Photographer: Andrei Pungovschi/AFP via Getty Images

Romanian Premier Refuses to Quit as Protests Grow Despite U-Turn

  • Sixth straight day of demonstrations sees record turnout
  • Government Sunday reversed steps seen as harming graft fight

Romania’s prime minister defied calls to quit as his cabinet’s decision to scrap measures seen as damaging the nation’s anti-corruption drive failed to stem the largest protests since the fall of communism.

Premier Sorin Grindeanu said the only democratic way to change government is through a no-confidence motion in parliament, where his Social Democrats dominate. Reversing plans to pardon some convicted officials and shield others from future prosecution wasn’t enough to prevent a sixth straight day of demonstrations. A record 600,000 people gathered Sunday evening nationwide demanding the cabinet resigns, including 300,000 in Bucharest, local media estimated. A few hundred, mostly pensioners, gathered to support the government.

Sorin Grandeanu on Feb. 4.

Photographer: Andrei Pungovschi/AFP via Getty Images

“There’s large mistrust in the current political class and the latest developments have really hurt confidence in the ruling coalition,” Septimius Parvu, a political analyst and election expert at the Expert Forum NGO, said by phone. “There will have to be some political sacrifices in the government and also in the ruling party as the pressure is very high.”

The Social Democrats are battling the largest public backlash since the 1989 uprising that ousted dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. Romania’s third government in two years incurred the wrath of the public and President Klaus Iohannis by unexpectedly easing punishments for officials who abuse their positions and by seeking to free others from prison. The protesters back the anti-graft initiative that’s ensnared top officials in the European Union and NATO member nation, including an ex-Social Democrat premier.

Protests in Bucharest on Feb. 3.

Photographer: Tudor Vintiloiu/Sputnik via AP

“We won the elections fairly with millions of votes and I’m not going to resign,” Grindeanu told Antena 3 television. “We decided to take a step back because we don’t want to split the country in two. But we have a program that we want to move forward with.”

The turmoil sent the leu 0.4 percent against the euro lower last week, trimming this year’s gain to 0.3 percent. While S&P Global Ratings said risks to Romania’s investment-grade status are currently balanced, it warned that the turmoil could dent investor confidence and harm growth. 

The government had planned to decriminalize abuse-of-office offenses for sums of less than 200,000 lei ($48,000) and sent a draft law to pardon prisoners serving sentences shorter than five years, excluding rapists and repeat offenders. Grindeanu said the 200,000 lei threshold that sparked fury may be dropped in talks with parties and is considering whether to fire the justice minister, whose communication he criticized as “poor.”

While the government said the measures were meant to ease prison overcrowding, its actions would have freed hundreds ex-officials and potentially halted investigations of others. They include an investigation into Liviu Dragnea, the party leader who’s seeking a retrial after receiving a suspended sentence for electoral fraud. He denies wrongdoing.

Anti-graft prosecutors in Romania are working on more than 2,000 abuse-of-office cases. In the past two years, they’ve sent more than 1,000 people to trial, seeking to recover damages in excess of 1 billion euros ($1.1 billion). The country of 19 million people ranks fourth-worst for graft in the EU, according to Berlin-based Transparency International.

“A government capable of these sort of measures is capable of worse things,” said Radu Medelcut, a 35-year-old programmer. “I want the people who signed this decree to resign. I’m pessimistic because if this first month was like this, it could get worse.”

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