Romanians rally as new government pushes to pass emergency decrees

Protesters fear anti-corruption efforts will be weakened to benefit ruling party

Romanians protest against government plans in Bucharest on Wednesday. Photograph: Octav Ganea via Reuters

Romanians protest against government plans in Bucharest on Wednesday. Photograph: Octav Ganea via Reuters

 

Romanians are planning more protests after thousands rallied against the new government’s bid to push through controversial legal changes, which critics say would weaken anti-corruption efforts and benefit people closely linked to the ruling party.

Marches have been called for Sunday in several cities around the country, after about 3,000 people gathered in the capital, Bucharest, on Wednesday night and smaller crowds protested in Cluj, Timisoara, Sibiu, Iasi, Craiova and other cities.

The protests were triggered by a proposal from the government – which took power this month – to pass two emergency decrees that would not require the approval of Romania’s parliament or the signature of the country’s president, Klaus Iohannis.

Among other changes, the measures would pardon people sentenced to fewer than five years in jail for a range of crimes, and decriminalise abuse of power in cases that caused damage to the state of less than 200,000 lei (€44,481).

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 strained and underfunded prison system.

Bypassing debate

Critics have denounced the new government’s attempted use of emergency decrees, which would bypass normal parliamentary debate and presidential oversight, and accused the ruling Social Democrats (PSD) of trying to help out its allies and, potentially, its own leader.

Liviu Dragnea is currently facing abuse-of-power charges and he was barred from becoming prime minister after the PSD won December’s election by a previous conviction for fraud in a 2012 referendum.

In freezing temperatures on Wednesday night, protesters gathered outside government headquarters in Bucharest, waving placards saying “Resign” and “We see you” and chanting “In a democracy, thieves stay in prison”.

Their disapproval of the government’s plans is shared by opposition parties and Romania’s National Anti-Corruption Directorate (DNA), which called the proposed changes “unjustified”. The DNA has prosecuted many wealthy and influential supporters of the PSD, which could also benefit from the proposed changes.

Earlier on Wednesday, Mr Iohannis unexpectedly attended his first cabinet meeting since taking power in 2014, to voice his opposition to the use of emergency decree as a way of ramming through the controversial measures.

“There are two elephants in the room and nobody is talking about them: the pardoning decree and the decree to modify the penal codes,” Mr Iohannis said, insisting that the drafts be discussed openly and dealt with transparently.