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Romanians demand elections as prime minister Emil Boc urges unity

• Daily protests over pay cuts and economic hardship
• Foreign minister sacked after jibe at ‘clueless slum dwellers’

Days of protests in Romania over government austerity have intensified, with thousands of demonstrators marching through Bucharest and elsewhere to demand elections.

The crowd in the capital, mainly trade unionists, teachers, nurses and retired army officers, gathered outside the main government building then marched to the public television station, alleged to be biased in its coverage of the administration of the prime minister, Emil Boc. The crowd then moved on to University Square, where people have been assembling daily since 13 January.

One demonstrator, Otilia Dobrica, a nursery teacher and part-time secretary, said that she wanted the resignation of Boc and his ally, President Traian Basescu. “I want to regain my dignity, I want this dictatorship formed by president and prime minister to fall,” she said.

About 5,000 people chanted anti-government slogans in the northeast city of Iasi, Romania’s second-largest, calling for elections to be brought forward from their due date in November.

Boc addressed parliament at a special session for Romania’s Day of Unity, a national holiday, and urged Romanians to work together to overcome the economic hardship facing the country during the global financial crisis.

Romania joined the European Union in 2007 (though not the eurozone), and its economy enjoyed 8% growth in 2007 and 2008; in 2009 the economy shrank by more than 7%, at which point the government arranged a £16bn loan with the IMF, EU and World Bank to help pay salaries and pensions. Following austerity measures imposed under the deal, the economy has limped back into growth, but at the cost of reducing incomes, which are less than half the EU’s average. Romania’s VAT rose from 19% to 24% in 2010, while public salaries were reduced by a quarter.

Many protesters are also angry at what they see as cronyism and corruption.

In the first weekend of protest more than 30 people were injured in University Square in confrontations where demonstrators threw bricks while riot police fired tear gas. A TV journalist was beaten by one group while broadcasting live.

Boc has made a few concessions in the face of the protests, such as reinstating a popular health official. On Monday, he fired his foreign minister, Teodor Baconschi, for having insulted protesters on his personal blog. The future of Romania, Baconschi wrote, would be decided by hard-working people and not by those from the “violent and clueless slums”.

And, Boc said in a speech also on Monday, the protest was not just aimed at him: “Romanians protest not only because they are unhappy with the austerity measures, but because they are unhappy with the entire political class in Romania, not only with the government.” Nevertheless, Boc has been in power since 2008, and current opinion polls show his PDL party at 18% support while the USL, a leftwing alliance also calling for early elections, has 50%.

Adding to the prime minister’s woes has been the prominence given by the media to anti-government comments by Lt Alexandru Gheorghe, a serving officer. While members of the military are forbidden to join protests, Gheorghe told the private Antena 3 TV station he had travelled 300 miles to Bucharest from his army base to take part. “I can no longer bear the way we are insulted,” he said. “I saw old people beaten, and said to myself that we, the officers, who could die tomorrow in a mission in Afghanistan, must have the courage to fight and tell the truth here in our country.”

Romania joined the Nato alliance in 2004, and 1,700 Romanian troops are in Afghanistan. The defence ministry said it was investigating what action to take against Gheorghe.

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