Weaknesses of Romania’s post-Communist transition have been on display this week as the country’s political crisis deepens. The prime minister is accused of undermining the country’s institutions for his own gain, as the president faces removal by impeachment in a referendum next week.
After well-publicized controversies about growing authoritarianism in Russia, Ukraine, and Hungary, and similar shifts in Slovakia, Macedonia, and elsewhere in the region, Romania is the latest to show signs of a weakening democracy.
The European Commission, the EU’s executive body, has issued a warning to Romania over the situation, and some say if the crisis deepens, Romania could have its EU voting rights suspended or risk losing an International Monetary Fund aid package aimed at stimulating its struggling economy.
Prime Minister Victor Ponta, barely two months into the job following a parliamentary coup in late April, is locked in a dramatic power struggle with suspended President Traian Basescu. Allies of each man are pitted against each other as well. A referendum on Mr. Basescu’s impeachment will be held on July 29, following on the heels of the parliamentary decision to suspend him for abuse of power. Allegations included failing to act impartially and putting pressure on the judiciary.
Mr. Ponta’s government, a Social-Liberal coalition, is led by the PM’s own social democrats (PSD), which can be traced back to the Romanian Communist Party. The coalition has made several recent moves that have caused concern both in Romania and the international community.
One of the triggers for the current crisis was a disagreement between Ponta and Basescu over who should represent the country at an EU summit. The constitutional court determined that, following past protocol, it should be the president. In response, Ponta stripped the court of its right to overrule parliament and tried to replace some of its members; The Ombudsman – a position meant to serve as a check on government power who coordinates with the court – was replaced with a political ally of Ponta's; And the prime minister took control of the country’s official bulletin, where laws are published, potentially giving his coalition the power to control legislation, and delay court and presidential rulings.
And finally, Ponta’s coalition attempted to disband an academic panel that earlier ruled Ponta had plagiarized large parts of his PhD thesis and should be stripped of the qualification.
Ponta’s supporters claim the referendum is necessary to purge the country’s administrative apparatus of Basescu and his allies. An ex-Communist himself, Basescu is viewed as having had single-handed control over the country for much of his eight-years as president, seeing off prime ministers who defied him, and surviving a previous impeachment vote in 2006. He is also accused of handing out political favors and appointments, according to members of the Social-Liberal coalition.
President Basescu’s present unpopularity comes down, in part, to the weak state of Romania’s economy, and a widespread dissatisfaction with the ruling elite. His survival may depend on whether a recent ruling by the constitutional court is respected: It stipulates that referendum turnout must exceed 50 percent in order to be considered valid. Without this stipulation Basescu is likely to be turned out of office by the vote.
However, Ponta seems to be reluctantly accepting of the Court's ruling, thus a very possible scenario is that Basescu is defeated, but the vote is declared void due to less than half the voters going to the polls. The president, a proven fighter given his past success in overcoming a call for impeachment, is unlikely to go quietly, so more tension and constitutional deadlock could be in the cards.