Romania

Semi-Consolidated Democracy
57
100
DEMOCRACY-PERCENTAGE Democracy Percentage 57.14 100
DEMOCRACY-SCORE Democracy Score 4.43 7
Last Year's Democracy Percentage & Status
57 100 Semi-Consolidated Democracy
The ratings are based on a scale of 1 to 7, with 7 representing the highest level of democratic progress and 1 the lowest. The Democracy Score is an average of ratings for the categories tracked in a given year. The Democracy Percentage, introduced in 2020, is a translation of the Democracy Score to the 0-100 scale, where 0 equals least democratic and 100 equals most democratic.

header1 Executive Summary

By Laura Ștefan, Sorin Ioniță, Septimius Pârvu, and Ana Otilia Nuțu

The year 2019 brought another period of intense political turmoil in Romania. Two national elections—the European Parliament elections in May and presidential elections in November—and a national consultative referendum in May were held. And following a no-confidence vote against the ruling Social Democratic Party (PSD), a change of government took place in November.

The fallout from attempts by the PSD-led government to reshape the country’s justice system and weaken its legal and institutional anticorruption framework continued to dominate the political sphere. While the justice institutions themselves survived, these challenges to their authority were evident and significant. During the year, the main prosecution structures were led by interim chiefs, the Ministry of Justice saw three different heads, and the Superior Council of Magistrates struggled to operate amid disagreements between its members over the setup of the Special Section for the investigation of magistrates. Romania continued to be monitored under the European Commission’s Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM), which issued a harshly critical report in October.

Still, a number of positive developments also took place in 2019. Most prominently, Liviu Dragnea, PSD leader and former Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies (lower house of Parliament), was convicted in May of abuse of state resources for party benefit and sentenced to three and a half years in prison. Earlier, in April, Călin Popescu Tăriceanu, president of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (ALDE) and former Speaker of the Senate (upper house of Parliament), was acquitted of perjury in a final ruling following an investigation by the National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA). And finally, in October, previous DNA chief Laura Codruța Kövesi was appointed the first European Chief Prosecutor after a long negotiation between the European Parliament and Council.

The European Parliament elections in May represented a turning point in 2019. Before the vote, Romanian politics had been overtaken by the struggle for the rule of law, demonstrated by the PSD-led coalition’s attempts to weaken anticorruption instruments and subordinate the judiciary. After the elections and subsequent change of leadership, this frontal offensive against the judiciary as well as verbal confrontations with the EU Commission abated. However, the quality of public policy continued to decline, as well as the management of public institutions and state-owned companies.

Both elections were conducted according to rules, and Parliament adopted significant changes in voting abroad for the presidential elections. These included extending voting over three days, providing advance registration, and setting up additional polling stations, all making voting abroad easier. The elections were characterized by legitimate grassroots activity but also the mobilization of illicit resources to fund party actions or campaigns, directly or through client companies. Vast public resources have been used discretionally to make local administrations dependent on national parties. This, in turn, has negatively influenced the quality of the public procurement process.

The Romanian civil sector continued to experience pressure from legislative initiatives and political attacks, as illiberal trends persisted during the year. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) continued to struggle under the current legal framework to operate, express their views, and achieve financial stability, while legislative projects initiated in previous years were still pending in Parliament.

The country’s media landscape has deteriorated slightly over the past several years, as reflected in Romania’s declining score in Reporters Without Borders’s World Press Freedom Index. The public broadcaster TVR and its governing body were increasingly politicized in 2019. Even more concerning was the escalation of pressure on journalists, including physical threats. Journalists Emilia Șercan and Diana Oncioiu received death threats in connection with their investigations during the year.

Local and national elections in 2020 will shape the political landscape for the next four years. In an election year, it is unlikely that politicians will devote much time or effort to promoting and passing legislative initiatives, and this is doubly true in Romania’s current political context where the government does not enjoy a stable majority in Parliament. In the area of justice reform and anticorruption, the appointment of full-time chiefs to the main prosecution offices will be key to working towards lasting progress.

