President Klaus Iohannis's decision to call a national referendum on 26 May seeks to challenge the ruling party's track record for corruption as well as its recent assault on the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary. After the 2016 elections, the Social Democrat Party (PSD) secured a majority in Parliament with the help of two junior parties and then used this strong position to hammer out new criminal codes that endangered the rule of law for the sake of protecting corrupt party leaders. By cornering more than 45 percent of the vote despite its leaders' involvement in well-publicized corruption scandals, the PSD interpreted its win as a carte blanche to block the fight against corruption and to weaken the national anti-corruption agency. With the upcoming referendum, held on the same day as the European election, Iohannis wants to signal to the PSD that it is acting against the wishes of ordinary Romanians.
The upcoming referendum will allow Romanian voters to air their opinion on the anti-corruption fight by posing two questions: "Do you support a ban on amnesty and pardon in cases related to corruption?" and: "Do you support blocking the adoption by the executive of emergency ordinances that stipulate punishment for crimes and re-organize the judiciary, and [also support] extending the period of time during which these ordinances can be challenged in the Constitutional Court?" The awkward phrasing of these questions means they might spark confusion, but they invite Romanians to take a stand against the criminal law changes that the PSD-dominated Parliament adopted on 24 April.
These changes sought to shut down several ongoing investigations and court cases involving high-ranking politicians and state dignitaries by shortening the statute of limitations and lowering sentences for some offenses, as well as decriminalizing negligence in the workplace. In addition, the second referendum question challenges the executive's right to issue emergency ordinances which start producing effects immediately after being tabled in Parliament; even when the house votes against specific ordinances, there is no clear procedure to reverse their legal consequences. This means that the executive can use emergency ordinances to quickly enact legislative changes without giving parliament, especially the opposition, a chance to debate and reformulate them.