February 5 is a critical day for Romania as opponents to the government’s attempts to undercut the country’s anti-corruption drive prepare to hold their biggest protest so far. Meanwhile, government officials are due to meet during the day to decide how they will address the situation.
The mood in Bucharest this morning was ebullient but combative, after protesters made a breakthrough late on February 4 when Prime Minister Sorin Grindeanu announced that the cause of the protests – a controversial emergency ordinance partly decriminalising abuse of office – was being withdrawn.
Usually, Bucharest residents make a leisurely start to their Sunday, but at 10am this morning groups of people were already walking in the direction of Victory Square, the centre of the mass anti-corruption protests over the last two weeks. These were followed by another group, this time of joggers draped in the Romanian tricolour flag and shouting “Down with corruption” and other slogans from the recent protests.
The demonstrations started on January 19, the day after the government’s plans to adopt the ordinance, which would see numerous politicians investigated for or convicted of graft walk free, were leaked in the local media. The first protest drew only around 3,000 people, but since then numbers have soared. After the ordinance was adopted at a late night government session on January 31, mass protests have taken place daily, with numbers in Bucharest alone peaking at 180,000 on February 4.
Grindeanu’s decision to back down was significant, but protesters say they do not trust the government, and plan to continue demonstrating until they have proof that the ordinance has been revoked. “Don’t give up”, say posts in the Facebook group where the protest is being publicised.
Secondly, they are calling for the resignation of the government, which they say has lost the trust of the population by its attempt to undermine the anti-corruption fight.
This is a more complex demand, since the PSD-led government was appointed only a month ago after the December 11 general election. Voters had a clear choice; they could opt to keep the technocratic government backed by the centre-right National Liberal Party (PNL) and the newly formed Save Romania Union (USR), which ran on an anti-corruption platform, or they could choose the PSD with its expansionary budget and generous pay rises for state employees. They opted for the PSD.
Having said that, it is unclear how much support the PSD still enjoys. While it was recently elected, and together with its coalition partner the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (ALDE) has a majority in both houses of parliament, there was no mention in its pre-election manifesto of plans to scale back the anti-corruption fight. Despite rumours of a planned counter-demonstration, its supporters have not so far taken to the streets, possibly because the leaders know their numbers would be dwarfed by the opposition protesters.
Not only that, but the EU, important partner countries like Germany the US, and even the highly influential Romanian Orthodox church have expressed their disapproval for the government’s actions.
Clearly, the government saw the writing on the wall before Grindeanu made his announcement that the ordinance would be revoked. “I have heard the voice of the street… I do not want to divide Romania,” he said, in what seemed to be an acknowledgement of the seriousness of the situation and its potential to lead to deeper unrest.
His government is meeting on February 5 to discuss the situation, after which presumably more concrete information about their plans concerning the ordinance will be announced.
But such is the level of public anger against the government, they will most probably have to offer something more if they are to stem the tide of protest. At the very least, resignations or sackings can be expected. And as ministers prepare to meet, rumours are already circling in the local press that the head of the Justice Ministry, Florin Iordache, will be the first to fall.
Read more of bne IntelliNews reports from the ground on Romania’s protests below: