Romania

Semi-Consolidated Democracy
57
100
DEMOCRACY-PERCENTAGE Democracy Percentage 56.55 100
DEMOCRACY-SCORE Democracy Score 4.39 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 Score changes in 2021

  • National Democratic Governance rating improved from 4.00 to 4.25 due to the cessation of government assaults on the rule of law under Romania’s new National Liberal Party (PNL)–led government.
  • Electoral Process rating declined from 5.00 to 4.75 due to problems organizing and administering local elections despite being postponed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Independent Media rating declined from 3.75 to 3.50 due to concerns about clientelism in the sector arising from the state’s purchase of “public information” advertising related to the pandemic.

As a result, Romania’s Democracy Score declined from 4.43 to 4.39.

header2 Executive Summary

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

Perhaps the greatest gain in Romania’s democratic governance in 2020 resulted from what did not happen: the assaults on the rule of law that had been engineered at the top of the government under the previous regime were stopped under Prime Minister Ludovic Orban, who came into office in November 2019. Additionally, the harsh, anti–European Union (EU) and at times xenophobic rhetoric coming from representatives of state institutions, which had put Bucharest on a collision course with the European Commission, also abated during the year. Although Orban’s National Liberal Party (PNL) may share with the Social Democratic Party (PSD, in power 2017–19) some characteristics that are common to all large, heterogeneous, and occasionally clientelistic parties, there are otherwise significant differences between the two: while in office, the PNL, in contrast to the PSD, has not openly challenged the rule of law, threatened the judiciary, or quarreled with Romania’s international partners. If, in 2020, the governing machine did not improve much in terms of effectiveness, at least it moved in a more democratic direction under the PNL.

On the downside, the COVID-19 crisis immediately revealed cracks in the healthcare system due to long-ignored weaknesses, namely, the uneven distribution of resources, lack of specialized personnel, incompetence, and clientelism. The territorial offices of the Ministry of Health, informally controlled by county presidents and their parties, performed worst of all during the crisis and were slow to scale up contact tracing and testing capabilities. Overall, the crisis laid bare the consequences of a system with few to no performance evaluations but with an excess of patronage.

The rest of Romania’s public administration had an easier time during the crisis since the demand for state services other than healthcare decreased significantly. Many civil servants worked remotely under formal or informal arrangements, drawing full salaries with little supervision, even though their institutions were practically closed down. This was in stark contrast with the private sector, where a furlough regime with only 75-percent payment of salaries was introduced, partly compensated by the state; at the peak of the crisis in May, around 1 million jobs were suspended, virtually all of them in the private sector.1 This perceived double standard of treatment generated friction in society.

Local elections were scheduled for June but were postponed when President Klaus Iohannis declared a state of emergency on March 15. Later, a state of alert, with fewer restrictions, was imposed on May 15 and remained in place for the rest of the year. Local electoral mandates were initially extended through a Government Emergency Ordinance (GEO).2 Parliament, dominated by the PSD, also passed a measure claiming the power to extend these mandates and to set the new date of the elections. The Constitutional Court, siding with Parliament, ascertained that the parallel regulation of this issue was unconstitutional,3 and subsequently Parliament set the new date of local elections for September 27.4 Only one round of voting was held, as Parliament failed to approve a two-round system. However, a second round was organized in three localities where two candidates obtained the same results. The ruling PNL made important gains during the voting, often at the expense of the PSD.

The law regulating local elections was amended in June, July, and September in spite of international standards advising against making changes so close to election day.5 The amendments allowed for more members in electoral commissions, and also granted extra seats to national minorities.

Romanian civil society organizations (CSOs) criticized the government for nontransparency in organizing the local elections and poor planning of safety measures.6 In fact, the regulations for the electoral campaign period were announced only several hours before it commenced. While election day rules were somewhat clearer, voters in isolation due to COVID-19 could not vote without certain documentation.

Several CSOs requested parliamentary control over the Permanent Electoral Authority due to the poor management of the electoral process.7 Election authorities did not properly communicate with the public, and some of the decisions of the Central Electoral Bureau, the ad hoc body responsible for organizing the vote, were questioned.8 Results were published late, and the final protocols had to be amended several times due to errors.