National Democratic Governance 1.00-7.00 pts0-7 pts
Considers the democratic character of the governmental system; and the independence, effectiveness, and accountability of the legislative and executive branches. 4.004 7.007
  • For the first half of 2019, the Romanian political scene was overshadowed by the attempts of the ruling coalition, led by the Social Democratic Party (PSD), to weaken the country’s anticorruption framework and subordinate the judiciary. After the European Parliament elections on May 26—as PSD leader Liviu Dragnea was being convicted of abuse of office and junior partner ALDE quit the ruling coalition—these frontal assaults against the judiciary and the verbal confrontations with the European Commission abated. However, the quality of the country’s public policy continued to decline, as did the management of public institutions and state-owned companies.
  • Romania took over the European Council’s rotating presidency in January, at a time when its relations with Brussels were marked by unprecedented tension. The PSD-led government had been hoping to have the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM1) lifted by the time the presidency started, but the opposite occurred: the mechanism was reinforced due to the deterioration of Romania’s justice legislation and penal policy. Early in 2019, there was even talk about activating Article 7 of the Treaty of the European Union (TEU) against Romania, a sanctions procedure that could, in theory, result in suspension of a member state’s voting rights.2
  • In response, Bucharest escalated the conflict with political statements, which for the first time sounded notes of outright Euroscepticism as opening salvos in the European Parliament electoral campaign. Relations hit an all-time low in February, as the EU Commission vice-president Frans Timmermans and the EU justice commissioner Vĕra Jourová were put under investigation in Romania for “falsifying” the CVM report.3 The action was initiated by the Special Section of the prosecution, a new body created to investigate magistrates, whose legality was a main point in the dispute between Romania and its European partners.
  • This sense of drama was magnified by three other high-profile failures of the PSD-led government. First, in May, the courts handed down a final ruling in the criminal case against Liviu Dragnea, the powerful PSD leader and president of the Chamber of Deputies, who was convicted of abuse of office and sentenced to three and a half years in prison.4 Second, the government failed to prevent Laura Codruța Kövesi—Romania’s former anticorruption prosecutor and staunch adversary of the government, who was dismissed a year before the end of her term as DNA chief—from becoming the first European Chief Prosecutor.5 Kövesi was confirmed as head of the EPPO in October. And third, in the same month, the European Parliament rejected Rovana Plumb, Romania’s candidate for the new EU Commission, due to conflicts of interests and unexplained sources of wealth.6 Plumb was an important PSD politician and close friend of former prime minister Viorica Dăncilă.
  • The PSD-led government was eventually toppled by a no-confidence vote in October and replaced with a cabinet led by the new prime minister, Ludovic Orban, leader of the National Liberal Party (PNL). The PSD also lost the presidential elections held in November: Dăncilă lost the runoff against the PNL-supported incumbent, Klaus Iohannis, who secured a second term as president. Commentators blamed these political blows on the PSD’s aggressive “dark strategy” aimed at picking fights with Europe and clear hostility towards the judiciary, which stood in stark contrast to prevailing public attitudes.7
  • In the meantime, no progress was made in 2019 toward improving the functioning of the public sector; on the contrary, all signs pointed toward its hollowing out. During the year, the media broke stories of individuals appointed to top government positions with shockingly inadequate qualifications but strong party connections.8 The process of professionalizing the management of state-owned enterprises, initiated in 2016, was halted and reversed, and profits earmarked for public investments have been confiscated to the central budget for two years in a row. The Court of Accounts, the public sector’s chief auditor for spending and performance, continued to operate with limited capacity and integrity as political control over the court increased.9
Electoral Process 1.00-7.00 pts0-7 pts
Examines national executive and legislative elections, the electoral framework, the functioning of multiparty systems, and popular participation in the political process. 5.005 7.007
  • The European Parliament elections in May and presidential elections in November were marked by repeated legislative amendments and institutional challenges. The challenges related to out-of-country voting in May led to positive changes ahead of the presidential elections. Both polls took place amid political turmoil and resulted in major political shifts. The campaigns were heavily financed from state subsidies, giving a direct advantage to the well-funded candidates.
