“What is happening these days could be called the dictatorship of the majority and is profoundly damaging to democracy,” President Klaus Iohannis, a former leader of the opposition National Liberal Party, said at a news conference on Wednesday.
He was referring to the bill, proposed by the Justice Ministry, that passed through a parliamentary committee and both houses of Parliament in just three days: The lower house of Parliament voted 167 to 97 in favor of the changes on Wednesday, partly decriminalizing abuse of office just one day after the Senate passed it overwhelmingly.
To take effect, the changes would need to be signed into law by Mr. Iohannis, a requirement that paves the way for a major political fight. Opposition parties, as well as the president himself, have vowed to challenge the new legislation in the Constitutional Court, and thousands have taken to the streets of Bucharest and other Romanian cities in protest.
The legislative change comes a little more than a year after the passage of an emergency ordinance that effectively decriminalized low-level corruption, drawing the largest protests in Romania since the fall of Communism in 1989. The government backed down to public pressure then, but it has continued to pursue policies that would rein in the powers of the courts and prosecutors by other means.
Under the new laws, prosecutors would need to prove that defendants abused power for their own benefit, or for that of a close relative. In addition, any case involving less than the equivalent of $475, the minimum monthly wage, would be exempt from criminal prosecution; maximum jail sentences for abuse of office would be lowered to five years from seven; and convicts older than 60 would serve only one-third of their sentences.
Leading figures in the government say the changes aim to stop abuses by the judiciary, but many contend that the goal is to weaken anti-corruption efforts. Romania has made strong efforts to rein in graft since it joined the European Union in 2007, but it is still considered one of the most corrupt states in the bloc.
Hundreds of abuse-of-office cases, some involving high-ranking politicians, are making their way through Romania’s courts, and they would most likely be affected by the new measures. They could have immediate implications for one case in particular: that of Liviu Dragnea, the leader of the governing Social Democratic Party, and the speaker of the lower house of Parliament.
Mr. Dragnea was found guilty on June 21 of abuse of office, after intervening to keep two of his party’s employees, who performed no state work, on the public payroll from 2006 to 2013, when he was a local council leader. The court sentenced Mr. Dragnea to three years and six months in jail, though the verdict is expected to be appealed.
Mr. Dragnea was previously given a two-year suspended sentence for electoral fraud.
Mr. Iohannis, the president, is a vocal proponent of Romania’s anti-corruption efforts. He is currently under pressure to fire the country’s chief anti-corruption prosecutor, Laura Codruta Kovesi, however, after the justice minister recommended her dismissal and the Constitutional Court ruled in May that he was unable to block the decision. So far, he has declined to act, which could pave the way for his suspension.
“Right now, the Social Democrats can use this moral upper hand to attack the president for not respecting the Constitutional Court decision, if he will react more against what they are doing right now,” said Radu Delicote, a strategist at the political consulting group Smartlink Communications. “The tensions are very high and things are reaching a boiling point,” he added.
Romania is also likely to face growing international pressure on the matter. Christian Wigand, the European Commission’s spokesman for rule of law, said in a statement sent to The New York Times that developments in the country were being followed closely.
“We will examine the final texts of the legislation for its compatibility with relevant E.U. law in the field of criminal justice and police cooperation and international standards,” he said. “As the guardian of treaties, we will not hesitate to take action where necessary to ensure such compatibility.”
Last month, the United States Embassy in Bucharest, along with 11 other Western embassies, issued a statement that read: “We, Romania’s international partners and allies, call on all parties involved in amending Romania’s criminal and criminal procedure codes to avoid changes that would weaken the rule of law or Romania’s ability to fight crime or corruption.”
With Romania’s government continuing to push forward with its measures, tensions are likely to rise further. “It’s going to be a very hot summer,” Mr. Delicote said, “and a very hard fall.”
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