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Romanian president tears into government after anti-corruption protests, prompting walkout

The Romanian people are "resentful" of their newly elected leftist-led government because it tried to "save a few politicians from difficult situations" by diluting what qualifies as corruption, the president says in a parliamentary address.

Government tried to 'save a few politicians from difficult situations,' Klaus Iohannis says

Legislators walk out during Romaniam President Klaus Iohannis's speech to parliament in Bucharest. He told them the country was plunged into a 'fully fledged' political crisis, after hundreds of thousands demonstrated against a government measure that would have weakened the country's anti-corruption drive. (Vadi, Ghirda/Associated Press)

Romania's president on Tuesday tore into the leftist-led government over a corruption decree that sparked a week of huge street protests, though he backed it to remain in power in a potential reprieve for Prime Minister Sorin Grindeanu.

In a speech to parliament, the centrist President Klaus Iohannis admonished the Social Democrat-led government for the late-night adoption of a cabinet decree on Feb. 1 that critics said would have turned the clock back on the fight against corruption in the former communist state, one of the most graft ridden in the European Union.

But Iohannis said the Social Democrats had won the right to govern in a December election and should continue to do so. Though his role is largely ceremonial, the president's powers include nominating the prime minister after elections and  returning legislation to parliament for reconsideration.

"You have been saying in public that I would like to overthrow the legitimate government," he told lawmakers. "That's false. You won, now you govern and legislate, but not at any price.

"Romania needs a strong government, not one that shyly executes party orders," said Iohannis, a former leader of the centre-right opposition. "You should legislate for Romania, not for a group of politicians with problems."

"The resignation of a single minister is too little and early elections would at this stage be too much. This is the available room for manoeuvre." 

A group of parliamentarians from the Social Democratic Party walked out during the address, but remaining legislators applauded Iohannis.

Iohannis told the joint chambers of the Romanian parliament that Romanians expected legislators to 'take care of the criminals' files' and are now 'resentful and have revolted' since the coalition government approved, and later repealed, a decree that would have overlooked less serious cases of political corruption. (REUTERS)

 "On Dec. 11, the Social Democratic Party had a great victory [in the general election], but after that, ladies and gentlemen, with a strange Kamikaze-style strategy, they entered into a frontal collision with with an important part of Romanian society. They promised something during the campaign and during the first days they started to do something else," the president said.

"Your first priority was to take care of the criminals' files. Therefore, the Romanian people are resentful and have revolted," he said.

Protesters rallied again Monday night in Bucharest, a day after the Romanian government repealed an emergency decree that would have turned a blind eye toward political corruption involving sums equivalent to less than $62,000 Cdn. (Daniel Mihailescu/AFP/Getty Images)

"Do we want to be a weak, contemptible nation that puts every thing at stake to save a few people from difficult situations; to save a few politicians from difficult situations?" he asked.

Decree repealed after week of protests

Romania's government revoked the decree on Sunday after 250,000 protesters turned out in the capital of Bucharest, numbers not seen since the fall of communism in 1989. The order would have decriminalised a number of graft offences.

Crowds called for Grindeanu's cabinet to resign. One minister quit over the decree last week, saying he could not support it.

Some 25,000 rallied again in Bucharest on Monday evening, far fewer than on Sunday.

It was unclear whether the fall in turnout meant the government had ridden out the storm or had earned only a temporary respite. 

With files from The Associated Press

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