  • Parliament introduced major amendments to the electoral legislation through Government Emergency Ordinances (GEOs) right before the first elections of the year and once before the presidential elections.1 Even though most of the amendments were procedural, the short time span for the elections and the high number of changes created confusion for the electoral administration as well as the general public.
  • The EP elections on May 26 had a significantly higher turnout compared to the previous EP votes or even the 2016 parliamentary elections.2 As a result, the number of polling stations and staff for out-of-country voting was insufficient, causing long lines in many cities with prominent diaspora communities.3 After the elections, public and political pressure led to amending the legislation4 to introduce voting by mail and early voting5 as well as other measures to facilitate voting ahead of the presidential elections.
  • In the EP elections, the Social Democratic Party (PSD) lost its leading position, securing 22.5 percent of the vote and 9 seats, while its governing partner, the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (ALDE), failed to meet the vote threshold. The National Liberal Party (PNL) secured 27 percent of the vote and 10 mandates;6 the USR-PLUS Alliance, composed of recently formed parties, received 8 mandates; while PRO România, the People’s Movement Party (PMP), and the Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania (RMDSZ) secured 2 seats each.7
  • The PSD contested the EP election results, and a parliamentary commission was established to investigate potential fraud attributed to numerous errors in protocols and potential tampering of the electronic System for Monitoring Turnout and Preventing Illegal Voting (SIMPV).8 The investigation was highly politicized and a report had yet to be released by year’s end. FiecareVot, the largest independent election monitoring coalition in Romania, accredited more than 1,200 observers. Its report concluded that there were no systematic efforts at election fraud.9
  • A consultative referendum took place simultaneously with the EP elections. Convoked by President Iohannis, the referendum aimed to reduce the use of GEOs and restrict the use of amnesty and pardon for corruption-related crimes. Both questions received overwhelming public support of more than 85 percent,10 but another referendum must be organized in order to amend the constitution.11 Publication of the referendum results was delayed for almost a month due to inconsistencies in the protocols related to the total number of voters.12
  • The presidential elections took place without systemic issues or major incidents.13 Fourteen candidates competed in the first round on November 10. The Central Electoral Bureau (BEC) filed a criminal complaint against eight candidates who submitted supporting signatures considered to contain irregularities.14 The Constitutional Court allowed the participation of five candidates who were initially dismissed by the BEC,15 underpinning the need for legislative reforms to include clearer attributions and deadlines.16 In the second round on November 24, incumbent president Klaus Iohannis, supported by PNL, defeated the PSD candidate, Viorica Dăncilă, with 66.09 percent of the vote to 33.91 percent, respectively.17 Given the election procedural changes, a record number of voters participated outside of Romania.18
  • Political parties financed a significant share of their electoral campaigns with public funds,19 giving established parties an extraordinary advantage and dramatically lowering the competitive chances for new parties. In July, parliamentary deputy and PSD treasurer Mircea Drăghici was indicted for fraudulent use of state subsidies.20 Drăghici had initiated an amendment that changed the calculation algorithm from 0.04 percent of revenues in the annual budget to 0.04 percent of GDP, significantly increasing the allocations that parties received from about €6 million in 2017 to €37 million in 2018.21 Due to Drăghici’s resignation, the PSD failed to receive 3.3 million lei ($780,000) for campaign expenses.22
  • The transparency of party financing was negatively impacted by the decision to extend campaigning outside of the regular, statutorily limited period of one month. In addition, a leadership change took place in February at the Permanent Electoral Authority (PEA), the institution responsible for election-related matters outside of the voting period. This impacted a number of key departments, including party and campaign financing, whose heads were dismissed.23 Several civil society organizations protested these dismissals.24
  • 1. Government Emergency Ordinances 29/2019 and 6/2019, http://europarlamentare2019.bec.ro/legislatie/. For the presidential elections, GEO 64/2019 has been issued.
  • 2. EU Parliament, “2019 European election results”, https://www.europarl.europa.eu/election-results-2019/en/turnout/. The voter turnout in May 2019 was 51.20% compared to 32,44% for the 2014 EU elections; in 2016, for the parliamentary elections, the turnout for the in country voting was 39,49%. See Central Electoral Bureau website, http://parlamentare2016.bec.ro.
