It’s not often that you hear a politician in Romania saying they chose to go into politics ‘to serve people’ and actually mean it.
But Oana Bizgan, elected to the Romanian Parliament in 2016, appears to be doing just that. “Every time I enter the Parliament building, I leave my ego at the door and say to myself: ‘Oana, you are here to serve the people’.”
These are not empty words ahead of an upcoming general election, because for a start, Ms Bizgan isn’t running for another term.
Nonetheless, during her four years in office, she initiated and got approval for 13 laws, including the establishment of a sex offenders list and a bill punishing psychological harassment in the workplace.
That’s quite an accomplishment for a rookie politician who was elected barely a year after a deadly nightclub blaze at a rock concert in Bucharest which killed 64 people.
It was that fire in Oct. 2015_ the deadliest in Romania’s history_ that ignited a spark. “ I couldn’t stand not doing anything,” she told universul.net in an interview in her office in a leafy cul-de-sac in the heart of the Romanian capital this week.
Then in her mid-30s, she was riding the bus after meeting with young entrepreneurs days after the Oct. 30 fire when she clicked on to Facebook and saw district mayor Cristian Popescu Piedone comment that he couldn’t be implicated in the tragedy as “he was covered by papers.” i.e legally he was untouchable. (He later resigned under public pressure.)
“Instead of being empathetic, of being human, and saying what can we do, let’s help the victims, he said this,” she recalls in fluent English. „Nobody gives a shit about your papers. That’s not how a political leader should be.”
‘ROCK THIS COUNTRY’
In the chaotic aftermath of the fire, there were comments that the concert goers had deserved their fate for listening to “Satanic music,” another affront to Oana Bizgan, a rock music fan.
„What happened to our society when something so painful happens, they say they deserve it? There is something seriously wrong here.”
It was a feeling shared by many, and hours later the finance consultant who lived in Sweden, Canada and France for a decade before returning home, found herself taking part in her first protest ever.
Armed with a hastily scribbled banner saying “Rock this Country,” a whistle (she kept by her bed in case of earthquakes) and a small Romanian flag and a burning conviction that she needed to do something, she headed for the streets.
She stayed at the protest for a solid eight hours, marching through the city, holding her banner high, and returned home at 3am, tired, energized, and a changed person.
MOMENT OF CHANGE
It was also a moment of change in Romania. The next morning then-Prime Minister Victor Ponta and his government resigned amid public anger over the fire, and soon a government of technocrats was ushered in.
Ms. Bizgan had worked as a consultant for Roland Berger Strategy Consultants and as a manager for Lafarge, but she didn’t even know what “technocrat” meant. However, she knew the deputy prime minister from the finance world and on Christmas Day he got in touch, offering her a job.
„I went to the protest, but I didn’t give anything back to society. I couldn’t shake that feeling,” she said.
People call the 40-year-old ‘a dreamer,’ but add determination, negotiating skills and conviction to the mix, and you have a powerful catalyst for change.
She didn’t immediately take the call, (it was Christmas, she was at her parents), but soon into the New Year, she found herself working at the economy ministry, using her expertise and energy to overhaul an outdated system and repackage Romania to make it an attractive prospect for foreign investors.
MORE THAN SARMALE
„We have to get out of this sarmale ( stuffed cabbage rolls, a Romanian national dish) thing,” she told people at the ministry. „I like sarmale but Romania is so much more than sarmale.
„Foreign governments didn’t know that we are more than sarmale,” she recalled.
By sheer will, guts, and drive, or as she says “working with my head and heart” and a team, they created a new attractive website to open the market for investors and saw increase of 23% in direct foreign investment and created 54,000 jobs in just 10 months.
With elections looming, she was co-opted to run for the Save Romanian Union, a hotchpotch of younger politicians seeking change, and very soon she realized that she stood a pretty good chance of being elected.
Dressed in a smart-casual black outfit, her lemon yellow blazer is a pop of optimism on a cool October morning. You get the impression that the former finance consultant who buzzes with energetic positivity and a can-do attitude doesn’t like to waste time.
Once in the legislature, she immediately began looking for ways to be effective, of passing laws to benefit ordinary citizens’ lives and ….. building bridges with other parties, an uncommon approach in Romanian politics.
Driven by a desire to pass laws that benefit ordinary people, Oana Bizgan isn’t a natural party politician and in Nov. 2017 she left the Save Romania Union. It is the third-largest group in Parliament _ but much smaller and far more junior than the Social Democratic Party and National Liberal Party.
She became an independent legislator and fought for laws that would help vulnerable people_ child rape victims and victims of domestic violence _ laws that have cross-party appeal.
„Parliament is there to pass laws, therefore the MPs’ currency during their mandate is whether they can push forward …legislative projects,” Radu Delicote, a political analyst told universul.net.
„There are many drafts which are “proposed, debated, voted, and rubber-stamped under a party umbrella. But nobody talks about the independent MPs,” he said.
“Imagine an independent’s work daily: no party umbrella, double the negotiations, triple the ferment. Therefore, 13 laws in three years sounds impressive in a Parliament in which one has to fight tooth and nail for a draft,” and then get presidential approval.
While she was an astute negotiator, with private sector experience and natural empathy, she also had non-negotiables.
„I hate abuse and I hate injustice, they are my non-negotiables, but I am pragmatic and I know how to negotiate.”
“I worked very hard. I am a self-made woman. I ‘rent’ my title, but not my character,” she adds.
„Parliament is like an agora where MPs meet and debate the community’s needs and problems…. and these …. change,” and Parliament needs to adapt,” to be connected to people’s needs and problems, Mr. Delicote said.
WOMEN….AND THEIR RIGHTS
It wasn’t always easy. Before being elected to Parliament, someone on the street threatened to kidnap her son and once she became a lawmaker she heard colleagues moan: „Not Oana again with women and their rights.”
„I wanted to speak about the things nobody cared about,” she said. „This is not just about society, but it has a huge economic impact on Romania,” she says explaining that women are an important part of the workforce.
„I feel so useful, relevant and strong, stronger than I was six months ago or four years ago.”
Then she pauses: „I may be ahead of my time. Look at what we have done,” in four years when at first „I didn’t know how to get from the Chamber of Deputies to the Senate.”
So what next?
„I am going to take a rest, but I am not tired, I love what I do. I am going to take time to think. I am not rushing things. God works in mysterious ways and I will be well-prepared for the next challenge.”