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Bucharest protest 29 Jan 2017 / Photo by Paul Arne Wagner / Via Flickr

Why protests are ‘good toys’ for Romanian democracy

Diana Margarit | 25 April 2017

Protests and other forms of collective action meant to disturb the routines of society are essential for the evolution of a democratic country and an effective generator of social change. With young people as key actors in mobilizing to express their discontent with political decisions, the recent wave of protests in Romania reflect the struggle taking place within Romanian society to deal with corruption, social inequality and inefficient policies.

Protests are a necessary part of a healthy liberal democracy; they do not aim to destabilize the political system per se, but instead promote the interests and will of civil groups that are in conflict with specific political and legal decisions. Moreover, they are a mechanism through which those who do not have direct access to political power and decision-making can have their demands heard in a collective, organized, public and non-violent manner.[1]

The past few decades have witnessed an unprecedented level of social mobilization worldwide to bring about social change (the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement, Euromaidan and the Anonymous revolution, among others). Despite their differences, these movements were all characterized by the use of new technology, which has had a decisive impact on the spread of information, the mobilization of people, and the visibility of the different forms of protest actions (like civil disobedience, demonstrations, marches and riots).

In this respect, the Romanian experience is no exception. The most recent and intense episode of mass protest since the fall of communism occurred in February 2017, when hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets throughout Romania to protest against an emergency decree passed by the government at nearly midnight, without public consultation. The reason for their discontent concerned the changes made to the criminal code on matters related to high-level corruption – fraud, abuse of power, conflict of interests and misuse of funds – which have held back Romania’s social and political evolution in the past decades. Protests continued even after the emergency decree was annulled, proving that Romanians were not only contesting the content of the law, but also the questionable actions (and qualities) of the politicians and political parties. To this day, people are still peacefully protesting in front of the Palace Victoria, the main government building.

These uprisings are the culmination of many previous incidents, starting with the January 2012 protests contesting health system reforms and including the social movement known as the Romanian Autumn (which lasted for six months, from September 2013 until February 2014) against gold mining exploitation with cyanide by a Canadian corporation in a village in the Apuseni Mountains (see my in-depth analysis on this movement) and fracking in another village in Eastern Romania by Chevron; social discontent during the 2014 presidential elections, when the government decreased the number of electoral offices for Romanian citizens voting abroad; the fourth round of protests in May 2015 concerning illegal logging, including in natural protected areas; and, six months later, the Colectiv Revolution, which burst forth in November 2015 after a fire in a club killed and injured almost two hundred young people.

The turmoil in Romanian society over the last five years is in stark contrast to the first two decades of the post-communist era, which were generally characterized by an apathetic and weak civil society. This new protest energy has manifested mainly due to the rise of a new generation of youngsters who are disappointed with their politicians and neglected by political programmes. These young people are willing to mobilize to publicly express their rage and determine social change. While the social movements up until 2015 were largely dominated by the presence of young people in demonstrations, petitions and boycotts, the uprisings in 2017 gathered more diverse categories of supporters, such as middle-aged and elderly people, teachers, doctors, football supporters and artists. The reason behind this lies in the catalytic strength of the younger generation’s mobilization in a society that already had accumulated frustrations, but rarely expressed these collectively in the public space. For instance, during the most recent economic crisis (2008–2013) – which resulted in austerity, unemployment, poverty and deepened social inequalities – strikes, marches and other forms of civil pressure were marginal and ineffective. Against this background, the protests in February 2017, even though initiated by young people, soon found an echo in the political dissatisfaction and distrust commonly felt by most Romanians.

Romanian democracy is the same age as these active young people, who hold on to the ideal of a more representative, efficient, transparent and stable political system. Despite the uncertain moment of its maturity, democracy can be consolidated if illegitimate and unjust political decisions are constantly and openly contested. Democracy needs social movements to grow up, just as children to play with toys to learn. The purpose of toys is essentially educational; if they are safe, stimulate creativity, and support the child’s development, then they are good toys.[2] Similarly, Romanian society needs to get actively involved in dealing with its endemic and complicated obstacles in order to learn and evolve into a mature democracy. This is the main reason why, rather than a source of instability, protests are undeniably ‘good toys’ for learning how to create a substantial and efficient democracy.

References

[1] For further details, see Opp, K.-D. (2009) Theories of political protest and social movements. A multidisciplinary introduction, critique, and synthesis. Routledge.

[2] Goldstein, J.H. (ed.) (1994) Toys, play, and child development. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Photo credit main picture: Bucharest protest 29 Jan 2017 / Photo by Paul Arne Wagner / Via Flickr