Bucharest (AFP) - Romania's government faced mounting pressure Thursday after the biggest protests since the fall of communism against what critics say is backtracking in the impoverished country's long battle with corruption.
Between 200,000 and 300,000 protesters, according to media estimates, braved freezing temperatures overnight in Bucharest and in towns and cities around the EU's second-poorest country, many shouting "Thieves!" and "Resign!"
The protests were sparked by an emergency decree issued late Tuesday decriminalizing certain corruption of fences and making abuse of power punishable by jail only if the sums involved exceed 44,000 euros ($47,500).
In the capital, a small group of football hooligans, according to the authorities, hurled bottles and firecrackers at police, who responded with tear gas.
Twenty people were taken into custody and five people including two police officers were hurt.
Left-wing Prime Minister Sorin Grindeanu, only in office since January 4, remained defiant, saying on social media overnight: "We are living in times when manipulation has reached an alarming level."
But ahead of a scheduled meeting of the governing left-wing Social Democrats (PSD) later Thursday, cracks were beginning to show in the government with the resignation of Florin Jianu, business minister and an independent.
"This is what my conscience tells me to do," Jianu said on Facebook, calling on the government to "do the honorable thing and fix its mistake".
Justice Minister Florin Iordache said that there was "nothing secret, illegal or immoral" about the decree. The government has said it is merely putting legislation in line with the constitution.
But critics say the principal person to gain will be PSD leader Liviu Dragnea, currently on trial for alleged abuse of power, as well as other left-wing politicians.
Dragnea, 54, is already barred from office because of a two-year suspended jail sentence for voter fraud handed down last year. His abuse-of-power trial, which began on Tuesday, concerns 24,000 euros.
Another initiative, which Grindeanu will submit to parliament, will see around 2,500 people serving sentences of less than five years released.
The government said that this will reduce prison overcrowding but critics say that, again, the main beneficiaries will be the many officials and politicians ensnared in a major anti-corruption drive of recent years.
© AFP DANIEL MIHAILESCU
Only last week the European Commission commended the efforts on graft by ex-communist Romania, which joined the European Union together with neighboring Bulgaria in 2007 as the bloc's two poorest members.
But this week's latest move set off alarm bells in Brussels, with European Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker and his deputy Frans Timmermans expressing their "deep concern" and warning against "backtracking".
The PSD bounced back into power in elections on December 11, barely a year after major protests over a deadly nightclub fire blamed on corruption forced it from office.
In the election, Dragnea turned attention away from graft by vowing to jump start the economy, promises which went down well in a country where half of rural households have no running water and one in four people lives in poverty.
"The PSD's electoral programme counts for nothing. Their only aim is to protect themselves from justice and keep hold of their ill-gotten fortunes," said Malin Bot, editorialist in the center-right Romania Libera daily.
"The government has made a huge mistake. Instead of dealing with other things it hurried to pass this decree in the dead of night," author Magda Carneci from the Group for Social Dialogue non-governmental organization told AFP.
"It was time that people woke up and stopped accepting all this abuse," Daniela Crangus, 31, a computer expert in Bucharest, told AFP at Wednesday's demonstration.