13 February 2017

BUCHAREST, Romania – Standing on Victory Square in Bucharest opposite the government building, Claudia Nicolae held up a sign inscribed with a clear message to the people running her country: Resign.

“They came to govern for their own personal interests and not for the people, that’s what really hurts me. I’m here to ask them to resign,” she said.

The 29-year-old medical student is not alone. An estimated 70,000 people rallied in Bucharest on Sunday night despite freezing weather as anti-government protests moved into the thirteenth consecutive night in one of the EU’s most corrupt countries.

Demonstrators are calling for the Social Democrat (PSD) government, led by Sorin Grindeanu, the prime minister, to quit after it rushed through an emergency decree two weeks ago — since repealed — that would have seriously blunted Romania’s fight against corruption. The law that triggered the biggest protests since communism ended in 1989 would have let abuse of office go unpunished if the financial damage was below 200,000 lei (£38,000).

The decree was set to benefit scores of high-profile figures, including the PSD leader Liviu Dragnea, who is serving a two-year suspended jail sentence for rigging elections. After several nights of mass protests the government withdrew the decree, but that did not placate the protesters.

They now want a complete overhaul of the government. “People are here to protest against the very corrupt government,” Dan Adrian Dragan, a local journalist, said. “We want a clean country, we want to be proud to be Romanians, we don’t want to be ashamed of who we are or what our country is . . . they are the leaders and they shouldn’t steal.”

“The law changes that brought people in the street have been solved,” says Laura Stefan, an anticorruption expert and a former director in the Romanian ministry of justice. “This turmoil is certainly going to affect the way people relate to the anti-corruption agenda . . . people were shocked seeing how easily legislation can be eliminated.”

Corruption remains a major concern for many who see it as a barrier between Romania and other EU member states. United Save Romania (USR), the third largest party in parliament, won its votes on the back of a anti-corruption message alone, with little talk of other policies.

The PSD government, elected in December after a populist campaign, survived a no-confidence vote last Wednesday, despite President Iohannis declaring the country to be in a “fully-fledged crisis”. On Thursday the justice minister Florin Iordache resigned amid pressure as demonstrators continued to take to the streets.

Mr Iohannis cited polls showing show that the majority of Romanians think the country is heading in the wrong direction.

“People are angry in general, they are angry that the anti-corruption fight is being affected,” Radu Magdin, an analyst from political consulting group Smartlink Communications, said.

“The government didn’t expect civil society to be so active, it should have happened with a proper debate.” he added.