  • 3. A number of 18.730 polling stations have been organized in the country and 441 abroad. The legislation allowed only the voters that were in the room of the polling station at 21:00 to vote. The amendments introduced after the EU elections, allow electoral staff to extend the voting period until 23:59. A number of 835 polling stations have been organized abroad.
  • 4. “Legea privind votul în diaspora a trecut de Parlament” [The law on voting in the diaspora passed the Parliament]; News.ro; 3.07.2019; https://www.news.ro/politic-intern/legea-privind-votul-in-diaspora-a-tr…
  • 5. Postal voting was available for the presidential elections in November. A number of 35.917 voters received the ballots for postal voting and 38.944 opted for voting on permanent lists in polling stations organized outside the country. Also, advanced voting was available for Friday and Saturday, before the regular election day.
  • 6. Currently PSD holds only 8 mandates, as the 9th is suspended according to European Council Decision (EU) 2018/937 until the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the Union becomes legally effective.
  • 7. Central Electoral Bureau (BEC), Final Results, http://europarlamentare2019.bec.ro/rezultate/
  • 8. “Comisia parlamentară de anchetă pentru presupuse fraude la europarlamentare a stabilit ce instituții cheamă la audieri / Comisia a fost înființată de puterea PSD-ALDE” [The parliamentary commission of inquiry into alleged fraud in the European Parliament has established which institutions are called for hearings / The commission was set up by the PSD-ALDE power]; HotNews.ro; 8.07.2019, https://www.hotnews.ro/stiri-esential-23245350-comisia-parlamentara-anc…
  • 9. Observation report of the EU Elections and referendum on justice, 26 May 2019 – FiecareVot, www.expertforum.ro/en/observation-report-eu-2019.
  • 10. The turnout for in-country voters was 41,28 %, while 371.884 persons voted in polling stations organized in other countries, https://prezenta.bec.ro/referendum26052019/abroad-pv-final. For the first question, 6.459.383 voters out of 7.922.591 opted for Yes, while for the second question the quota is 6.477.865 out of 7.923.869.
  • 11. According to Law 3/2000 a referendum for the revision of the Constitution has to be organized in order to amend the Constitution. The referendum organized in May 2019 had a consultative statute and not a decisional one.
  • 12. The Constitutional Court published its decision to validate the referendum on 27th of June - http://www.ccr.ro/download/comunicate_de_presa/Comunicat-de-presa-27-iu…. Law 3/2000 states that the total number of voters is ascertained for each question separately, which led to differences in calculations.
  • 13. FiecareVot Coalition accredited 750 observers for the two rounds. The preliminary conclusions of the monitoring campaign can be consulted on www.fiecarevot.ro/comunicate.
  • 14. Press release, 24th September 2019, http://prezidentiale2019.bec.ro/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/com_3.pdf
  • 15. The CCR decision 4/2019 stated that the falsity of the signature can be established only according to the Criminal Code and not according to administrative procedure.
  • 16. Constitutional Court of Romania, Press release, 2nd October 2019, www.ccr.ro/download/comunicate_de_presa/Comunicat-de-presa-2-octombrie-…
  • 17. Central Electoral Bureau, http://prezidentiale2019.bec.ro/rezultate-turul-ii/
  • 18. 675.348 voters for the first round and 926.651 voters for the second, including postal voting. In comparison, in May 2019, a number of 384.943 voters participated to the electoral process. For the in-country voting, the participation rate was 47,66 % for the first round and 49,87 % for the second one. The law requires for validation a participation of 30% of voters from the electoral lists and 25% of valid votes.
  • 19. Out of 70 million lei declared for the first round of elections, 35.3 have been spent from public subsidies, according to the official website of the PEA, https://finantarepartide.ro.
  • 20. National Anticorruption Directorate, Press release, 25th July 2019, https://www.pna.ro/comunicat.xhtml?id=9569
  • 21. “The budgets of the Romanian political parties”, Report, 6th May, 2019, https://expertforum.ro/en/political-subsidies/
  • 22. “Lovitură pentru PSD din partea AEP: nu va primi nici un leu rambursare pentru campania de la europarlamentare” [Blow for PSD from AEP: will not receive any refund for the European Parliament campaign]; Radio Europa Libera Romania; 29.08.2019, https://romania.europalibera.org/a/lovitur%C4%83-pentru-psd-din-partea-…
  • 23. In March 2019 the director of the Party Financing Department has been dismissed on unsolid grounds. In August, the directors of Logistics and IT departments have been dismissed by avoiding the legal procedures on unclear grounds.
  • 24. “We do not believe in coincidences: Do not transform the AEP into a political institution!”, Press release, 8 March 2019, https://expertforum.ro/en/we-do-not-believe-in-coincidences-do-not-tran…; Open letter to the President of AEP, 1st August 2019, https://expertforum.ro/clarificari-demiteri-aep/
