Romanian Prime Minister Emil Boc and his entire cabinet resigned on Monday in hopes of quelling anti-austerity demonstrations that began more than two weeks ago. Demonstrators took to the streets to support a cabinet member who resigned to protest a plan by Romanian President Traian Basescu to privatize parts of the country’s health care system.
The size and intensity of the demonstrations caused President Basescu to withdraw his privatization plan, but the target of the demonstrators quickly expanded to include austerity measures imposed on Romania in 2010 after the government accepted a $26 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund to deal with fallout from the worldwide financial crisis of 2008.
Despite the protests, President Basescu and the newly appointed Prime Minister Mihai Razvan Urgureanu said that they would not back down from implementing the austerity measures that have made Europe’s second poorest nation even poorer. The opposition bloc led by Victor Ponta of the Social Democratic Party called for early elections, but said only that a new government led by his party and its allies would administer government in a more professional manner.
The street protests began on January 12 shortly after Dr. Raed Arafat, a cabinet minister in charge of Romania’s emergency health services, resigned from the cabinet to protest President Basescu’s plan to implement IMF-supported changes to the country’s health care system that include implementing co-pays for medical treatment and privatizing services, such as emergency treatment, in the country’s hospitals.
Dr. Arafat, who was born in Nablus, Palestine, is a well-respected physician who has improved the nation’s emergency health care system despite it being seriously under funded. He told Al Jazeera that he resigned because he believed that emergency care should be provided on the basis of need not one’s ability to pay. He criticized the privatization plan because it commercialized health care.
President Basescu responded to Dr. Arafat’s resignation by calling him a “leftist.” Shortly after the president’s denunciation of Dr. Arafat, spontaneous demonstrations erupted in Bucharest, the capital city, as teachers, nurses, students, retirees, trade unionists, and thousands of other Romanians took to the streets to show their support for the doctor and his stance against privatization.
President Basescu retreated, announcing that he would withdraw his privatization proposal. Dr. Arafat agreed to rejoin the cabinet, but by that time the scope of the demonstrations had expanded. Protestors were angry about the austerity measures and government corruption. They demanded that the government resign.
Demonstrations rapidly expanded beyond Bucharest. Over the course of the last two weeks, about 60 cities reported anti-austerity protests. The demonstrations also grew in intensity. When police tried to break up demonstrations with water cannons and tear gas, young people, whom the Economist described as “football hooligans” fought back with rocks and bricks. More than 100 were arrested.
While the demonstrations began spontaneously and many if not most of the demonstrators don’t belong to any group, unions, which had been fighting against the austerity measures from the beginning, began organizing demonstrations, which helped keep the protests alive.
The IMF required the Romanian government to impose the austerity measures as part of a deal for the loan that the Guardian says “was seen as essential to maintain investor confidence. . . even though (Romania’s) debt to GDP ratio was the fourth lowest in the European Union.”
The impact of the measures has made life in a country where the average monthly wage is about $400 much worse. Pensions were reduced, sales taxes were raised from 19 percent to 24 percent, vital public services were cut, wages for those providing these services were reduced by 25 percent, and labor law was changed to make collective bargaining more difficult.
After the government announced its resignation, demonstrators rallied at University Square in Bucharest on Tuesday to celebrate their victory and to press their demand for the resignation of President Basescu. “The first hurdle is overcome,” read one of the signs at the demonstration. “Boc’s resignation is useless,” said military veteran Florin Ciorain to Scotsman.com at the rally. “Basescu is the one who controls everything.”