Romania’s new prime minister designate Mihai Razvan Ungureanu says he will lead a government deserving of public trust. He has replaced some ministers from the ruling party in the old coalition government with new, younger politicians. Yet restoring voters’ faith will take more than changing a few faces. It will require deep efforts to reform a political and judicial system still viewed as cronyist and corrupt two decades after the fall of Nicolae Ceausescu.

The protests that have swept Romania in recent weeks have taken politicians by surprise and may have helped bring down Mr Ungureanu’s predecessor, Emil Boc. They have been fuelled in part by frustration with Romania’s austerity programme, the price of its €20bn loan from the International Monetary Fund and the European Union. Double-digit pay and benefit cuts have hit the EU’s second-poorest country hard.

Until last month, Romanians had been exemplary in taking the pain. But amid the austerity there is a feeling that the political elite has not shared in the suffering. Though President Traian Basescu has won two successive elections on an anti-corruption platform, the first significant conviction came only last month and rumours still abound of political favouritism across all parties. Romania and Bulgaria were admitted to the EU on condition that they accepted monitoring of efforts to fight crime and impose the rule of law. An EU report yesterday shows that there is still much to be done, though Romania has done better than Bulgaria.

The previous government’s collapse may have had as much to do with political calculation as with the street protests. It will give the leader of the governing coalition, the PDL party, time to rebuild its collapsing popularity ahead of elections later this year, while distancing itself from austerity. But if that is the sole goal, it is a flawed one. There must be a significant effort by any new government to promote the rule of law and transparency, the foundations of a stable society. The formal procedures of democracy, such as free elections, are not enough.

There is also a lesson for other countries in the region, such as Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro. Like Romania they are trying to cope with Europe’s economic crisis. It is hard enough to make progress when the external economy is faltering. But it will be a losing battle without a sustained effort by the political classes to to create transparent political, judicial and business cultures.

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