Romanian government to revoke controversial ordinance but protests continue

Romanian government to revoke controversial ordinance but protests continue
By Carmen Simion in Bucharest February 5, 2017

Romanian Prime Minister Sorin Grindeanu bowed to public pressure on February 4, announcing that the harshly criticised emergency ordinance partly decriminalising abuse of office will be revoked. Grindeanu now says the ordinance will be revoked at a government meeting on February 5, and the changes to the legislation will be sent to parliament for debate. 

Romanians have been rallying for five consecutive days, in the largest protests in the Southeast European country since the fall of Communism in 1989. Grindeanu’s announcement did not bring much relief to the hundreds of thousands of Romanians who continued their demonstrations across the country on Saturday evening, while the mass protests against a government which was endorsed only a month ago raises questions about its legitimacy.

The amendments, adopted by the government late on January 31, are seen as a threat to Romania’s anti-corruption fight and have been criticised by judicial institutions in the country, the president, the European Commission, partner countries and investor associations. This is in addition to popular opposition within the country; an estimated 180,000 people gathered in Victory Square in Bucharest the night the Prime Minister announced the government will revoke the ordinance.

The ruling Social Democratic Party (PSD) seems to have given in to protests, which on February 3 alone gathered an estimated 150,000 people in Victory Square, where the government headquarters are located. Thousands more demonstrated in other cities around the country. 

While people are waiting to see the outcome of the February 5 emergency government meeting, they are still taking to the streets and asking for the government’s resignation. Another mass protest – possibly the largest to date – is expected on February 5 in Bucharest.

Moreover, there is pressure from inside the party, as the controversial ordinance has been criticised by party leaders. One government minister, although not a PSD member, resigned after only 28 days in office. 

The prime minister suggested his decision was based on his wish to keep the country united. In recent weeks, there have been voices inside the party who suggested the PSD might organise counter demonstrations in support of the government, which would most likely have escalated the situation. “I have heard and seen these days many opinions, many of them coming from party colleagues, a party I have been a member of for 20 years, from colleagues from the governing coalition, from colleagues from opposition parties, I have heard many opinions coming from simple people, I have heard the voice of the street,” Grindeanu said. “I do not want to divide Romania,” he added.

Under the ordinance, abuse of office would have been redefined so that it will be a criminal offence only if the damage caused exceeds RON200,000 (€44,500), almost 100 times more than the average monthly net salary in the country. In Romania, the average net wage is RON2,172.

PSD leader Liviu Dragnea would have benefitted from the new legislation, as the damage caused in the case in which he has been indicted for instigation to abuse of office stands at RON108,612. 

“As prime minister, I am announcing you that I have made some decisions. The first of them – tomorrow I will summon  an emergency government meeting to revoke this ordinance,” Grindeanu said. 

He went on to stress that he would revoke the ordinance, referencing suspicions that his government might still try to push it through. “I am using [the word] revoke because this is what it is... I have seen debates on the topic. This is the term used by the presidency when he asked us to revoke the ordinance. We will find the legal way, to revoke or delay, so that it does not become effective, to be more clear,” he said.

Romanian President Klaus Iohannis, who has already called a referendum on the issue, sent a letter to Grindeanu on February 1 asking him to revoke the ordinance. 

The crisis had deepened towards the end of last week, when the prime minister and Dragnea announced the government would not withdraw the ordinance. At the same time, the number of protesters, in 70 Romanian towns according to local media, grew steadily. Protests erupted even in small towns, and the main requests of the protesters were the withdrawal of the ordinance and the continuation of the anti-corruption fight.

In his February 4 address, Grindeanu announced he will launch consultations with political parties and that the RON200,000 cap might be removed.

Grindeanu also said that the arguments supporting the ordinance had not been clearly communicated, and the justice ministry and minister will assume responsibility. However, rallies might continue in the coming days as the protesters have been asking since the start of the protests for the government to resign as well as to revoke the ordinance. 

“I am not going to stay indoors, the prime minister’s statement did not convince me, I want facts, not words, I want  to see the ordinance withdrawn. And this will not be enough, this government has to leave. I will be here tomorrow too,” one of the protesters told bne IntelliNews.

Students from the city of Cluj-Napoca had reportedly already left for the capital with plans to attend the February 5 rally before Grindeanu made his announcement. 

In addition, all the scandal around the ordinances might bring about some changes inside the PSD, as it has damaged the image of the party. Some PSD members have criticised the ordinance, including vice president president and Iasi mayor Mihai Chirica, who had asked the government to revoke the ordinance and for the resignation of Justice Minister Florin Iordache. 

A further blow for the PSD came from the very influential Orthodox church, which urged people to pray. “There is often violence and disorder because they do not gather in their soul the peace which comes from God and which pacifies the selfish passions such as the abuse of power and unlimited material profit,” the Orthodox Patriarch said.