The parliamentary elections, which were better organized yet marred by extremely low turnout (caused by COVID-19 and voter apathy), took place on December 6. The results were divided among five parties: in the Chamber of Deputies (Parliament’s 330-seat lower house), the PSD won 28.9 percent of the vote; the PNL, 25.19 percent; the centrist progressive Save Romania Union (USR-PLUS), 15.37 percent; the far-right Alliance for the Union of Romanians (AUR), 9.08 percent; and the Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania (UDMR), 5.74 percent. There were similar results in the Senate (Parliament’s 136-seat upper house). Two former parliamentary parties, Popular Movement (PMP) and Pro Romania, did not cross the 5-percent electoral threshold. The president appointed Florin Cîțu (PNL) as prime minister on December 23, and a new government was formed by the PNL, USR-PLUS, and the UDMR.

The main challenges for civil society in 2020 consisted of pandemic-related rights restrictions and limited sector funding—a recurrent problem only made worse by the COVID-19 crisis.

The emergency situation led to a decline in the transparency of public institutions vis-à-vis journalists. The response time to requests for public information under FOIA legislation doubled during the state of emergency. Numerous ministries and central institutions with branches in the regions banned all communications except through central offices located in Bucharest and warned against the spread of “unofficial information.” During the two months of Romania’s initial lockdown, all communications about the pandemic were centralized in the Strategic Communication Group (GSC), made up of top government officials whose identities were kept secret.9 In some cases, the GSC blocked rather than facilitated the flow of information. Media associations complained about this secrecy, which was compounded by the fact that many relevant public institutions had not appointed spokespeople.10 Media freedom was further threatened by the state’s uneven support for individual outlets during the COVID-19 crisis, as well as the instrumentalized public funding of political ads masquerading as public service announcements ahead of the 2020 elections.

After several troubled years, the atmosphere around the justice system and the fight against corruption calmed down in 2020. No significant legislative changes were made since the slim majority in Parliament and the pandemic presented serious obstacles to any major moves. But the Minister of Justice did open consultations on a draft package of legislative reforms to be pushed forward in 2021. Top positions in the prosecutorial service were filled—namely, the Prosecutor General, the head of the National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA), and the head of the Directorate for Investigating Organized Crime and Terrorism (DIICOT)—yet vulnerabilities brought to light by the media concerning the new DIICOT head eventually led to her resignation after her husband was convicted for corruption.

During the state of emergency, courts heard only urgent matters. The definition of “urgent” was left to the discretion of various judicial self-management bodies, creating some inconsistency across the country. The pandemic revealed that the justice system had made only limited use of digital tools up to now, forcing it to quickly digitalize much of its activity. Generally, in-person hearings were halted during the state of emergency. Delays continued during the later state of alert, as suspects refused to go to hearings, claiming their health would be endangered. House searches and sting operations were also problematic for investigators due to health concerns.

Looking ahead to 2021, observers anticipate a major challenge in the revision of justice legislation to address criticisms voiced by international partners, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and associations of magistrates.

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. 4.254 7.007
  • Romania began the year 2020 with a new, center-right cabinet formed by the PNL and a freshly reelected President Klaus Iohannis. Parliament, however, remained solidly in the hands of the PSD and its allies, which meant that very few of the reforms demanded during the past three years of street protests could pass. These demands included returning to two rounds of elections for mayors; abolishing “special pensions” for dignitaries and magistrates; and amending the justice laws to restore the independence of prosecutors and an effective anticorruption fight.
  • Moreover, the hostile parliamentary majority ambushed the minority cabinet throughout the year with expensive, populistic proposals, some of which became mandatory after being approved. During the COVID-19 crisis, the PSD attempted to use these handouts to grow its base of support while avoiding executive responsibility. The proposals included increasing all pensions by 40 percent1 and doubling the state child allowances2—hardly affordable in the best of times. Given the intensely political year, with local elections scheduled for June (then postponed until September) and parliamentary elections scheduled for December, all parties took to their corners and were resolute in fighting with an attitude of “now or never.”
  • Anticipating difficulties, the PNL cabinet tried at the beginning of the year to use the momentum of President Iohannis’s victory to press for early parliamentary elections, which, according to polls, would have created a new and more favorable majority in Parliament. In January, the cabinet launched the complicated institutional game leading toward early elections. According to law, neither the president nor the prime minister may dissolve the legislature and call for early elections; they may only be organized in the event the cabinet falls and two new cabinet proposals are then rejected in succession by Parliament.3 Prime Minister Ludovic Orban’s plan, therefore, was to send Parliament a bold piece of legislation to restore the two-round electoral system for mayors via a fast-track procedure, forcing the legislature to either approve the law or depose the cabinet through a no-confidence motion. The PSD and its allies, including the UDMR, prefer the one-round system, which creates an advantage for incumbents. The legislation was defeated and the PNL cabinet duly fell on February 5. Thus began the charade of the PNL trying (and failing) to install two successive cabinets, with the tacit cooperation of President Iohannis. The opposition tried to block the plan using parliamentary procedure and by appealing to the Constitutional Court.4
  • The sudden COVID-19 crisis put an end to this political game. The PNL had to reinstall PM Orban and his cabinet on March 14. On March 16, the president declared an emergency situation, which was to last until mid-May; during this interval, the government’s response to the crisis was organized with military-style decrees. On the upside, this brought the administrative stability necessary to implement the lockdown measures that saw the country through the first wave of the pandemic. A new, half-hearted no-confidence motion was introduced by the PSD in Parliament during the summer, but in spite of the party’s nominal majority, this failed to pass because of individual defections.5 The public restrictions meant to contain the virus were gradually relaxed and completely eliminated by mid-July. A resurgence of cases toward the end of the year led to the imposition of new restrictions, but no new state of emergency was declared. Overall, comparative evaluations show that the democratic violations during the COVID-19 crisis were minor in Romania.6
  • The worst fears of the Ministry of Finance materialized when, during the local elections campaign, the parliamentary majority passed the aforementioned pension proposal and other social expenditures that make the national budget unsustainable in 2021 and beyond. The government protested these measures before the Constitutional Court, but they were upheld.7
  • This show of largesse did not pay off, however: the PSD suffered a setback at the polls, losing the mayoral elections in the capital Bucharest and other major cities, plus 9 of the 29 counties it was running. PSD is still Romania’s largest party in terms of the municipalities it controls, but it is now more clearly confined to poor, rural areas of the country. Most of the lost territory is now occupied by the PNL. The upstart, progressive USR-PLUS party, with an antisystem discourse and younger and more professional cadres entering politics for the first time, won Bucharest and four other large cities as well as positions in local councils which the party had never held before.
  • Five parties passed the 5-percent electoral threshold in the parliamentary elections, with the PSD as the main winner followed closely by the PNL.8 Two former parliamentary parties, Pro Romania and Popular Movement (PMP), failed to pass the electoral threshold; and the Alliance for the Union of Romanians (AUR), an antisystem, conservative, and nationalist party, entered Parliament for the first time. A new government was formed by a coalition composed of the PNL, USR-PLUS, and the UDMR. To facilitate the new government’s formation, Orban was replaced by fellow PNL member Florin Cîțu as prime minister.
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. 4.755 7.007
  • Local elections, which were planned for June but postponed amid infighting between Parliament and the government, finally took place on September 27, while the parliamentary elections were organized on December 6. The PSD also attempted to postpone the parliamentary elections and therefore move the competence to set the date from the government to Parliament through a new bill approved by the Constitutional Court.1 However, the president delayed the promulgation of the law, which led to its failure to enter into force in due time.
  • Some 256,000 candidates were registered for the local elections,2 a slight decline from the previous elections, and although electronic gathering of signatures of support was allowed for the first time due to COVID-19,3 the use of this option was limited. For the parliamentary elections, the number of candidates was slightly higher than in the previous polls (7,136 in 2020 versus 6,476 in 2016). The number of female candidates remained low at 30 percent of parliamentary and 22.9 percent of local candidates.4 In the latter case, several candidate lists did not include candidates of both genders.5 The verification of candidacies was improved from 2016, but the level of transparency diminished, as the Central Electoral Bureaus (CEBs) for both the local and parliamentary elections did not provide detailed information about candidates.6
  • The electoral campaigns were dry, with few electoral events offline and more online engagement. Restrictions imposed in 2015 regarding the use of visible outdoor propaganda materials during formal campaign periods led to practically nonexistent campaigns yet very extravagant but less transparent precampaign efforts.7 The COVID-19 crisis did not affect candidates’ resources since competitors in both the local and parliamentary elections declared having about four times as much campaign cash relative to 2016.8 Allocations from state subsidies, which may also be used for campaigning, were significantly increased although with limited reporting transparency.9 The available data on donors during the campaign period was scarce, and oversight was limited, which undermined the transparency of the electoral process.
  • Voter turnout in the local elections was not affected by COVID-19 and was similar to previous years, reaching 46.02 percent in the first round10 as compared to 48.44 percent in 2016.11 By contrast, the parliamentary elections were characterized by low turnout, with 31.84 percent12 as compared to 39.49 percent in 2016.
  • The local elections took place in a relatively orderly fashion,13 but the announcement of the final results was unusually delayed.14 Elections in the town of Moldova Nouă were annulled by court decision, as one of the candidates did not follow the proper nominating procedure, and rescheduled for January 24, 2021.15 CSOs criticized the election authorities for repeated errors in the tabulation of results, noting that the software used was unreliable and developed in a nontransparent manner.16 he final responsibility of allocating mandates rested with constituency commissions and resulted in the incorrect allocation of at least 17 mandates.17 The PEA met on November 3 with several CSOs and experts to discuss the complaints.18
  • Accusations of fraud were voiced in several sectors in Bucharest during the local elections, Sector 1 registering the most complaints. Several requests to recount votes or to annul the results were repelled by the CEB and the constituency commissions in Bucharest and across the country, but some were still being investigated at year’s end.19 Other complaints were not considered due to their late submission.
  • Some recounts were allowed for the parliamentary elections, although the legal framework for requesting recounts was unclear; one independent candidate failed to pass the electoral threshold by only 17 votes.20
  • Overall, the parliamentary elections were organized in a more efficient and coherent manner than the local elections.21 However, in both cases, the complex and dispersed legal framework showed its limitations and required extensive interpretation. Measures providing for quarantined voters were generally issued late and lacked clarity. For the parliamentary elections, 748 polling stations were opened abroad and mail-in voting was also available abroad. Unfounded political accusations were brought for the high number of unreturned postal ballots, affecting public trust in the electoral process.22
  • 1. “Motivare CCR: Alegerile pot fi amânate până în martie. Hotărârea care stabilește votul pe 6 decembrie, anulată dacă legea e promulgate” [CCR decision: Elections may be postponed until March. The decision establishing the vote on December 6, annulled if the law is promulgated], Digi24, 14 October 2020, www.digi24.ro/alegeri-parlamentare-2020/motivare-ccr-alegerile-pot-fi-a…
  • 2. The official list of candidates is available at: https://locale2020.bec.ro/candidati. More data are available at: https://votcorect.ro/candidati-locale/ for the local elections and at https://votcorect.ro/harta-candidatilor/ for the parliamentary elections.
  • 3. In addition, the percentage of signatures required to get on the ballot was reduced from 1 percent to 0.5 percent of the voters registered in the Electoral Register and complementary lists located within a given constituency. For more, see the following PEA decision, 12 September 2020: http://legislatie.just.ro/Public/DetaliiDocument/230363
  • 4. “Participarea femeilor la alegerile parlamentare din 2020” [Women’s participation in the 2020 parliamentary elections], Expert Forum, November 2020, https://expertforum.ro/participarea-femeilor-parlamentare/; “Women in the 2020 local elections,” Expert Forum, 17 September 2020, https://expertforum.ro/en/women-local-elections/
  • 5. “Participarea femeilor la alegerile locale din 2020” [Women’s participation in the 2020 local elections], Expert Forum, September 2020, https://expertforum.ro/raport-participare-femei-locale/
  • 6. The CEB published only the names and the party affiliations of all candidates; in 2016, the CEB also provided the age, gender, and nationality of all candidates.
  • 7. Candidates are not allowed to use banners, billboards, or other similar materials. Only flyers, posters, and other such printed materials are allowed during the campaign period, which starts 30 days before the day of elections.
  • 8. See: https://www.banipartide.ro/campanii. For more information on campaign finance in the local elections: “Finanțarea campaniei electorale la alegerile locale – 12 octombrie” [Financing the electoral campaign in the local elections], Expert Forum, 12 October 2020, https://expertforum.ro/finantarea-campaniei-octombrie/
  • 9. Political parties received about $63 million USD in state subsidies in 2020, versus $3.5 million USD in 2016. For more on subsidies and the evolution of political financing (2006-2021), see: www.banipartide.ro
  • 10. See: “Alegeri locale - Tur 1, 27 Septembrie 2020,” Permanent Electoral Authority, https://prezenta.roaep.ro/locale27092020
  • 11. See: “Alegeri locale 2016,” Permanent Electoral Authority, http://alegeri.roaep.ro/?alegeri=alegeri-locale-2016
  • 12. “Comunicat privind participarea populaţiei la vot pentru alegerea Senatului și a Camerei Deputaților din 6 decembrie 2020” [Press release on the participation of the population in voting for the Senate and Chamber of Deputies on 6 December 2020], CEB for the Election of the Senate and Chamber of Deputies 2020, https://parlamentare2020.bec.ro/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/BEC_comunica…. Seehttps://prezenta.bec.ro/parlamentare2016/ for turnout in 2016.
  • 13. Septimius Pârvu and Maria Krause, “Raportul de monitorizare a alegerilor locale din 27 septembrie 2020” [Local Election Monitoring Report of September 27, 2020], FiecareVot Coalition, November 2020, https://expertforum.ro/raport-monitorizare-locale-2020/
  • 14. It took more than two weeks to fill in the final vote protocols due to complaints and issues with the tabulation processes. The final protocol for Bucharest was changed twice as votes in some sectors and for some alliances were left out during the centralization process.
  • 15. Mihai Toma, “Alegerile de la Moldova Nouă vor fi repetate pe 24 ianuarie [Elections in Moldova Noua will be repeated on January 24], Libertatea, 18 January 2021, www.libertatea.ro/stiri/alegerile-de-la-moldova-noua-vor-fi-repetate-pe…
  • 16. The application used for tabulation (known as SICPV) was modified three times, including twice after election day due to bugs and missing functionalities. The application was certified very late, on the Friday before the election day. The candidate registration and mandate allocation applications were procured in a legally questionable manner than may have enabled unauthorized parties to access data in the Electoral Register. See: “14 ONG-uri cer Parlamentului să verifice Autoritatea Electorală Permanentă pentru problemele de la alegerile locale” [14 NGOs asked the Parliament to check the Permanent Electoral Authority for local election issues], G4 Media, 16 October 2020, https://www.g4media.ro/14-ong-uri-cer-parlamentului-sa-verifice-autorit…
  • 17. Camelia Badea, “Alegeri locale 2020: Cel puțin 17 mandate de consilier au fost atribuite greșit. Cine e de vină și cine plătește?” [2020 local elections: At least 17 councillor seats have been wrongly assigned. Who is to blame and who pays?], Spot, 12 October 2020, https://spotmedia.ro/stiri/politica/alegeri-locale-2020-cel-putin-17-ma…
  • 18. “Concluziile întâlnirii mai multor organizații neguvernamentale cu Autoritatea Electorală Permanentă – 3 noiembrie 2020” [Conclusions of the meeting of several non-governmental organizations with the Permanent Electoral Authority - November 3, 2020], Expert Forum, 4 November 2020, https://expertforum.ro/concluziile-intalnirii-cu-autoritatea-electorala…
  • 19. Cristian Citre, “Biroul Electoral Central a respins solicitările PSD de renumărare a voturilor din Sectorul 1 / Clotilde Armand a câștigat alegerile cu peste 1.000 de voturi în fața lui Dan Tudorache” [The Central Electoral Bureau rejected the PSD's requests to recount the votes in Sector 1 / Clotilde Armand won the elections with over 1,000 votes in front of Dan Tudorache], G4 Media, 30 September 2020, www.g4media.ro/breaking-biroul-electoral-central-a-respins-solicitarile…
  • 20. D.D., “Valeriu Nicolae a rămas la 17 voturi distanță de Parlament / Ultimele contestații i-au fost respinse” [Valeriu Nicolae was 17 votes away from the Parliament / His last appeals were rejected], HotNews, 12 December 2020, https://www.hotnews.ro/stiri-politic-24480227-valeriu-nicolae-ramas-17-…
  • 21. Septimius Pârvu and Maria Krause, “Raport final privind observarea alegerilor parlamentare 5-6 decembrie 2020” [Final report on the observation of the parliamentary elections December 5-6, 2020], FiecareVot Coalition, January 2020, https://expertforum.ro/raport-parlamentare-2020/