Civil Society 1.00-7.00 pts0-7 pts
Assesses the organizational capacity and financial sustainability of the civic sector; the legal and political environment in which it operates; the functioning of trade unions; interest group participation in the policy process; and the threat posed by antidemocratic extremist groups. 5.506 7.007
  • In 2019, Romania’s civil sector continued to function under pressure, as illiberal trends persisted in the country. Laws impacting the ability of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to operate and express themselves freely, as well as initiatives challenging their financial stability, continued to fill the legislative docket. Protests in the capital Bucharest and other major cities also continued during the year, motivated by threats against judicial independence and the shifting political and institutional situation in Romania.
  • Legislative projects initiated in previous years were still pending in Parliament in 2019. One proposal submitted in 2017 would redefine public utility organizations—those that serve the public interest and receive certain benefits from the state—and limit the capacity of civil society organizations (CSOs) to express political positions. It would also require organizations to publish two financial reports per year or risk dissolution.1 In June, another vaguely worded amendment was rejected that would have dissolved organizations that pursue purposes outside their original scope or against public order.2
  • A new law on money laundering entered into force in July,3 despite civil society efforts to limit the damaging effects of overregulating.4 The statute lumps together non-profit and for-profit entities, requiring NGOs to declare their beneficial ownership or risk dissolution.
  • Civil society funding is scarce in Romania, and this lack of available support endangers the sustainability of the sector. The income tax deduction mechanism and laws on sponsorship have been amended several times in recent years. In March 2018, advantageous rules were created for organizations providing social services, which were then amended after repeated protests by civil society; the newly introduced provisions that provide equal access to funds generated through the 3.5-percent tax deduction have only applied since April 2019.5 In 2018, the finance ministry introduced a central registry for entities receiving fiscal deductions. Yet, the registry was not ready two weeks before the April 2019 registration deadline,6 creating significant confusion among CSOs.
  • Political pressure against CSOs continued in 2019, with smears claiming the existence of a “parallel state” and a “Soros network” flourishing in public space.7 Civil society involvement was rather limited during the PSD-ALDE government. By contrast, the new PNL government has organized consultations with CSOs to map out policy priorities.
  • Several protests took place during the year, but with less intensity than in previous years. These demonstrations centered around demands for the government’s resignation and strengthening the justice system. In February, citizens protested the justice law amendments,8 while in August, around 24,000 people9 participated in an anniversary demonstration against the violent behavior of the Romanian Gendarmerie on August 10, 2018, when thousands of peaceful protesters against the PSD government were brutally dispersed. In July, protesters condemned the interior ministry’s lack of response to the murder of a teenager in Caracal.10
  • Civic groups and organizations set up by Romanians abroad were also actively involved in assisting voters and authorities in the presidential elections. In December, civic activists were involved in organizing the commemoration of the Romanian Revolution (1989).11 Moreover, public pressure against the contested activity of the Revolution Institute led to its dissolution by the government.
Independent Media 1.00-7.00 pts0-7 pts
Examines the current state of press freedom, including libel laws, harassment of journalists, and editorial independence; the operation of a financially viable and independent private press; and the functioning of the public media. 3.754 7.007
  • The media landscape in Romania deteriorated slightly in 2019, with outlets experiencing informal government pressure,1 funding difficulties, and self-censorship. The lack of funding and concentration of ownership among a handful of oligarchs remained a core problem. In this environment, independent and investigative media stood little chance of competing financially with press funded by oligarchs, who have used media outlets as political tools.
  • Throughout 2019, the public broadcaster TVR was embroiled in a series of scandals involving accusations from TVR’s trade union and a bitter conflict with management. The union protested managerial pressures on employees,2 claimed that management had signed dubious contracts with a friendly law firm,3 warned against management’s attempt to illegally hire new staff,4 and publicly condemned TVR’s decision not to cover the motion of no confidence against the government in early October.5
