Anti-government protests have flooded the streets of Romanian main cities throughout the last three weeks. The cause of the extraordinary demonstrations is a legislative package that was presented in mid-January. As stated by the government, the package was aimed to solve overcrowding in prisons across the country, but according to thousands of demonstrators, Klaus Iohannis, Romania’s President, the European Union, and other countries, the legislative package was a serious concern and a step back in the fight against corruption. In an attempt to circumvent public debate in parliament, the government adopted an emergency decree on the 31st of January with the measures previously announced. The proposal of the social democrat ruling party (PSD) commutes some criminal non-violent sentences and decriminalizes official misconduct up to €45,000, thereby watering down anti-corruption laws. Justice Minister Florin Iordache said the decree is designed to avoid a ruling against Romania at the European Court of Human Rights regarding prison conditions.
The social democrat-led government won the elections with about 45% of the vote last December, however, the approved measures have severely backfired, and currently, the Romanian government faces a crisis of legitimization. The decree is perceived as a pardon for PSD politicians convicted of corruption and provides a way for free riding in the future. Since the fall of communism, Romania has found that bribery and government corruption is its Achilles heel. For instance, 18 ministers have been convicted or charged with corruption since 2004. Despite some degree of improvement since EU accession, the problem is so profound and corruption is so rooted that it takes part in every aspect of Romanian society. Therefore, the emergency decree approved by the current government, for many Romanians, was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
The anger and mistrust have begotten the largest demonstrations since the infamous Ceausescu’s final days in 1989. Up to half a million people have raised their voices in protests across the country. In addition, the European Commission criticized the emergency decree and officially stated that “the ordinances, published on 18 January, could affect the legal framework for corruption and the results of the fight against corruption.” President of the European Commission, Jean Claude Juncker, also expressed his concern and warned that “the fight against corruption needs to be advanced, not undone.” Other western countries have also criticized the legislative package, for instance, German Chancellor Angela Merkel also manifested that Romania must not slow down its anti-corruption pace.
After a week of demonstrations, the government thought it had weathered the worst of the situation and was reluctant to back down on its emergency decree. However, cracks in the government’s unity emerged when Florin Jianu, Romania’s Minister of Business, Trade, and Entrepreneurship announced his resignation and called it an ethical decision “not for my professional honesty, my conscience is clean on that front, but for my child. How am I going to look him in the eye and what am I going to tell him over the years?” He wrote, “am I going to tell him his father was a coward and supported actions he does not believe in, or that he chose to walk away from a story that isn’t his?” A few days later, in the face of the backlash, wide-spread demonstrations, and support from abroad the decree was repealed. Prime minister Grindeanu said in a speech “We’ll hold an extraordinary meeting on Sunday (February 6th) to repeal the decree, withdraw, [and] cancel it,” adding that, instead, the proposal would be sent to parliament for debate.
Although the legislative package has been repealed, people have continued protests against the government’s actions, and many are demanding the resignation of the entire cabinet. On Thursday, February 9th, the Minister of Justice Florin Iordache offered his resignation, justifying the emergency decree as legal and constitutional regardless. The minister’s resignation constituted a victory for protesters, however, strong-willed Romanians are well aware of the struggle ahead and they are ready to watch out and safeguard justice in Romania.
After many days of peaceful, creative, and energetic demonstrations, protests have not slowed down. Romanians are not planning to go home, and have gathered for the 13th consecutive night against a government that they say does not represent them. The protests have become an example of the people’s power and it certainly has the potential to transform into a movement. Urban youngsters, families, disparate groups and ideologies have found common ground in an unprecedented manner. This Monday, February 13th, the parliament has endorsed a plan to hold a national referendum on the anti-corruption reforms. Undoubtedly, it is an extraordinary moment for democracy and the struggle against corruption, and the Romanian people are the architects of it.