Romania’s political crisis deepened Thursday as a government minister said he’ll resign following the largest protests since the collapse of communism over sudden changes to criminal legislation that hamper efforts to stamp out corruption.
Business Environment Minister Florin Jianu said he intends to quit because he can’t support the government’s stance, according to a message on his Facebook page. “I don’t want to have to tell my child that I was a coward and I agreed to something I don’t believe in,” Jianu said in his post.
His announcement came after at least 300,000 people took to the streets of cities across the country, with about 150,000 gathering in freezing temperatures outside the government building in Bucharest on Wednesday evening, the Digi24 TV station and News.ro estimated.
The biggest gathering since the 1989 revolution that ousted dictator Nicolae Ceausescu took place after the Social Democrat-led government, which has been in office for only a month, defied a public outcry, judicial rebuke and President Klaus Iohannis by revamping criminal legislation at a meeting late Tuesday. The protesters back a four-year anti-graft drive that’s ensnared top officials including an ex-Social Democrat premier.
The turmoil sent the leu 1 percent weaker against the euro, the currency’s biggest decline in more than two years and one that erased all of its 2017 gains. It could weaken to 4.60 against the common currency from 4.546 at 8:41 a.m. in Bucharest if the changes to the criminal law are left in place, according to Dan Bucsa, a London-based economist at UniCredit Bank AG.
“I’ll come here every single day until they reverse all the measures and then leave, because we can’t accept their abuse,” said Ionut Balcescu, a 34-year-old small-business owner. “They acted like thieves in the middle of the night and take us for fools.”
The government’s measures would pardon prisoners serving sentences shorter than five years, excluding rapists and repeat offenders, and decriminalize abuse-of-office offenses that cause damages of less than 200,000 lei ($48,000). The pardons still require parliamentary approval, though the Social Democrats command a majority that should also allow them to repel a no-confidence motion from the opposition.
While the government says it’s trying to relieve overcrowded prisons, its actions would free hundreds of officials and halt probes into others. They include an abuse-of-office investigation into Social Democratic leader Liviu Dragnea, who’s also serving a suspended sentence for electoral fraud. He denies wrongdoing.
“This damages the judiciary and breaches its independence,” Iohannis said after meeting the Superior Council of Magistrates, a court watchdog that’s challenging the measures. “The only option I won’t accept is doing nothing about it. We must make a stand at an institutional level.”
The controversy in Romania comes amid concern that other regional governments are undermining the rule of law. The EU has reprimanded Poland and Hungary for state encroachment on the judiciary and the media. The government in Warsaw backed away from plans to tighten abortion rules after mass protests.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker criticized Romania’s actions, saying “the fight against corruption needs to be advanced, not undone.” Six embassies, including those of the U.S. and Germany, expressed “profound concern” and said the rule of law is being undermined. “We hope the government will reverse this unhelpful course,” they said.
Anti-graft prosecutors are working on more than 2,000 abuse-of-office cases. In the past two years, they’ve sent more than 1,000 people to trial, seeking to recover damages in excess of 1 billion euros ($1.1 billion). The country of 19 million people ranks fourth-worst for graft in the EU, according to Berlin-based Transparency International.