BUCHAREST, Romania (AP) — Romania’s Dec. 1 national holiday is usually one long party, complete with military parades and an air show. This year, though, some Romanians angered by the left-wing government’s plans to restructure the justice system — which critics believe will make it harder to prosecute high-level corruption — are eschewing their usual celebrations in favor of mass protests.
Thousands of people are expected to take part in demonstrations Friday, claiming Romania’s status as a functioning, pro-Western democracy is at stake.
“It’s a collision between two radically different visions about the way democracy functions,” wrote columnist Dan Tapalaga Thursday. The outcome of the clash between the government and protesters will determine the long-term future of Romania, he said. “Do we remain or leave the Western partnerships with the U.S. and the EU?”
Romania, which joined NATO in 2004 and the EU in 2007, has previously earned praise for its anti-corruption fight, which has targeted high-level officials.
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But the fact that prosecutions have included senior members of the ruling Social Democratic Party has led the year-old government to claim they are politically motivated.
In January, the government moved to decriminalize official misconduct. That led to the biggest demonstrations since communism ended. The government withdrew that proposal but in recent weeks has unveiled fresh plans to revamp the justice system.
One proposal wants magistrates banned from publicly criticizing the government or lawmakers, which magistrates say will strip them of a legitimate voice. Some 400 magistrates have opposed the current proposals.
Another proposal prevents Romania’s president from blocking the appointment of key judges by the Supreme Council of Magistrates — currently a key function of the presidency. President Klaus Iohannis — an ally of the country’s opposition — says he will use his constitutional power to oppose the plan. Also under the draft, a magistrate who is on trial will no longer be suspended from his job.
On Monday the U.S. State Department took the unusual step of issuing a statement urging Romania’s Parliament to “reject proposals that weaken the rule of law and endanger the fight against corruption.”
Senate speaker Calin Popescu Tariceanu and speaker of the Chamber of Deputies Liviu Dragnea — both themselves subjects of corruption-related prosecutions — called the statement “incomprehensible” and said Washington “should trust Romania’s Parliament, which is seeking to consolidate the independence of the justice system.”
Dragnea, who heads the Social Democratic Party, is prevented from becoming prime minister because of a 2016 conviction for vote-rigging, something many party members consider unfair.
This month, anti-corruption prosecutors froze Dragnea’s assets amid a probe into the misuse of 21 million euros (about $25 million) of EU funds, a charge he denies. His political ally Tariceanu is accused of making false statements in a property fraud case. He also denies wrongdoing.
Alarmed by the new proposals, English teacher Lia Galic is among those who will protest Friday, in the central city of Sibiu.
“The ruling coalition is not only putting the rule of law in danger, but also the future of Romania as an EU and NATO state,” she said.
“We don’t want to lose out on everything we achieved (since communism ended) due to some incompetent crooks.”