Romanians show the world the dangers of voting for populists

There were massive protests in Romania against a return of times when acts of corruption went unpunished. The protests lasted for two weeks, the biggest the country had seen since the 1989 revolution that culminated with the execution of communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.

Some people in Bulgaria and Moldova also took to the streets in solidarity. Over the past few years, since the justice system gained independence, Romania had been an example in the region for how to fight against corruption: thousands of former officials were sentenced to jail for acts of corruption, including a former prime minister and various ex-ministers.

However, a new government that resulted from the December 11, 2016 elections passed legislation effectively pardoning many of these officials. The street protests did not seem to impress them at first: They insisted that the decrees would remain in place, claiming they were passed because jails were overcrowded. Only late on Saturday the prime minister said the decrees would be abolished.

The fact that jails are overcrowded with corrupt former dignitaries was taken by the Romanian people as a sign that things were finally beginning to follow a natural path: If you are corrupt and/or have neglected your job while in public service, affecting the public interest, then you should face justice and pay for your errors.

It seems a simple concept, one that relies on the idea of social justice and equality before the law. Yet, it has been systematically breached, not just in Romania but around the world. This is partly why we have ended up with the likes of Brexit and Donald Trump.

Of course, there have been a number of theories about what was behind these surprise votes. Adding another one won’t solve the mystery of why so many people chose a path that should have been obvious would hurt their welfare in the long run. Still, it put another piece in place in the effort of completing the puzzle.

Simply put, people have had enough of seeing others not face the consequences of their actions. Take the big bailout that followed the 2007 financial crisis. Banks were bailed out direct with taxpayer money, those who took out too big mortgages were bailed out indirectly by record low interest rates, certain companies were bailed out, even entire countries were bailed out.

Yet, how many of those responsible for the mistakes and negligence that led to the financial crisis have faced justice? There have been a few examples — mostly traders found guilty of rigging various benchmarks, some bankers condemned for fraud — but a lot of very senior people, who at the very least knew what was going on, have gotten away with it.

In the UK and US, people have voted for those who paid lip service to the idea of social justice, who claimed they care about the ordinary people. But it is becoming clearer and clearer that the tempting slogans were just that, empty slogans, and the promises will never be fulfilled.

Brexit will not bring prosperity, just the opposite. EU nationals are already shunning Britain (the number of nurses applying for positions in the UK fell by an astonishing 90% since the vote, and a lot of agricultural workers from the EU who went home for Christmas never came back, which is beginning to worry British farmers.

In Romania’s elections last December, voter turnout was very low, and more than 40% of those who did vote voted for the populists, whose promises they liked. In Europe, a year of elections follows. If the populists win, those who don’t want to see the end of decency and common sense should probably prepare to take to the streets like the Romanians did. Luckily, the weather will warm up by then.