BUCHAREST, Romania — After five straight days of spirited mass protests, and predictions that a half-million or more people might take to the streets on Sunday, Romania’s month-old government backed down Saturday and withdrew a decree that had decriminalized some corruption offenses.
“We will hold an extraordinary meeting on Sunday to repeal the decree, withdraw it, cancel it,” Prime Minister Sorin Grindeanu said late Saturday evening.
It was a remarkable and rapid turnaround for a government that had shown every sign of holding firm against the protests.
As recently as Thursday, Mr. Grindeanu said, “We took a decision in the government and we are going to press ahead.”
“I feel a bit better, but it isn’t enough,” said Mihai Saru, 20, a student. “They lost our trust when they released this emergency ordinance in the night. How do we know it won’t happen again in two weeks, a month? But tonight is a little victory.”
Chants mixed with blaring horns as protesters listened to the prime minister’s announcement on their phones. “Thieves!” many yelled. In a show of patriotic solidarity, the crowd broke into the national anthem, but the demonstrations continued into the night.
“This doesn’t change anything,” said Diana Popescu, 42, an economist. “They still lied. This government isn’t honest. We don’t want to be represented by a government of liars.”
The combination of the mass protests, which showed no signs of abating, and growing international condemnation seems to have weakened the government’s resolve. Even the Romanian Orthodox Church, normally a solid supporter of the government, criticized the decree.
“The United States is deeply concerned about the government of Romania’s recent measures that undermine rule of law and weaken accountability for financial and corruption-related crimes,” Mark Toner, a State Department spokesman, said on Thursday.
The first cracks in the government’s resolve appeared Saturday afternoon, when Liviu Dragnea, the president of the governing Social Democratic Party and its most powerful figure, told a local news outlet that the decree could well be withdrawn in an attempt to avert civil conflict. Mr. Dragnea said he was not sure he could “keep in check” his own party’s supporters.
“Romania needs peace and stability in order to move towards prosperity, development and democracy,” he said.
Mr. Dragnea is ineligible to serve as prime minister because he was convicted last year of electoral fraud, an offense for which he received a two-year suspended sentence. He is also facing a trial on abuse-of-power charges tracing back to his time as a local council president in a poor county southwest of Bucharest.
The governing party, which won a decisive victory in December, assumed office in January and quickly proposed a law to pardon those serving sentences of five years or less for certain crimes, a move the party said was intended to ease prison overcrowding.
It was unclear whether Mr. Dragnea himself would be in line for such a pardon, which would make him eligible again to be prime minister, but many on the streets believed he would have been. It was enough to inspire protests the past two Sundays.
The current round of protests began late Tuesday night when the government surprised opponents by enacting an “emergency decree,” which does not require a parliamentary vote. Among other things, the decree decriminalized cases of official misconduct in which the financial damage is less than 200,000 lei, or about $47,000.
There was no question that this would have benefited Mr. Dragnea — saving him from a potential prison sentence — as the charges against him involved an amount of money below that limit.
Within an hour of the decree’s enactment on Tuesday, despite the late hour, more than 10,000 protesters spontaneously gathered in Piata Victoriei, or Victory Square.
By Wednesday, the protests had spread across the country. Hundreds of thousands of people denounced what they viewed as a humiliating setback in the country’s fight to end endemic government corruption.
“In Romania, the political cleavage is not left against right, as it is in Western Europe,” said Sorin Ionita, a political analyst for the Expert Forum in Bucharest, a research group. “It is corruption versus anti-corruption.”