Romania’s government has said it will withdraw a decree decriminalising minor corruption offences, backing down on a controversial plan to water down anti-corruption laws following five days of mass protests across the country.
Prime Minister Sorin Grindeanu told a hastily convened news conference that the government would meet on Sunday to repeal the emergency decree that had raised worries of a retreat in the fight against corruption.
“I do not want to divide Romania. It can’t be divided in two,” Grindeanu said on Saturday.
The announcement came as tens of thousands of people protested for a fifth consecutive day against the contentious decree that decriminalises abuse of power offences in which the sums do not exceed 200,000 lei ($48,000).
Al Jazeera’s David Chater, reporting from the demonstration in the capital, Bucharest, said the news about the decree’s withdrawal had sparked victory celebrations.
“People power on the street has succeeded in pushing the government into making these concessions,” Chater said.
“There is going to be a massive celebration here, instead of another heated protest.”
The decree, adopted on Tuesday and due to enter into force on February 10, prompted large protests throughout the country, the largest since the fall of communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989.
On Saturday afternoon, demonstrators launched another noisy march in central Bucharest, blowing whistles and vuvuzela horns in the national colours, heading for parliament to form a human chain there.
“At some point, we didn’t think it would be possible to convince the government to back down on the proposal, but fortunately not even they can be that irrational as to ignore the hundreds of thousands of people protesting,” demonstrator Claudiu Craciun told Al Jazeera.
The emergency decree decriminalised 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.
A separate bill, to go before parliament, would free some 2,500 prisoners on short sentences.
The government said it was bringing legislation into line with the constitution and reducing overcrowding in prisons.
But critics feared a setback for a year-long fight against corruption, calling the measures as a brazenly transparent effort by the government to let off some of the many corrupt officials involved in a series of scandals.
Mihai Politeanu, founder of the Initiative Romania NGO, told Al Jazeera the decriminalisation would had been “a disaster for the future of Romania”, taking it “back to the early 1990s when corruption and oligarchs took over the country”.