Romanian President Klaus Iohannis announced on January 23 he will start procedures to organise a referendum on the government’s plans to pardon some sentences and amend the Criminal Code so that some offences are decriminalised.
The announcement comes just a day after Iohannis attended a massive rally in Bucharest against the government’s plans to amend criminal legislation through two emergency ordinances. The ordinances have been criticised by the general prosecutor and the National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA), as well as by the president, as they seem tailored to help some politicians, including the leader of the ruling Social Democratic Pary (PSD), Liviu Dragnea, evade justice. Many Romanians fear they will undermine the fight against corruption.
“Why did the people go out? It is very easy: PSD and its satellite ALDE [the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats] promised welfare to Romanians, they promised they will solve Romania’s problems, they promised economic growth, higher salaries and pensions. People voted for them in good faith. But when they came to government, they started to do something totally different. They started to change the criminal legislation in order to clean their files, those of their party colleagues, of those who supported them in the campaign probably,” Iohannis said.
He added that he will start procedures for a referendum so that Romanians will be able to say if they agree with the government’s plans, as they were not on PSD’s manifesto presented before the elections.
Iohannis’s announcement, as well as his participation in the rally on January 22, is likely to win him back some of the popularity he has lost in recent years. Iohannis unexpectedly won the presidential elections in November 2014 after a scandal hit his opponent, former Prime Minister Victor Ponta, whose party was blamed for not organising enough polling stations abroad. However, the enthusiasm for Iohannis later started to fade and he has been criticised for his lack of activity.
One of the main risks Iohannis could face in organising the referendum is low turnout. According to Romanian legislation, the referendum is valid if at least 30% of the people registered on the electoral lists participate in it and its result is validated only if the valid cast votes represent 25% of those registered in the electoral lists.
PSD and ALDE, which have a majority in parliament, support the legislative changes and they also benefit from the support of two large media holdings. Other politicians who are being investigated for corruption would also benefit from the proposed changes and might not openly support the president’s move.
Meanwhile, the president is expected to have the support of the National Liberal Party (PNL) and the Save Romania Union (USR). On January 22 the PNL announced plans to initiate a no-confidence motion against the government of Prime Minister Sorin Grindeanu. USR announced similar plans two days earlier.
Dragnea reacted briefly to Iohannis' statement saying the president was “asking for his suspension” in order to play the victim, but the Social Democrats are not interested at the moment in suspending the president, according to News.ro. Dragnea said his party plans to organise two referenda this spring, one on the definition of a family - a vote that could outlaw gay marriage - and another on eliminating immunity, including that of the president.
Dragnea added that “it is not very clear” if the president can organise a referendum on pardons considering that an article in the Constitution envisages that citizens cannot have a legislative initiative on this topic and as a result they cannot express their opinions in this regard.
According to the draft legislation on pardons, which has been published for debate on the justice ministry's website, prison sentences shorter than five years will be fully pardoned, while people over 60, pregnant women and people looking after children under five years old would have their sentences halved.
According to the proposed amendments to the Criminal Code, the abuse of office offence will be redefined so that it will be a criminal offence only if the damage caused exceeds RON200,000 (€44,500) and the damaged party has made a complaint. Dragnea would be one of the politicians to benefit 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.