Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Romania: The battle for executive power

As the public votes against impeaching the Romanian president, returning him to office as he promises to curtail the parliament and win himself executive powers in the name of the people, an intensified battle is sure to ensue and the fight against corruption will be the first casualty.

Commentary by Anca Paduraru in Bucharest for ISN Security Watch (22/05/07)

Romanians voted on Saturday against impeaching President Traian Basescu after parliament had suspended him the month before for allegedly breaching the constitution. He is to resume his office on Thursday, after the Constitutional Court approves the final results of the referendum.

Final results on Monday evening showed 74.4 percent of the people wanted Basescu back in office. Voter turnout was 44.4 percent.

Riding high on the results of the referendum, Basescu immediately demonstrated that he was ready to resume the political fight with his former allies. By Tuesday, this had turned into a promise to rule by referenda, while his political opponents in the parliament began negotiations to forge a new majority.

Basescu has said he was “not ready to negotiate” with his political allies-turned enemies, while Emil Boc - head of the Democrat Party [PD], which brought Basescu to the presidential office in 2004 - at first insisted that his party would remain in opposition but later backtracked, saying that the PD would consider resuming collaboration with the opposition Social Democrat Party (PSD).

Already on Monday, Basescu revealed what his first move to rule by referenda might be, warning that a referendum would be called if parliament failed by the end of June to vote for a change in the electoral law to replace proportional representation with “winner-takes-all” representation. Under the Romanian Constitution, the president can summon the voters to referenda on topics of national interest.

During the campaign for the referendum to impeach him, Basescu pledged to amend the constitution and the voting system; change the political make-up of the parliament; grant 6 percent of GDP to the national education system; devise comprehensive legislation for national security, and extend the irrigation system in the countryside.

However, under the current constitution, Basescu is powerless to make good on these promises, as Romanian presidents have no executive powers and are beholden to the prime minister. Furthermore, the president may only dissolve parliament if the prime minister fails to approve a government roster three times within 60 days. Despite the fact that the president is elected in a popular vote - rather than by parliament as is generally the rule in parliamentary republics - there remains this imbalance in legal provisions.

It is this very legal imbalance that led to the impeachment scandal in the first place, with most of the charges against him for overstepping his constitutional role to take on executive powers. The list of charges against him included attempting to propose legislation, refusing to sign into office the prime minister's choice for foreign minister and requesting that heads of intelligence present their resignations to him though they had been nominated and under the control of parliament.

Since Prime Minister Calin Popescu Tariceanu had his say in ousting the PD from his government on 1 April, the country has been led by a minority government of Tariceanu's National Liberal Party (PNL) and the Democrat Union of Hungarians in Romania (UDMR), with support in parliament from the opposition parties, the PSD, the Greater Romania Party (PRM) and the Conservative Party (PC). Since the results of the Saturday referendum, all five parties in parliament opposing Basescu have held meetings to assess their futures, hinting at possible negotiations for a new parliamentary majority.

On Monday, European Commission President José Manuel Barroso congratulated Basescu on his referendum victory, but not without a warning to stay the course in the fight against corruption. "I hope that this outcome will contribute to allow Romania, as a full member of the European Union, to move forward with the reforms that are needed, especially in the areas of judicial reform and the fight against corruption. To achieve these reforms, Romania needs a stable political and legal framework with all political actors working together to achieve the growth and social development of Romania,” Barroso said.

Basescu used the fight against corruption in Romania as a cornerstone of his campaign, pointing fingers at local oligarchs and saying that Russian political and economic influence were possible threats he would challenge if reinstated in office by popular vote. Still, as the media was keen to point out, Basescu had never maintained much of a distance himself from certain oligarchs.

However, in the mutual finger-pointing which the opposing camps performed both before and during the campaign for the referendum, it became obvious to the average citizen that there was more at stake here than fighting corruption or upholding the constitution. Both Basescu and his friends, on the one hand, and his political opponents, on the other, brought up old mutual recriminations that they had ear-marked government deals for their respective political friends.

What was really at stake was whose oligarchs were better.

Basescu's actual ability to push constitutional and electoral changes will rest entirely with the capacity of the PD to diminish coalition support for the minority government. And, in the aftermath of the referendum, voices inside both Tariceanu's PNL and the main opposition party, the PSD, showed that important rifts are just around the corner.

The perspective is quite somber for Romania, either way. If Basescu succeeds in reinforcing his position, a democratic deficit might ensue, and the country might see the president and his allies with a firmer grip on the economy. If Basescu is hampered in his maneuvering, while the political parties continue their constant bickering and trading of favors, the country may prove extremely difficult to govern. The certain casualty will be the fight against corruption, which the average citizen, not to the mention the EU, regards as the country's single most important fight.

No comments: