Over 150,000 people took to the streets across Romania on Wednesday evening in sub-zero temperatures in the largest protest in 25 years against government corruption.
The night before, the left-wing government headed by Prime Minister Sorin Grindeanu passed an emergency decree that decriminalizes some corruption offenses and makes official misconduct offenses punishable by prison only if the monetary loss exceeds around $47,500.
Denouncing the measure as “a Mercedes for every politician,” protestors, many of them young people who came with their children, strollers and dogs, chanted “Thieves,” “Don’t Let Them Get Away,” and “Shame on you” in front of the government building. Others held signs, waved flags, blew whistles and horns.
“We have reached an unbearable limit,” said Adrian Neacsu, a 44-year-old data analyst from Bucharest. “The ruling party is in fact a mafia organization and they are now legalizing theft.”
The government is also planning an amnesty bill to release tens of thousands of inmates, claiming the measures are necessary to relieve prison overcrowding. The plans have been criticized by many for potentially releasing corrupt officials now serving sentences as well as dangerous criminals.
In parliament, six lawmakers with “Save Romania Union,” a new opposition party, staged the first ever sit-in to protest the government’s plans, inspired by their American counterparts who held a sit-in at the U.S. House of Representatives over gun control in June 2016.
“We don’t want to accept what the government is trying to do and we are using all legal means to stop them,” said Mihai Botez, one of the lawmakers taking part in the sit-in, who represents Vaslui county, the poorest in Romania. “People from our towns are out on the streets and we are receiving messages of encouragement from all over Romania and people around the world.” Botez, nicknamed by the local media “the boy with the backpack” due to his age, 30, and low-cost approach to campaigning, vowed to continue the sit-in until the government backs down.
Romania has been under special monitoring by the European Commission for widespread official corruption and has made progress in recent years, with special anti-corruption prosecutors sending to prison dozens of high level officials, including a former prime minister. But the newly elected government headed by the Social Democratic Party, which suffered the greatest losses among its ranks during the anti-corruption campaign, is seeking to soften the anti-graft laws. Party chief Liviu Dragnea, who was recently convicted of electoral fraud, is seen as the main driver of the effort to stop the anti-corruption campaign, with local media tracing a draft of the decree to his office. Dragnea took part in Donald Trump’s inauguration and was ridiculed in the Romanian media for seeking to curry favor with the new U.S. President.
Back in the Victory Square, in front of the government, the crowd booed and vowed to reject any weakening of the corruption legislation.
“The culture of corruption is still with us from the communist period, and it is getting worse,” said Luminita Craciun, a 45-year old chemistry professor. “For myself and my children, I want a country like in Western Europe. We don’t want to be forced out of our country.”