It would appear that the sight of more than 100,000 Romanians of all ages peacefully protesting on the streets of the country’s towns and cities last night finally knocked a little sense into the Romanian government. In Bucharest alone, more than 50,000 people filled the city centre, marching from Piata Universitatii to Casa Poporului and on to the government building in Piata Victoriei. It was some scene. No wonder the government appeared today to have ditched the idea of issuing two emergency ordinances that would pardon thousands of criminals (hundreds of corrupt politicians among them) and see cases dropped against many others.
While the number of protesters out in the freezing cold continued to grow, in Bucharest’s warm television studios prime minister Sorin Grindeanu was just one of many senior government officials trying to convince anyone who would listen that the pardons had been part of the PSD’s manifesto all along (they weren’t). He also promised to raise pensions. We remember another Romanian famously doing something very similar when confronted with a hostile crowd.
Senate leader and former prime minister Calin Popescu-Tariceanu meantime was talking of a possible ‘civil war’ if the government brought its supporters out onto the streets. Pavel Abraham, a retired general in the Militia (the communist-era police force) said that the government would be within its rights to use live ammunition on the protesters. (Yes, really: he did).
It now looks as though it is not going to come to any of that. Speaking at this morning’s farcical public consultations on the subject of pardons for criminals, Justice Minister Florin Iordache clearly stated that the two emergency ordinances were no longer on the table, neither was a special-status parliamentary bill. Instead, Iordache claimed that any bill would now go through parliament in the normal way, as with any other piece of legislation. That opens the bill(s) up to challenges from opposition MPs, parliamentary commissions, the president Klaus Iohannis and the Constitutional Court. It does not for one moment mean that the bills are dead, but it does make it highly unlikely that they will ever be passed in their current form.
For the time being the people – who came in numbers far bigger than anyone could have anticipated: these were the biggest demonstrations in Romania since 1990 – have won. And so has Iohannis.
That the president has played a blinder over the past couple of weeks is something that even his opponents cannot fail to recognise. Even this morning he was still on the attack, once again requesting that the government back down. It appears to have done precisely that.
The biggest loser of this particular battle is PSD leader Liviu Dragnea, strangely silent both last night and all day today. He is too canny a political operator to have been defeated for good, but his tenure as head of the ruling party now looks far more shaky than it did just a few days ago. There will be many, many angry people within the PSD looking to have him removed as soon as possible.
His impending corruption trial (due to begin tomorrow) may do the job for them.