Romania protests continue against government ‘thieves’

Romanians turn out for more protests despite a government promise to repeal legislation that decriminalised corruption.

Protesters take part in a demonstration in Bucharest
Protesters turn out for the sixth day despite a government repeal of the controversial order [File: Reuters]

Romanians geared up for a sixth day of protests on Sunday, seeking to maintain pressure on the government despite its climbdown over contentious corruption legislation that sparked the biggest protests since 1989.

Late on Saturday, the government pledged it would repeal a decree that decriminalises corruption offences following days of mass protests across the country.

But demonstrators are not convinced. 

“Today we are going to break new records,” Florian, 40, told AFP news agency in the capital, Bucharest, saying he did not trust the government to retract the legislation as promised. 

“We don’t believe that,” the electrician said as he distributed free pretzels and tea at Victory Square, the epicentre of this week’s protests.

By midday (10:00 GMT) on Sunday, several hundred people could be seen gathering in the square, but the crowd was expected to swell with thousands arriving on buses from outside the capital.

On Saturday, an estimated 330,000 people demonstrated across the nation, TV reports said, in what was the biggest turnout since the toppling of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989.

Critics say that the emergency government decree issued late on Tuesday represents a retreat in the country’s long fight against corruption.

It decriminalises criminal punishments for conflict of interest, work negligence and abuse of power cases in which the financial damage is valued at less than $48,000. 

The crowds, largely young, have chanted, waved banners, blown vuvuzela horns in the national colours and paraded effigies of government officials in black-and-white prison uniforms.

The government said it would align the penal code with the constitution, but protesters saw it as a brazenly transparent attempt by the ruling Social Democrats (PSD) to let off many of its own officials and lawmakers.

In Pictures: Protests surge as Romania decriminalises corruption

In addition, the government, in office for barely a month, wants to release some 2,500 prisoners serving sentences less than five years, ostensibly to reduce overcrowding in jails.

Despite celebrations at the government’s reversal, the demonstrators said that revoking the decree would not be enough and protests would continue with demands for resignations. 

Al Jazeera’s David Chater, reporting from Bucharest, said if the government stays true to its word and withdraws the decree, the crowd could be encouraged and push for the prime minister’s resignation.

“There could still be another problem for the ruling Social Democrat government,” Chater said.

“This cabinet has only been operating for a month, it’s already riven by resignations and it looks like the prime minister could be the target of Sunday’s protests – which could well be the biggest we’ve seen.”

‘Must stay vigilant’ 

On Saturday evening as the crowds swelled, Prime Minister Sorin Grindeanu finally announced the retreat, saying the government would meet Sunday to repeal the decree.

“I do not want to divide Romania,” a pale and tired-looking Grindeanu said in a televised address, sparking cheers and celebrations late into the night from protesters outside.

But he said the government still needed to bring laws into line with the constitution, slamming what he called a campaign of misinformation and “distortion”.

Raluca, a demonstrator in her 30s, said she was delighted but that the government was still not to be trusted.

“People are going to remain very vigilant with this government,” she told AFP late Saturday.

Her words were echoed on Sunday morning by Rado, one of a sweaty trio, cycling on bikes fixed to the ground at Victory Square, who said he was “sick” of corruption.

“Usually, we do a Sunday trip, we cycle around 100-150km,” said the 27-year-old who works for an online sports shop.

“And since we have to look out for the thieves in our government, we decided just to come here and train,” he told AFP.

“We just want someone competent to run the state for the people. Not for themselves, for their own benefit and bank accounts.”

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies