Romania’s Leaders Back Down, but Protesters Aren’t Going Anywhere
“Why are we still here now?” said Ana Puiu, 24, a translator joining friends on the teeming square outside the main government building in Bucharest, the capital. “Because we can’t trust this new government.”
As many as half a million protesters were in the streets nationwide, an estimated quarter of a million in Bucharest alone. Many said they would continue at least until they were convinced that the month-old government would refrain from future efforts to weaken the country’s corruption laws. And some vowed to keep up the pressure until ministerial heads roll, or the entire government falls.
“We don’t want to have to be the guardians during the night, coming out into the street to save the law,” said Mihai Georgescu, 28, an information technology engineer. “Maybe they will try again in a month.”
Corruption has been the scourge of Eastern Europe — varying only by degree from country to country — since the first brick was hammered out of the more than a quarter-century ago.
So fighters of corruption were heartened to see Romanians turn out in the streets in the hundreds of thousands last week, day after day, until the government backed down.
The government voted Sunday afternoon to withdraw the ordinance it had put in place late Tuesday night. Prime Minister Sorin Grindeanu also demanded a report from the justice minister, Florin Iordache, on his conduct in the fiasco, a move that led many to believe that Mr. Iordache was being measured as a scapegoat.
“If this does not please people, then they will try other measures,” said Radu Magdin, an analyst for Smartlink, a political consulting company. “Because this process of protests will not stop this evening.”
It will take a wide array of trusted voices outside the government saying the crisis is over to stop the demonstrations, Mr. Magdin said.
“It’s very hard for the prime minister to have the credibility to say, ‘Yes, it’s all fine now, it’s over,’” he said. “There is such an atmosphere of distrust.”
Indeed, the prospect of Mr. Iordache’s dismissal was seen as too little, too late by many voices in Piata Victoriei, the square that has been the main protest site.
“It’s not enough,” said Vlad Fratila, 30, a software developer. “We need to see a commitment that the fight against corruption is still on.”
Corruption has been endemic in for decades, but visible successes in recent years, led by Laura Codruta Kovesi, the chief prosecutor of the National Anticorruption Directorate, have made Romanians increasingly proud of their record of holding public officials accountable. This appeared at risk in recent days.
Romanians also have a history of taking to the streets.
“We have this tradition in Romania of mass movements,” said Cristian Pirvulescu, the dean of the political science department at the National School of Political Studies and Public Administration in Bucharest. “And this was not just a movement against corruption. It’s a fight in defense of democracy.”
And then, he said, they are stunned at the size of the backlash.
Huge street protests forced a former Romanian prime minister, Victor Ponta, who also came from the current ruling party, the Social Democrats, to resign in November 2015.
Those protests followed a Bucharest nightclub fire in which 64 people died, with critics blaming the disaster on corruption. At the time, Mr. Ponta was already facing corruption charges, the first sitting prime minister in Romanian history to do so.
After a brief interregnum in which a technical government was put in place, the Social Democrats returned to power last year with a resounding victory in early December.
The man who took over leadership of the party from Mr. Ponta, Liviu Dragnea, was ineligible to be prime minister because of a conviction for electoral fraud. He is also facing abuse of power charges that could mean prison time.
The measures the Social Democrats took shortly after assuming office again early last month were widely seen as an effort to protect corrupt politicians, including making it possible for Mr. Dragnea to escape a possible prison sentence and to be eligible to serve as prime minister.
One law proposed by the new government, which is still under debate, would pardon those serving less than five years for certain crimes. Mr. Dragnea’s electoral fraud conviction ended in a two-year suspended sentence.
The emergency ordinance issued by the government on Tuesday, which began the latest round of protests, effectively decriminalized some forms of corruption if the amount involved was less than $47,000. Mr. Dragnea’s upcoming trial involves a lesser sum.
Top government officials were stunned by the size and the intensity of the protests, having convinced themselves that they had secured the people’s mandate.
“I think Romania is now beyond the point where it can revert to a dictatorship,” said Manuel Costescu, a member of Parliament for the Union to Save Romania, a party formed last year to combat corruption and increase government transparency.
Too many people are willing to take to the streets to protect their rights, he said, and to influence their friends and colleagues.
“You hear stories about mayors who are under pressure, neighbors protesting in front of their house,” Mr. Costescu said. “You cannot be indifferent to your wife and your children yelling at you for doing something outrageous.”