BUCHAREST -- Romanian lawmakers overwhelmingly voted against a bill that would have given politicians a way to avoid jail for corruption, in a move seen as a major victory for the opposition and in line with European Union demands.
The 177-1 vote on August 28 followed a unanimous decision the previous night by the legal committee of the Chamber of Deputies to adopt a report that had rejected the legislation.
Romania's Social Democrats (PSD), who had pressed for the legal changes, lost their parliamentary majority on August 26 after a junior party pulled out following its leader's failure to become the governing coalition's presidential candidate.
With the PSD’s fortunes sinking -- and in the face of public rejection of the changes in a May referendum, antigovernment street demonstrations, and criticism from the EU and United States -- lawmakers voted against the bill.
The bill would have pardoned and provided an amnesty to all inmates serving sentences of up to five years except in cases of a person being found guilty of a violent crime.
Critics charged that dozens of politicians, mostly from the PSD, would have benefited from the changes -- including Liviu Dragnea, who headed the party until May when he was jailed for corruption.
On May 27, Romania's highest court rejected Dragnea's appeal against an abuse-of-office conviction and immediately sent him to prison to begin a three-and-a-half-year sentence.
Prime Minister Viorica Dancila, a Dragnea protege, was elected interim PSD leader the following day.
Altough Dancila was unanimously chosen by the PSD as its presidential candidate, she is fighting for her political survival after the PSD's junior partner quit the coalition on August 26 and her government lost its parliamentary majority.
A referendum held on May 26 soundly voted against the bill. That came the same day as the European elections in which the PSD was also soundly defeated.
The PSD said on June 5 that it was committed to upholding the result of the referendum but that it wanted to pass several amendments to curb alleged abuses on the part of prosecutors.
The government's plan to enact the legislation drove tens of thousands of Romanians to the streets in mass demonstrations, including at least one that saw violent clashes between protesters and security forces.
'Backtracking' On Reform
Since the PSD-led coalition took power in late 2016, Romania's government has made a series of legal and personnel changes seen as threatening judicial independence in Romania.
The changes have raised concerns within in the EU, at the U.S. State Department, and among thousands of local magistrates in Romania.
The EU warned the government in Bucharest not to pursue the legal changes, saying it would mean "backtracking" on progress made on the rule of law since 2007, when Romania joined the bloc.
Center-right President Klaus Iohannis, who often clashes with the PSD government, came out against the legal changes and called on the left-wing government to honor the referendum results and reverse the measures he said would weaken the judiciary and the rule of law.
Before the PSD-led coalition came to power, Bucharest had earned praise from the EU for its crackdown on corruption under the leadership of chief anticorruption prosecutor Laura Koevesi, who was dismissed last year for alleged abuse of power.
Following the August 28 vote, Iohannis said the PSD minority government must seek the confidence of the members of parliament, a move that could bring the government down.
"The current government needs new confirmation from parliament," where the PSD has just 205 of the 465 seats, he said.
The president said that, if the government could not manage a parliamentary majority, a "transitional solution" would be required, without being specific -- although he added that he cannot support the current government, which he said is "in crisis."
Dancila rejected Iohannis comments, saying: "We'll go to parliament and we'll try to gain the necessary support to carry out our mandate until the end" in December 2020.