  • The National Broadcasting Council (CNA), whose current president worked on PSD campaigns in the early 2000s,6 was largely unable to meet its regulatory role and sanction abuses. For example, the CNA required no less than 24 meetings in order to penalize TVR for its two broadcasts featuring PSD leader Liviu Dragnea as well as lacking markings identifying political advertisements during the EP campaign.7 President Iohannis publicly accused the CNA of refusing to allocate airtime for the consultative referendum.8
  • Political pressure on journalists took a darker turn in late 2018 and 2019, as several individuals were intimidated or bullied to reveal their investigative sources. Pressure on media at the local level also continued, mainly through libel lawsuits9 or direct harassment of journalists, newspapers, or advertisers.10 The PSD-led government also took a fairly hostile approach to the media. In March, two critical journalists were denied access to the justice ministry,11 and throughout the year, there were rude comments and harassment from politicians towards journalists perceived as “unfriendly.”12
  • Even more concerning was the escalation of physical threats against journalists, such as Emilia Șercan and Diana Oncioiu, who both received death threats for their investigations. Șercan, who focused on cases of systematic plagiarism in the Police Academy, a specialized university owned by the secret services, received a death threat in April13 from someone revealed to be an academy officer and later indicted for the threat.14 In June, Oncioiu, who published an investigation of the Orthodox Church for the independent outlet safielumina.ro covering church and cult activities, received a phone threat that she “would have her neck broken.”15
  • Excessive polarization of the political landscape and increased pressure on independent media from all sides contributed to reduced public trust in the media. For example, journalists from the investigative project RISE complained that donations had decreased after the publication of their story about USR politician Dan Barna.16
  • According to one study, only 35 percent of the public said they trusted the media in Romania (down 7 percentage points compared to 2018),17 indicating that disinformation and perceptions of media bias were among the main factors contributing to this decline. Disinformation is of increasing concern, particularly in electoral years like 2019. The opposition party USR-PLUS accused the PSD of using fake news pages for negative campaigning before both the European Parliament and presidential elections.18
  • At the same time, one investigation identified a consistent practice by the mayor of Bucharest to provide substantial advertising contracts to various media outlets.19 This raised ethical questions about the sources of media bias and media credibility,20 and prompted one public radio station to return ad money and publicly ask that other media also cancel such contracts.21
Local Democratic Governance 1.00-7.00 pts0-7 pts
Considers the decentralization of power; the responsibilities, election, and capacity of local governmental bodies; and the transparency and accountability of local authorities. 4.505 7.007
  • The effectiveness of Romanian local government has been continually challenged by ruling parties at the national level, who, through clientelistic financial mechanisms, attempt to co-opt and use local government for electoral and party-building purposes. Performance across the local government system remains uneven, and is generally poor.1 In 2019, the regulatory framework concerning transparency and conflicts of interest of locally elected officials changed for the worse.
  • Pressure increased on local officials to help their respective parties in campaigns during the 2019 elections. This was reflected in legitimate grassroots political activity but also the mobilization of illicit resources to fund party actions or campaigns, directly or through client companies. Vast public resources for local investments have been used discretionally to make local administrations dependent on national parties, which in turn affects the quality of the public procurement process.
  • The most notorious such scheme is the Local Development Program (PNDL), the main source of funds for local infrastructure. When monies are allocated to a local community by the development ministry, the grant usually comes with a winning company “attached.”2 This is standard practice at the local level; an independent study in 2018 revealed “clusters” of repeated regular winners in most of the 10 Romanian counties scrutinized, all with demonstrable political connections.3
  • The new Administrative Code adopted in 2019 lacks effective sanctions for conflicts of interest among local councilors, with only small fines of up to 10 percent of the meeting fee (wherein councilors are paid honoraria for participating in meetings in lieu of a regular salary). The code, in general, was regarded as a step backward, since it made civil servants more politically dependent by giving more liberty to so-called local barons (mayors and presidents of county councils) in delegating responsibility for sensitive decisions.4
