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Romania's War on Corruption Got Old

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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Nobody likes corruption, but when fighting it becomes the focus of politics and policy, voters can quickly tire of this. The Romanian Social Democrats proved it on Sunday by winning a landslide election victory a year after its leaders were seemingly disgraced in a string of corruption scandals.

The Social Democratic Party, led by Liviu Dragnea, won some 45 percent of the vote, and since its ally, the Liberal Democratic Alliance, won about 6 percent, the two parties will have enough votes to set up a governing coalition. The center-right National Liberal party, which backed the current government, won about 21 percent of the vote.

This is a surprising outcome. Dragnea is under a suspended sentence for electoral fraud, so he can't even serve as prime minister despite winning the election. The SDP's previous prime minister, Victor Ponta, was charged with fraud, tax evasion and money laundering by Romania's anti-corruption agency, DNA. A year ago, Ponta resigned after mass protests following a nightclub fire that was blamed on corrupt officials. "Corruption Kills," anti-Ponta demonstrators chanted. Last year, the agency also indicted five other ministers from the SDP-led government. Bucharest's SDP-backed mayor was also arrested on bribery charges. 

Romania has been touted as an example of an extremely corrupt post-Communist country that has taken the problem seriously. In 2007, when Romania joined the European Union, it was the bloc's most corrupt nation, according to Transparency International's corruption perceptions index. By last year, it had improved to become the fourth most corrupt, level with Greece and ahead of Italy and Bulgaria. The EU has praised Romania's efforts -- a highly visible anti-corruption campaign in which seemingly no one is immune. Politicians, especially center-right ones, concentrated on an anti-corruption agenda.

The campaign has worked, to a degree, for ordinary Romanians. In 2007, according to Eurobarometer polls run by the EU, 21 percent of them tended to trust the national government. This year, it's 24 percent: The scandals and arrests served to increase, not undermine, trust. 

And yet the anti-corruption slant of national politics may have been somewhat excessive. In Romania, the anti-graft campaign has been described as Securitate 2.0 -- a modern version of Nicolae Ceausescu's all-powerful secret police. The conviction rate in corruption cases is more than 90 percent. The DNA brags about ts efficiency, but it's more likely that the judges are intimidated: If they acquit corruption suspects, they may attract scrutiny. The DNA is so independent it's not really accountable to anyone, its critics claim

While the agency has turned the hunt for corrupt officials into a spectator sport, the voters clearly want far more than clean government. They want more even if that means the government won't be squeaky clean. Its pledges to improve the economy, among other things, is why the tainted SPD is back.

In 2012, Romanians elected it as part of a backlash against austerity; in 2016, its economic slogans are still attractive to a plurality of Romanians. The SDP promised higher salaries to public sector employees, higher pensions, a big infrastructure investment plan, more defense spending in line with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's requirement to spend at least 2 percent of economic output, a big job creation drive, a startup-funding scheme -- and, to cap this generosity, lower taxes from 2018. For example, SPD promised to scrap the income tax for doctors, IT specialists, retirees and the poor and lower it to 10 percent from 16 percent for everybody else.

Some Romanians still care about fighting graft more than anything else. A new anti-corruption party, the Save Romania Union, gained about 9 percent of the vote and will be present in parliament. But these clean-hands voters are a distinct minority. More people care about economic benefits for themselves, even if it's not clear how the Social Democrats can finance these generous promises. Romania already has a budget deficit this year instead of a surplus after nine months of 2015. 

This is a reminder to politicians everywhere, from the U.S. to former Soviet states like Russia and Ukraine, that anti-corruption platforms only work until they don't -- and corruption generally survives them. To many people, a certain amount of graft is acceptable as long as things get done. In 2013, when Eurobarometer asked people in EU members states specifically about corruption, 35 percent of Romanians believed it was appropriate to give a gift if they wanted to get something from public administration. That share wasn't much lower in prosperous Austria -- 33 percent; in the U.K. and in Italy it ran to 20 percent. 

A relentless focus on corruption doesn't necessarily work in political campaigns. Parties that run on opposition to corruption generally move on to other issues by their second election because it's not a reliable winner. The survival of Mariano Rajoy as Spanish prime minister this year despite a series of corruption scandals in his Popular Party, and the comeback of the Romanian Social Democrats are evidence of that.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Therese Raphael at traphael4@bloomberg.net