Romania Cabinet Won’t Quit as Protests Ease After U-Turn

  • Seventh day of protests sees turnout falling after record
  • Government Sunday reversed steps seen as harming graft fight

Romania’s government defied calls to resign as its decision to scrap measures easing the nation’s anti-corruption laws failed to fully stem the largest protests since the fall of communism.

Protest on Feb. 5.

Photographer: Andrei Pungovschi/AFP/Getty Images

Ruling-party leader Liviu Dragnea reiterated support for the cabinet on Monday after Prime Minister Sorin Grindeanu said the only democratic way to change government is through a no-confidence motion this week in parliament, where his Social Democrats dominate. Reversing plans to pardon some convicted officials and shield others from future prosecution and Grindeanu’s pledge to change justice minister, helped ease some of the people’s anger. A seventh consecutive day of protests on Monday saw a lower turnout after a record 600,000 on Sunday. About 10,000 people gathered in Bucharest with thousands others in cities across the country.

Sorin Grindeanu 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 at the Expert Forum research center, 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.

“We won the elections fairly with millions of votes and I’m not going to resign,” Grindeanu told Antena 3 television on Sunday. “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.”

Having lost 0.4 percent against the euro last week, the leu was 0.4 percent stronger on Monday in Bucharest. 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 future changes that are needed to the criminal legislation will only be done after consistent talks with internal and external judiciary experts. He said he’ll probably replace Justice Minister Florin Iordache, whom he considers responsible for the crisis after a vote on a no-confidence motion filed by the opposition last week.

“They have to sacrifice the justice minister,” Alfred Bulai, a sociologist and deputy dean at the Political Science University in Bucharest, said by phone. “The ruling party is responsible for escalating the protests because of numerous mistakes. Unless they change strategy, the crisis won’t ease.”

No-Confidence Vote

A no-confidence motion in the whole government is due Wednesday, a day after lawmakers are scheduled to pass this year’s budget. The plan cements the tax cuts and salary hikes that formed the basis for the Social Democrats’ election victory.

Anti-graft prosecutors 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. Dragnea wants a retrial after receiving a suspended sentence for electoral fraud and is fighting a separate abuse-of-office case.

“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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