  • 22. 21,329 out of 35,808 postal ballot envelopes distributed were returned before the deadline. An additional 7,164 were returned after the deadline. See: Septimius Pârvu and Maria Krause, “Raport final privind observarea alegerilor parlamentare 5-6 decembrie 2020” [Final report on the observation of the parliamentary elections December 5-6, 2020], FiecareVot Coalition, January 2020, https://expertforum.ro/raport-parlamentare-2020, p. 34
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
  • The state of emergency imposed in March-April introduced restrictions on freedom of assembly and other rights. Worryingly, the government also requested the activation of Article 15 of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR), which would allow the suspension of all rights in the convention (except right to life and freedom from slavery and torture) over the period of the state of emergency, although Romania was not alone among ECHR signatories to do so.1
  • Some restrictions in the state of emergency constrained the capacity of civil society to effectively hold the government accountable; in particular, the response time for FOIA requests and petitions doubled,2 and some authorities were reluctant to respond at all.
  • As highlighted in the previous Nations in Transit report, the Romanian law transposing the European Union’s money-laundering directive, in force since July 2019,3 lumps together non-profit and for-profit entities, requiring nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to declare their “beneficial ownership.” The law’s provisions remained unclear on the definition of beneficial owners despite repeated requests for legal clarification. Currently, NGOs must submit a notarized statement reiterating information already found in their articles of incorporation concerning the founding members, which are assumed to be the beneficial owners. This only creates red tape without any benefit to transparency, while NGOs that fail to comply effectively risk dissolution.4
  • In the early months of the pandemic, there was substantial informal civic mobilization to support the medical sector with personal protective equipment (PPE) and other medical supplies, provide basic support for vulnerable groups, and also help authorities with technical solutions to develop better databases or visualizations for the public.5 However, the government failed to leverage this civic mobilization in its response to the pandemic.
  • Although political pressure on civil society was lower in 2020 than in previous years, there were several proposals to amend legislation that would create opportunities to pressure NGOs or limit transparency instruments, which were nevertheless dropped after intense pushback. In July, the General Secretariat of the government initiated discussions to amend the NGO legislation,6 allegedly to cut red tape. The most contentious proposal would allow the setting up and dissolution of NGOs by administrative procedure instead of by court decisions, which would have created possibilities to pressure inconvenient NGOs by threatening closure.7 A recent proposal to amend the FOIA,8 limiting the information for disclosure to a narrow list of items, was dropped after pressure from civil society and the media.9
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. 3.504 7.007
  • The media landscape in Romania in 2020 was dominated by restrictions on the flow of information imposed by the Strategic Communication Group (GSC) after the start of the COVID-19 crisis (in mid-March) as well as distortions in the media market created by public financial support. The government launched a public information campaign, paying over €41 million for ads about the pandemic and preventive measures, to be aired on TV and radio and distributed online. In a relatively poor market, this level of aid was massive and controversial: while mainstream channels applauded the measure,1 a minority of media groups with higher ethical standards turned down the money and warned about the attempt to buy the silence or goodwill of channels and commentators in a decisive political year.2
  • These concerns were not groundless. The sums were distributed according to ratings and/or readership, so that local media—weak and hit hardest by the crisis—received a trivial share, only around 5 percent. The bulk went to mainstream TV channels, which in fact did not suffer much during the crisis since their viewership went up under lockdown.3 Paradoxically, some of these winners were precisely the most active sources of conspiracy theories about COVID-19 and vaccines, interspersed with political propaganda and kompromat. In other words, an ill-considered measure created a public subsidy for irresponsible propaganda and clickbait,4 seemingly in exchange for toning down criticism against certain parties or individuals.
  • The second mechanism, also with a strong whiff of clientelism, was deployed by prosperous local governments which launched their own “information campaigns” about the achievements of incumbents during their mandates, all paid out of local budgets. The most visible and discussed such episode happened in Bucharest, where the mayor spent around 400,000 euros on ads with no obvious purpose, promoting “completed projects” (some of them fake), precisely at the time when she was trying to get reelected.5 In both cases, at the central and local levels, there were serious signs of media market distortion, press clientelization, and illicit campaigning. However, these issues are unlikely to be investigated thoroughly since both the media regulator (CNA) and the electoral authority (AEP) are too weak and politically subordinated to take them on.
