February 11, 2017

AFTER just three weeks in power, Romania’s new prime minister, Sorin Grindeanu, could look out of his window to see a crowd estimated at hundreds of thousands of people carrying banners reading: “You have succeeded in uniting us”. Unfortunately for Mr Grindeanu, they did not mean it in a good way. For over a week, vast throngs have turned out to protest against the passage of an emergency ordinance that could sabotage the country’s much-praised anti-corruption campaign. Even after the government cancelled the ordinance, the protests continued, and it is unclear where the unrest will lead.

The emergency decree, which the government passed late in the evening on January 31st, effectively decriminalised official misconduct resulting in financial damage of less than 200,000 lei ($47,600). The new limit would have spared the leader of the ruling Social Democratic Party (PSD), Liviu Dragnea, who has been charged with abuse of power for granting contracts worth €24,000 to associates who allegedly performed no work. The new justice minister, Florin Iordache, maintained that the move was in line with international standards, but many Romanians saw it as a licence to steal.

Within an hour of the measure’s adoption, more than ten thousand protesters were on the streets. The following night the numbers rose to an estimated 250,000 in more than 50 cities and towns across the country, the largest demonstrations in a quarter of a century. Romanians living abroad protested, too. The president and vice president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker and Frans Timmermans, released a statement saying the fight against corruption “needs to be advanced, not undone,” and said they were watching developments in the country with great concern. Western ambassadors warned against any weakening of the country’s anti-corruption efforts.

The demonstrations peaked at over half a million last Sunday, even though the government had earlier that day passed measures to repeal the emergency ordinance. Protesters hoped to send the message that they would be watching to see that Mr Grindeanu and other politicians lived up to their word.

The issue of corruption has dominated Romanian politics for years. The previous elected government was brought down by mass protests in November 2015, after graft among fire-safety inspectors led to a Bucharest nightclub blaze that killed 64 people. Romania sits 57th on the corruption-perceptions index compiled by Transparency International, a watchdog. Despite years of ostentatious anti-corruption efforts, many analysts believe little has changed. “I don’t think Romania has made significant progress against corruption,” says Alina Mungiu-Pippidi, a Romanian corruption expert.

Good-government advocates have found a champion in Laura Codruta Kovesi, the combative chief prosecutor of the National Anti-Corruption Directorate (DNA). In the past several years DNA has convicted thousands of people on corruption charges, including many high-ranking government officials. In 2015 it indicted Romania’s then-sitting prime minister, Victor Ponta; the case against him is still ongoing.

Some opponents of the agency criticise its reliance on wiretaps by state security services. Others accuse it of bias, a charge Ms Kovesi convincingly denies. “We have investigated politicians from almost all of the parties, not just from the government or opposition,” she notes. Most in Romania agree: DNA is one of the most trusted institutions in the country, behind only the church, army and the gendarmerie. Among the sea of placards on display at the protests were many that read “Hands off DNA”.

Romanians had braced themselves for pushback against the country’s anti-corruption efforts after the PSD won a resounding victory in last December’s elections. The PSD took 45% of the vote, with their closest rival, the National Liberal Party, getting just 20%. The party’s leader, Mr Dragnea, was blocked from becoming prime minister due to an earlier conviction for election fraud, for which he carries a suspended sentence. If convicted on the new abuse-of-power charges, his earlier sentence would come into force, and he would face jail time. Many of the protesters believe the purpose of the new measures was to keep him and other officials out of prison.

The government has attempted to blame the protests on poor communications, political scheming by the country’s president, Klaus Iohannis (who hails from the Liberals), or even professional agitators. A month after Mr Grindeanu’s swearing-in, there is already speculation that he may have to resign. He has dismissed such talk, but Mr Iordache, the justice minister, is unlikely to survive for long.

But the long-term impact of the protests seems uncertain. Many of those who marched last week had helped bring down the government in 2015, only to watch some of the same faces return to power just over a year later. Other proposals to lighten punishments or shorten sentences remain under discussion. The government insists they are aimed at relieving overcrowded prisons, but many Romanians think they are excuses to let corrupt officials go free.

One of the protesters in Bucharest, Paul Morosanu, a psychologist, carried a placard that read “89 Reloaded”, referring to the protests that brought down Romania’s communist regime. He was on the streets not to roll back one new law, he said, but to overthrow an entire political constellation that has been developing for 27 years. “Before, we didn’t have a face for what we were fighting,” Mr Morosanu said. “This law gave it a face.”