Romania's ruling party defends reform plans as protests reignite

Government accused of launching new bid to weaken anti-graft laws

Protesters wave flags and placards while shouting anti-government slogans during a protest against government in downtown Bucharest, Romania on Sunday. Photograph: Robert  Ghement/EPA

Protesters wave flags and placards while shouting anti-government slogans during a protest against government in downtown Bucharest, Romania on Sunday. Photograph: Robert Ghement/EPA

 

Romania’s ruling party has defended its controversial plan for judicial reform, after street protests against the move threatened to pitch the country’s beleaguered government into a fresh crisis.

More than 15,000 demonstrators marched through the centre of the capital, Bucharest, on Sunday night, as several thousand others rallied in cities across the country of 20 million.

Waving flags and placards emblazoned with slogans like “Down with the government” and “We don’t want to be led by thieves”, the protesters accused the populist Social Democrats (PSD) of launching a fresh bid to weaken anti-corruption efforts.

The government tried last winter to decriminalise some graft offences, but was forced to scrap the plan after it sparked the biggest protests in Romania since its 1989 anti-communist revolution.

More power

Now the government wants to give the justice minister more power to appoint and to sack prosecutors and oversee the work of magistrates; to shrink the remit of Romania’s well-respected anti-corruption prosecutor; and to allow a person with a criminal conviction to become president.

Critics call the proposals a flagrant bid to ease pressure on corrupt figures in politics and business, and potentially to allow PSD leader Liviu Dragnea to become president despite his 2012 conviction for vote rigging.

“Either there is a great deal of misinformation around or those who are protesting don’t know the laws,” senior PSD member and former justice minister Florin Iordache said on Monday.

“Because [regarding] the two problems that they raise: on the appointment and dismissal of prosecutors, we foresee that the president will have the final signature; and on the judicial inspectorate, we intend it to be an independent institution. So, I say again, if you’re going to protest, let’s read the laws.”

Threat to progress

Romanian president Klaus Iohannis, the European Commission, western diplomats, and magistrates and civil society groups have all criticised the proposed changes, saying they threaten to undo the considerable progress that the country has made in recent years in fighting high-level graft.

The government was forced into a reshuffle last month after a deputy prime minister and the minister for EU funds came under investigation over a suspicious land deal.

In June, PSD deputies voted against their own government in a no-confidence motion, toppling the cabinet of then prime minister Sorin Grindeanu, who was locked in a power struggle with Mr Dragnea.

Current premier Mihai Tudose also has a strained relationship with Mr Dragnea, and they are coming under additional pressure over plans for major tax reform that critics say will leave millions of Romanians worse off.

Mr Iohannis and investors’ associations have criticised the plans, and a major Romanian trade union is planning to hold a general strike later this month in protest.