In face of mass protests, Romania backs off corruption decree
Feb. 4 (UPI) — In the face of mass protests, the Romanian government made an abrupt about-face, announcing Saturday it would repeal a decree that would have granted clemency to politicians convicted of corruption.
Hundreds of thousands of protesters braved Romania’s cold winter air since early this week, when word of the controversial measure first became public. On Wednesday, at the height of the protests, an estimated 300,000 people crowded the public square outside the main government building in Bucharest — the largest crowd of protesters since the nation’s communist government fell in 1989. Organizers predicted as many as a half-million people on Sunday if the government continued to press forward with the decree.
The measure, enacted by the nation’s ruling party, the PSD that won power with a decisive electoral victory in December, would have decriminalized corruption in amounts less than 44,000 euros, or $47,500. Anyone serving a sentence of less than five years would have had the charges dropped and let go from prison.
The government billed the decree as a way to reduce prison overcrowding.
At the center of the controversy was the leader of the PSD, Liviu Dragnea, who is serving a two-year suspended sentence stemming from a conviction for election fraud. While he is not imprisoned and still wields significant power over the ruling party as its president, Romanian law prevents him from becoming prime minister because of his conviction. The decree, if enacted, would have wiped that away, clearing a path for him to assume power. Dragnea faces additional corruption charges stemming from his time in municipal government that would have been dropped, as well.
Facing mounting condemnation by the United States, the European Union and the normally pro-government Romanian Orthodox Church, Prime Minister Sorin Grindeanu said in a televised address late Saturday the government would hold an emergency meeting Sunday and repeal the decree, which was set to go into effect on Friday.
“I do not want to divide Romania. It can’t be divided in two,” Grindeanu said, adding he had heard “the voices from the streets.”
Reaction to the news among the protesters was mixed. While many celebrated the victory, others questioned why the government went ahead with the measure in the first place and wondered whether they might try to loosen corruption laws again in the future.
“This doesn’t change anything,” protester Diana Popescu, 42, told The New York Times. “They still lied. This government isn’t honest. We don’t want to be represented by a government of liars.”