Monday, January 16, 2012

Romania rebels as health care threatened

By Stef Newton
January 16, 2012

Thousands of protesters waving flags sing the national anthem, ‘Awaken thee, Romanian!’ among burning trash cans and broken windows. No, it’s not historical footage of the 1989 Revolution, but the fourth consecutive day of protests against the Romanian government’s austerity measures.

It all kicked off when Deputy Health Minister Raed Arafat, a widely popular Romanian physician of Palestinian origin, resigned in opposition to a draft healthcare reform bill that represented a partial privatisation of the healthcare system.

The protests began on Thursday, with a solidarity demonstration in support of Arafat that took a violent turn. Riot police used tear gas against protesters, who responded by throwing bricks and Molotov cocktails at them. Protesters chanted ‘Down with the thieves! One solution, another revolution!’ and lit candles for heroes of the 1989 rebellion, a series of riots that marked the end of Nicolae Ceausescu’s regime.

On Friday, president Traian Basescu withdrew the healthcare bill, but protests continued and spread across the country, as people jumped at the opportunity to express their anger about various issues, including public sector wage cuts, reduced benefits, increasing youth unemployment, higher value added tax and widespread corruption.

Leaders of the Social Liberal Union, a Romanian political alliance between three opposition parties (the Social Democratic Party, the National Liberal Party and the Conservative Party) condemned the violence, but urged people to take to the streets to overthrow Basescu and the Liberal Democratic Party. Public response to this was, however, extremely negative: a chorus of ‘We hate parties! LDP, SDP, you are all the same to me!’ rang in the centre of Bucharest, Romania’s capital city.

Sunday saw the most violent protests since the 1990s, with thousands demonstrating in 34 counties and increasingly brutal clashes with the riot police. In Bucharest alone, there were 247 arrests and more than 30 injured. The people called for Traian Basescu to resign, 4 years after he became the first president in Romania’s history to be suspended from office and 2 years after his controversial re-election amidst allegations of electoral fraud and general outrage.

The national media blamed ‘football hooligans’ for ‘hijacking’ an otherwise peaceful protest, a move reminiscent of the biased reporting during the 1989 Revolution, but the message is clear and cannot be written off as ‘mindless violence’: Romania is awakening, and joining the global movement against austerity.

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