Romanian referendum looms with president and government at odds

Ruling party’s Liviu Dragnea calls protests against legal reforms ‘start of a coup d’etat’

Romanian president Klaus Iohannis waves to protesters in Bucharest on Sunday, January 22nd.  A proposed Bill would pardon those sentenced to jail terms shorter than five years for a range of crimes. Photograph: Robert Ghement/EPA

Romanian president Klaus Iohannis waves to protesters in Bucharest on Sunday, January 22nd. A proposed Bill would pardon those sentenced to jail terms shorter than five years for a range of crimes. Photograph: Robert Ghement/EPA

 

Romania is lurching towards political crisis after its president called for a referendum on controversial government plans and joined protests that the leader of the ruling party described as “the start of a coup d’etat”.

President Klaus Iohannis attended a march on Sunday through Romania’s capital, Bucharest, during which at least 15,000 people denounced a government bid to push through legal changes that some fear could blunt the country’s anti-corruption drive.

Smaller rallies took place in other Romanian cities, after the cabinet led by the Social Democrats (PSD) tried to pass measures to pardon people sentenced to fewer than five years in jail for a range of crimes, and decriminalise abuse of power for cases that caused losses to the state of less than 200,000 lei (€44,000).

Critics say the reforms would benefit members and supporters of the PSD, including its leader Liviu Dragnea, who is facing abuse-of-power charges and is barred from becoming premier by a conviction for fraud in a 2012 referendum.

“This issue has become one of national importance and there is wide interest in the changes in the criminal code and the granting of pardons,” Mr Iohannis said. “This being the case, I will submit this matter to public debate and popular vote. I will start the procedures for a referendum so that citizens will be able to express their views and say whether they agree with these changes or not.”

Prisoner release

Mr Iohannis noted that the PSD did not mention the reforms before winning a parliamentary election on December 11th.

Last week, the normally low-profile Mr Iohannis, who beat the PSD’s candidate to the presidency in 2014, attended his first cabinet meeting to urge ministers not to use emergency decree to ram through the reforms without an open debate.

The government says the moves would free up to 2,500 people convicted of relatively minor and non-violent crimes, and reduce overcrowding in Romania’s prisons.

Mr Dragnea accused Mr Iohannis – who joined Sunday’s march only briefly – of “leading” an unauthorised protest “against the Romanian government, against the constitutional order and against the popular vote on December 11th, sabotaging the legal framework as the basis for the rule of law . . . It is the start of a coup d’etat.”

Mr Dragnea said the PSD may press for referendums on the legal definition of the family and on whether to strip Romania’s deputies and the president of all immunity from prosecution.