSE IDEAS and Ratiu Forum blog series on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic across the CEE region, Mădălina Mocan and Kinga Sata, from the Department of Political Science at the University of Babeş-Bolyai, Cluj-Napoca, Romania, assess how COVID-19 has facilitated and justified political opportunism and power grabbing in Romania and its neighbours.


At the time of writing, Romanian citizens have come out of one of the most restrictive lockdowns in the European Union, with schools and most businesses closed, and curfews imposed by both the army and the police. A harrowing level of fines issued has shocked the public, making many of us, including the ombudsman, ask ourselves: was this really necessary? Two and a half months of lockdown, with 16,400 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 1,056 deaths, one might conclude that the situation in the country is not as bad as it could have been. The search for answers to why we have been plateau-ing for days now at a (rather) low number of new cases has caught citizens, scientists, and decision makers in a frantic effort to understand, focusing on diverse explanations: our individual terrible experiences with a depleted and often corrupt healthcare system; our lack of trust in the government’s capacity to get us out of any kind of crisis, regardless of its magnitude; our capacity to comply with restrictive rules and regulations, a left-over from our dictatorial past. Each of these seem to have contributed to the outcome. Public health professionals will probably come up with at least one convincing theory in the months and years to come that will provide a satisfying answer.

The pandemic crisis caught Romania in a political one: a government without parliamentary support, but with a president eager to help it get one by attempting to call snap elections as early as possible. Electoral years are particularly difficult here (and this year Romania is scheduled to have both parliamentary and local elections): little gets done except for public spending on what is perceived to bring in a significant number of votes. The political crisis itself, one might note, has its roots in the constitutional limits of our checks and balances model that leaves the head of state with few powers to act within his mandate and disproportionate expectations from the population, given his electoral legitimacy. In a better functioning representative democracy the president, the parliament and the government might have together come up with a convincing set of measures that would have rallied citizens behind an unprecedented effort to minimise the number of victims and the overall suffering. It would have done so when declaring the state of emergency or, at least when exiting it two months later, only to re-enter it by another name; it would have given the president the chance to meet the challenge of being the mediator the constitution describes. He chose instead to launch a (many would agree deserved) political offensive against his bitter opponents, the parliamentary majority. This is not a particular development: previous presidents have had a frustrating relation with parliament when dealing with an opposing majority.

The general public’s interest was caught by the political competition, and the constitutional court seized the moment to reassert its ever growing presence as a political player: in a much expected ruling, it ruled that the ordinance setting fines up to 20,000 lei (approx. 4,100 euro) for breaking in any way the rules imposed by the emergency committee was unconstitutional. The motivation of the ruling was the lack of predictability, as citizens would have been unable to understand why and what for the augmented figures. This means the fines will have to be cancelled (but only after being challenged in a court of law, and thus presumably overloading the courts).

The government, strongly supported (or one might say lead from behind) by a very present president, did not seem to be willing to comply with the constitutional ruling: after being specifically told by the court that the parliament needs to be involved when rights and liberties are restricted or suspended (at an ombudsman request), it has decided to rather skip another month of state of emergency, switching instead to a state of alert that continues to restrict or deny the same rights and liberties that have been suspended for the last two months: freedom of movement and freedom of education are still restricted, and so is the right to work. The right to protest is still denied and so is the right to strike. Executive powers continue to accumulate in obscure places of the government, such as scientific committees whose membership is still unknown to the public, bodies that receive ever growing prerogatives overnight, with oversight functions suspended for the sake of celerity. From this perspective Romania shares a lot with its two other European Union member state neighbors: tough restrictions continue to be imposed in both Bulgaria and Hungary, with very similar decisions to avoid accountability in place in all three countries. Meanwhile the general population remains somewhat puzzled by their governments: on the one hand, frequently stumbling in decisions such as those concerning mandatory face masks (Bulgaria changed the rule four times in three weeks while Romania announced it would ask its citizens to wear masks in closed spaces and public transportation, while backpedaling on whether to distribute them to those not able to afford them); on the other hand, being unequivocally eager to take advantage of these extraordinary times to extend the deadlines for answering FOIAs or to bypass mandatory public acquisition regulations.

The right to privacy is under siege, too, as it is in many other states that are contemplating collecting more data on their citizens’ whereabouts in the name of fighting the spread of the virus. We were also told that our government continues to invest in acquiring facial recognition software, and private internet and mobile phone providers are announcing to their customers that they might be subjected to data collection, all in the name of participating in this huge bio safety effort. What is unique to Romania is that all these are happening in a country where the many foggy intelligence agencies of the state have been notoriously unwilling to accept parliamentary accountability, much less other forms of civilian oversight. Three decades after the intelligence services constructed an enemy to justify their post-1989 relevance during the traumatic events of Tirgu Mures, one might wonder if this is not a good opportunity for them to further scrutinise private lives while ever eluding public accountability. The siege on privacy is not new either: citing terrorist threats, other attempts to limit the anonymity of mobile phone use have had their days in courts. A tragedy last summer when a teenager was kidnapped, tortured and killed while the authorities were incapable of locating her, marked another moment when the balance between safety and privacy seemed to have tipped in favour of the former. Back then, a similar surge in power grabbing ambitions within the executive, namely the prosecutorial and the emergency-responders coordinators, tried to use a tragedy that shocked an entire society to implement extraordinary procedures and special resource allocations.

Thus it seems that there is one recurrent outcome of the many crises the country has witnessed in its transition to a consolidated democracy: the use of extraordinary circumstances by ambitious leaders at various institutional levels to build their patented, unquestionable and unaccountable response to each of them; rather than fixing what is broken through ordinary procedures, the temptation to seize the moment to consolidate one’s power and influence within and at the expense of weakened institutions has proven inescapable to many. And this is not unique to Romania either: a very similar reading of recent events can be provided in the Bulgarian and Hungarian cases as well: seasoned ambitious leaders have proven, time and again, that they are capable of using extraordinary circumstances to gain extraordinary powers.

Mădălina Mocan is a civil society professional associated with the Center for the Study of Democracy and the CSEEP Desk at FSPAC, Cluj-Napoca and a proud board member of Techsoup Romania and ELiberare. Kinga-Koretta Sata is lecturer in the Political Science Department, Babeș-Bolyai University, Cluj-Napoca, Romania.