By Radu-Sorin Marinas
BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Romania's Social Democrat-led government easily survived a no-confidence motion in parliament on Wednesday, three days after mass street protests forced it into an embarrassing U-turn over a graft decree.
Critics said the decree, which also drew rebukes from Romania's Western allies, would have turned back the clock on the fight against corruption in the ex-communist nation of 20 million people. The government rescinded the decree on Sunday.
"I do hope that as of today we get back to work," Prime Minister Sorin Grindeanu told lawmakers before the vote.
At least 5,000 protesters gathered outside government headquarters late on Wednesday to demand the cabinet's resignation, despite a snowstorm, subzero temperatures and power blackouts. "We exist, we resist," they chanted.
Separately, an estimated 200 pro-government protesters gathered outside centrist President Klaus Iohannis' office in support of Grindeanu. Iohannis briefly went outside to talk to them but they refused dialogue.
The Social Democrats and their allies control nearly two thirds of parliament seats after winning a December election. They abstained in Wednesday's vote, when 161 lawmakers backed the no-confidence motion and eight voted against.
The government, however, has been badly shaken by the protests, some of the largest in Romania since the 1989 fall of communism, and opposition parties vowed after Wednesday's vote to continue their close scrutiny of the ruling party's actions.
One minister resigned last week saying he could not support the decree. Grindeanu said a decision on whether to dismiss Justice Minister Florin Iordache, the decree's architect, would be announced on Thursday.
Opposition deputy Catalin Predoiu said of the no-confidence motion: "This is a warning signal that we managed to gather the votes of the whole opposition and it also shows that whenever the new government derails we will gather and sanction it."
Grindeanu said his government would not consider any further initiatives similar to the rescinded decree "that could awake powerful emotions in society without proper and wide debate".
The decree would have decriminalized a number of graft offences and effectively shielded dozens of public officials from prosecution for graft.
The number of people attending daily protests - which reached a quarter of a million on Sunday - has fallen since the government's climbdown.
Parliament must still endorse the government's decision to rescind the graft decree.
Social Democrat Party leader Liviu Dragnea, who is on trial in an abuse of office case and could have benefited from the decree, said the repeal should be discussed and approved in parliament as soon as possible.
Earlier on Wednesday the Constitutional Court rejected challenges on procedural grounds brought against the rescinded decree by President Iohannis and the top magistrates' council.
The court said it would reconvene on Thursday to consider a separate challenge brought by Romania's ombudsman against the content of the decree.
Romania remains one of the poorest and most graft-prone member states of the European Union, which it joined in 2007.
(Additional reporting by Luiza Ilie; Editing by Matt Robinson and Gareth Jones)