  • Substantial salary increases in the public sector over the past two years have not been correlated in any way to increased performance, at the individual or institutional level. Salaries in local governments were often raised so high that they surpassed the local budget. In 2019, there were appeals to top up the budgets from government emergency funds, or municipal loans were taken to pay the current expenses.5 While increasing the local budgets in total, such practices ultimately diminish the real autonomy of local communities.
Judicial Framework and Independence 1.00-7.00 pts0-7 pts
Assesses constitutional and human rights protections, judicial independence, the status of ethnic minority rights, guarantees of equality before the law, treatment of suspects and prisoners, and compliance with judicial decisions. 4.254 7.007
  • The first half of 2019 was tumultuous for Romania’s justice system. The PSD-led government continued to push for amendments to the legislative framework, even though substantial changes had just entered into effect at the end of 2018 that were already having a negative impact. This tone calmed down on the eve of the presidential elections, as the PSD tried to convince the public that fears over the erosion of justice reforms were groundless. When the PNL government took over in November, the new justice minister announced a moratorium on the early retirement scheme that would have allowed magistrates to retire after 20 years of service. According to an evaluation, nearly 2,000 magistrates would have been eligible to benefit from the scheme, generating a profound personnel crisis in the justice system.1
  • At the beginning of the year, the government adopted two GEOs purported to address concerns raised over the controversial judicial reforms of 2018.2 These problematic areas included the appointment and dismissal of top prosecutors and the creation of a Special Section for the investigation of criminal offenses in the judiciary. The Venice Commission reviewed the ordinances,3 questioning the need for emergency legislation in justice-related matters and the need to set up a Special Section for investigating magistrates, as well as the lack of checks and balances in the appointment procedure for key positions in the prosecution. The commission argued that while the ordinances had brought some improvements to the legislative framework—in particular, by allowing for secondments to top positions in the Prosecution Office (many of which were currently interim positions)—most of the problems in the legislative framework remained unresolved.
  • In February, the Special Section that investigates magistrates acknowledged in a FOIA answer4 that it had 18 open investigations against Laura Codruța Kövesi, former chief of the National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA) and serving since October as the first European Chief Prosecutor. The allegations ranged from bribe taking and abuse of office, to giving false testimony and illegal practices as prosecutor general. Kövesi was accused of undue interventions to influence witnesses or to push prosecutors to adopt certain investigative measures. She was placed under judicial control by the prosecutors during the investigation, but the High Court of Cassation and Justice lifted this measure in April.5 In the decision, the court discussed the investigative grounds in some of the cases, arguing that they were not clear and predictable.
  • A number of judicial bodies were led by interim appointees during the year, which impacted their effectiveness. In April, the mandate of the prosecutor general expired and the justice minister rejected all four candidates for replacement.6 This resulted in the secondment of an interim prosecutor general. The DNA was also led by an interim chief prosecutor,7 who was confirmed in July and followed a previous interim chief whose mandate ended in January 2019. Similarly, the Directorate for Investigating Organized Crime and Terrorism (DIICOT) was also led by an interim chief prosecutor starting in October, when the previous head resigned.8 And finally, successive attempts by the president of the Superior Council of Magistracy (SCM) to secure a permanent appointment to the head of the Special Section generated open conflict among SCM members.9 In December, the body’s temporary head announced that she was abandoning her application.
  • The new president of the High Court of Cassation and Justice was appointed in July, starting her mandate in September, although the previous president was very critical of her appointment.10 The president of the High Court of Cassation and Justice plays a key role in Romania’s judicial system, and the new appointment is an ex-officio member of the SCM.
  • The new PNL government appointed a justice minister who adopted pacifying rhetoric but, lacking political support, was unable to push through significant changes to the judiciary’s legal framework by year’s end.

