Romania Debates Disputed Legal Plans After Massive Protests

  • Demonstrators oppose planned bill to pardon some offenders
  • President initated referendum procedure over disputed plan

Romania is debating changes to the criminal code that have sparked fury over the rule of law and triggered the biggest street protests since the fall of Communism.

The amendments, which include pardoning certain crimes and halting anti-graft probes into some officials, were discussed with the public Monday at the Justice Ministry in Bucharest. About 90,000 people demonstrated Sunday in a second weekend of dissent, with at least 50,000 rallying in the capital alone. Protesters back a long-standing anti-corruption drive and want Justice Minister Florin Iordache to quit. He said he’ll amend the proposals and decide how to move forward after the debates.

The Social Democratic-led government that took over the European Union and NATO member a month ago is facing unprecedented public opposition to plans to revamp criminal legislation via emergency decrees. President Klaus Iohannis has also criticized the proposals, calling a referendum on the plan last week in a move that’s still awaiting parliament’s non-biding response. The situation is worrying the EU, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel voicing her concern during a phone conversation Friday with the president.

“The government can’t ignore the will of the people, which is sovereign,” Iohannis said Monday on his Facebook page, reiterating his call to the cabinet to scrap the planned changes. “Romania can only lose by prolonging this issue, which has brought tens of thousands of people into the streets.”

Political Friction

The planned changes include pardons for prisoners serving sentences shorter than five years and decriminalizing offenses such as corruption related to abuse of public office. Potential pardoning won’t apply to criminals, rapists or multiple offenders, Iordache said at the start of the debate.

While Social Democrat leaders cite overcrowded prisons as grounds for the planned changes, prosecutors and judiciary associations say they’re unacceptable and would clear specific people, such as high-ranking politicians under investigation for corruption.

The protests underline uncertainties that also include budget sustainability, according to Ciprian Dascalu and Silviu Pop, Bucharest-based economists at ING Bank NV. “Both issues could lead to tussles between the president and the center-left Social Democrats,” they said in a note. “Overall, this doesn’t look like a healthy backdrop for leu assets.”

The leu, which gained has 0.8 percent against the euro this year, strengthened 0.5 percent to 4.5007 per euro at 3:08 p.m. in Bucharest.

Iordache is set to decide whether to make the proposed changes via emergency decree, as originally planned, suggest a draft law or even seek fast-track parliamentary approval through a confidence vote.

Romania’s four-year clampdown on graft has ensnared top officials including ex-Premier Victor Ponta. Social Democratic leader Liviu Dragnea is also serving a two-year suspended sentence for electoral fraud and faces another abuse-of-office probe. He denies wrongdoing. Romania ranks fourth-worst for graft in the EU, according to Berlin-based Transparency International.

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