  • The decree enacting the state of emergency permitted authorities to block websites when “the content promoted fake news about the COVID-19 trends and the prevention measures.”6 The GSC was empowered to make decisions about blocking, while the Romanian telecom authority (ANCOM) was tasked with implementing them; there was no mechanism for appealing these decisions. However, the procedures for enforcement were less clear, as the suspended websites could easily create clones on servers outside Romania. Moreover, the authorities assured the “recognized media channels” that they would not be blocked in any case,7 which created confusion and the impression of arbitrariness. Eventually, 15 websites of marginal importance were blocked; all were restored when the state of emergency was lifted in mid-May.8
  • In a concerning development in Romania’s media market, the European Commission gave approval to PPF Group to take over Central European Media Enterprises, which owns ProTV, the most popular private TV channel in the country. The approval process took almost a year to complete and was closely monitored by domestic analysts since PPF Group was owned by Petr Kellner, a Czech billionaire whose holdings have close business ties with Russia and China.9
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 2020 local elections altered the configuration of the local administration, as the PNL was the main winner with 34.58 percent of the vote for mayors, compared to the PSD with 30.34 percent; still, the PSD reached a similar percentage, if factoring in the performance of acolyte parties, and kept a strong position in spite of numerous corruption scandals and its continuous loss of support since 2019. USR-Plus secured 6.58 percent of the vote.1 While it publicly denied and decried such practices, the PNL was accused before the local elections of attracting migrating mayors to consolidate its chances during the voting;2 in fact, 10 percent of the PNL’s elected mayors were defectors from the PSD.3
  • Although the more than 40,000 local positions4 up for grabs were divided mostly between the PNL and PSD, in major municipalities such as Bucharest, Timișoara, Bacău, and Brașov, USR-Plus managed to secure mayorships. In a few PSD strongholds, some “local barons” were replaced. For example, Marian Oprișan, who headed the Vrancea county council for more than 15 years, lost to a PNL competitor. The stakes for Bucharest were high, as the city controls a budget of around 10 billion lei but has inherited major infrastructure issues and bad management.5 The PSD general mayor, Gabriela Firea, lost her mandate to the independent (backed by the PNL and USR-PLUS) candidate Nicușor Dan. At the sector level, two mayors from the old guard kept their mandates, while three sectors were won by candidates backed by the same coalition as the general mayor. Meanwhile, Cristian Popescu Piedone returned to power in Sector 5, even though a court of first instance convicted him of corruption in a case related to the 2015 deadly fire at the Colectiv nightclub in Bucharest. On the other hand, the PSD received better results for the Bucharest general council (32.28 percent of the vote) compared to the PNL (19.31 percent).6
  • The government continued the politicized practice of distributing funds to municipalities through the Reserve Fund, a line item in the state budget to be used for emergency and unforeseen situations. Right before the local elections, in August, it distributed 1.3 billion lei mainly to rural communes for covering debts.7 The allocation was motivated by the difficult economic situation caused by the COVID-19 crisis, but it also underscored the perennial bankruptcy of local administrations, which often cannot provide for their own budgets8 and thus enable the discretionary practice of governments to reach for support before elections.
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
  • In December 2019, Minister of Justice Cătălin Predoiu started the selection process for the three top positions in the Romanian prosecutorial service that were operating with interim leadership: the Prosecutor General, the Chief Prosecutor of the National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA), and the Chief Prosecutor of the Directorate for Investigating Organized Crime and Terrorism (DIICOT). On January 21, Predoiu announced that he had selected the following candidates: Gabriela Scutea for Prosecutor General, Crin Bologa for Chief Prosecutor of the DNA, and Georgiana Hosu for Chief Prosecutor of DIICOT.
  • On February 11, the Prosecutors’ Section of the Superior Council of Magistracy (SCM), the judiciary’s self-governing body, issued negative opinions for two of the proposed candidates—Scutea and Hosu—and a positive opinion for Bologa.1
  • Despite the negative opinions, Predoiu decided to forward all the proposals to President Iohannis, who signed the appointment decrees for all three candidates on February 20.2 The president affirmed his trust in the selected candidates and dismissed the SCM’s negative opinions as superficial.