Corruption

  • Romania’s fight against corruption was a complicated affair in 2019, as anticorruption institutions had to navigate between various legislative initiatives aimed at curtailing their powers. The open fight between the president and the ruling coalition deepened, which made it impossible to reach any agreement on appointments. After the conviction of PSD president Liviu Dragnea in May, the government’s offensive against the country’s anticorruption bodies slowed down, and a new justice minister was appointed. By year’s end, the new PNL government vowed to reconnect with international partners and to find solutions for the swath of governance challenges generated since 2017.
  • In the wake of the 2018 Constitutional Court decision declaring it illegal for the judiciary’s five-judge panels to issue final decisions in high-level corruption cases,11 the beginning of 2019 was marked with disputes about the implementation of this ruling. The justice minister suggested that all cases, including those already concluded, might be reopened, hinting towards the adoption of a GEO. This generated further tensions within the judiciary12 and among political parties,13 and the European Commission announced that it would closely following the situation.14 Extensive jurisprudence issued by the Constitutional Court suggested that only pending cases would be affected, with the latest issued in 2018.15 For these cases, the procedures would have to recommence, impacting the casefiles of numerous high-profile politicians.
  • In parallel, the PSD continued its attempts to push through two controversial amendments to the Criminal Code and Code of Criminal Procedure.16 Some aspects of these problematic amendments related to lowering sanctions for abuse of office, decriminalizing negligence in office, and eliminating the reduction of penalty for those who come forward more than one year after the commission of a crime. In July, the Constitutional Court declared the entirety of the two amendments unconstitutional,17 following complaints introduced by the president and the opposition.
  • In May, President Iohannis called for a national consultative referendum on two questions related to anticorruption and justice (see “Electoral Process”). The referendum was declared valid, and the large public approval rate reinforced the president’s position on the anticorruption agenda while also tempering the PSD-led coalition’s attempts to undermine the country’s legislative and institutional framework.
  • Two significant rulings took place in 2019. In April, the Speaker of the Senate, Călin Popescu Tăriceanu, was acquitted in the final instance in a perjury case brought by the DNA.18 And in May, Liviu Dragnea, Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies and PSD leader, was convicted for abuse of office, namely, abuse of administrative resources to benefit his party (including fictitious employment), and was sentenced to three and a half years in prison.19
  • At the European level, the selection process for the European Chief Prosecutor resulted in the appointment of former DNA chief Laura Codruța Kövesi. The PSD-led government opposed her appointment, generating a months-long blockage between the European Parliament and the Council. After this long-lasting dispute, and following the European elections, Kövesi’s appointment was confirmed in October.
  • Also in October, the European Commission’s Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) annual report captured the turmoil surrounding Romania’s anticorruption agenda, recommending that the mechanism remain in force for the country. The only other member state under the mechanism, Bulgaria, received a much more positive assessment, raising the possibility of ending the monitoring for that country. The report’s publication sparked intense political debate in Bucharest and unleashed a blame game between the government and the president.20

Authors: Laura Ștefan, anticorruption expert, former director in the Romanian Ministry of Justice, and international expert on rule of law; and Sorin Ioniță, expert in public administration reform and development and an associate lecturer at Maastricht School of Management (MSM) and Babeş-Bolyai University (Cluj); and Septimius Pârvu, expert in good governance and electoral process; and Ana Otilia Nuțu, expert on energy and infrastructure, state-owned companies, regulators.

Note

The ratings reflect the consensus of Freedom House, its academic advisers, and the author(s) of this report. The opinions expressed in this report are those of the author(s). The ratings are based on a scale of 1 to 7, with 7 representing the highest level of democratic progress and 1 the lowest. The Democracy Score is an average of ratings for the categories tracked in a given year. The Democracy Percentage, introduced in 2020, is a translation of the Democracy Score to the 0–100 scale, where 0 equals least democratic and 100 equals most democratic.

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