  • On September 24, Hosu resigned following the conviction of her husband by a court of first instance on corruption charges. Even during the selection process, concerns were raised publicly about Hosu’s integrity—her 80-year-old mother and her stepson were shareholders in an offshore insurance company, and her husband was already indicted by the DNA in 2017 on corruption charges for illegally intervening for Carpatica, an insurance company, and illegally accessing a Ministry of Internal Affairs database in order to obtain information about family members of car accident victims.3
  • On September 30, Predoiu published the long-due proposed amendments to Romania’s three justice laws and opened a public consultation process scheduled to last until March 2021.4 The SCM dismissed this initiative, stating that the judiciary had not been consulted.5 Predoiu stressed that the drafts presented the vision of the Executive branch, and the role of the consultation process was to incorporate other opinions as well. The most important proposed changes included the dismantling of the Special Section for the Investigation of Magistrates (a body created by the former PSD government), elimination of the early retirement scheme (also set up by the former PSD government), and a new mechanism for selecting members of the SCM.6
  • In October, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) issued a decision in the case Camelia Bogdan v. Romania.7 Bogdan was excluded from the judiciary by a decision of the SCM, which she contested. The ECtHR found in favor of one of her claims, ruling that she was not given the right to challenge the SCM’s decision to suspend her from the judiciary pending the adjudication of a 2017 disciplinary case. Her other claims were rejected. Meanwhile, the disciplinary case in question was concluded, and ultimately Bogdan was not excluded from the judiciary.8 However, in another (open) disciplinary procedure, she was excluded from the judiciary again in April 2018.9
Corruption 1.00-7.00 pts0-7 pts
Looks at public perceptions of corruption, the business interests of top policymakers, laws on financial disclosure and conflict of interest, and the efficacy of anticorruption initiatives. 4.004 7.007
  • In February, Crin Bologa was appointed head of the DNA by President Iohannis, upon the proposal of Justice Minister Predoiu and supported by the SCM. This appointment ended the long interim leadership of one of the most important Romanian prosecution offices. On March 9, Bologa presented a report on the work of the DNA over the previous year.1 He noted the heightened stress the DNA had experienced and that the long interim management of the institution negatively impacted its performance: the acquittal rate in corruption cases increased to 52 percent while the speed of investigative activities decreased. On the positive side, the number of cases sent to courts and the number of investigations into the misuse of EU funds increased, while the total number of pending files decreased.
  • On June 23, the DNA started criminal investigations against the general manager of Unifarm, the state-owned pharmaceutical company, on suspicions of bribery, abuse of office, and influence peddling related to how Unifarm awarded a public procurement contract for the purchase of personal protective equipment (PPE) against COVID-19.2
  • In July 2019,3 the DNA initiated criminal investigations against the former mayor of Constanța municipality, Radu Mazăre, and the former deputy mayor, Decebal Făgădău (acting mayor in 2020), on charges of abuse of office for illegally issuing a building permit and greenlighting construction despite a final court decision that annulled the permit. The case was sent to court in October 2020.4
  • Also in October, the DNA asked lawmakers to lift the immunity of Nicolae Bănicioiu, a PSD MP and ex-minister, so he could be tried for allegedly soliciting bribes;5 the request was approved by the Chamber of Deputies on October 27.6
  • On May 5, the ECtHR ruled in the case Kövesi v. Romania.7 The court established that Romania had violated Laura Codruța Kövesi’s right to a fair trial and free expression when the Constitutional Court dismissed her from the position of Chief Prosecutor of the DNA. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs decided not to appeal the decision in an attempt to show that the government’s position on anticorruption issues had dramatically changed.8 Kövesi is now the first-ever European Public Prosecutor.
  • There are still challenges in upholding court decisions in Romania, particularly those imposing prohibitions on running for office either as a result of a criminal conviction or administrative investigation into conflicts of interest. There were situations in 2020 wherein the courts initially validated the mandates of public officials who later were not allowed to occupy their public positions based on final court decisions, bringing into question the true degree of adherence to rule-of-law principles.9 On a similar matter, the Prosecutor General’s Office initiated an investigation into former prime minister Călin Popescu-Tăriceanu for abuse of office; while president of the Senate, he had refused to abide by a Supreme Court decision prohibiting a certain MP from occupying a position in Parliament. Popescu-Tăriceanu complained to the Constitutional Court, arguing that prosecutors had overstepped their competences. Nevertheless, the court found in favor of the Prosecutor General’s Office.10

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

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