Thursday, May 24, 2007

Romania: Failed Impeachment Referendum

Oxford Business Group

In a May 19 referendum called by the government on whether President Traian Basescu should be impeached for abuse of power, including trying to influence judges, an overwhelming three quarters of the votes cast by 44% of Romania's electorate rejected the proposal. Basescu was swept back into office after he had been suspended by parliament on April 19. In total, some 6m Romanians supported the president, almost 1m more than voted for him in the presidential elections of December 2004.

While the referendum may have cleared the way for Basescu to return to office, it has done little to restore political stability in the country or resolve the underlying causes of the standoff. The president and prime minister have clashed repeatedly in recent months, especially since the country joined the EU in January. Basescu has accused the government of supporting select big business interests over those of the people and stalling key reforms needed to meet EU membership requirements.

In turn, Prime Minister Calin Popescu Tariceanu has said the president was playing at politics in an effort to undermine the government, tampering with the judicial system and seeking to gain supremacy over the parliament. Both sides have traded allegations that the other turned has a blind eye to corruption.

Following his victory, Basescu called on the parliament to work with him to complete the country's transition from communism and move away from what he called a Romania owned by oligarchs.

I will not negotiate over the people's hopes for a modern country - a new Romania that is different than the one that emerged during the transition, he told a rally of supporters.

While there have been some indications from Basescu and Tariceanu that they would be willing to try to work together, it would probably be a fragile peace, one unlikely to last until the scheduled general elections next year. Following the referendum and the massive defeat of the government, there have been renewed calls for early elections.

Cristian Parvulescu, a political science commentator and professor, said he sees a 50% chance that the government will survive the coming months.

The latest opinion polls put Basescu's Democratic Party (PD), currently in opposition, as the front runner in any snap election, though it would probably not be able to garner enough votes to form a single-party government and would have to enter a coalition.

Preliminary talks are said to have taken place with at least part of the opposition Social Democrats (PSD) about uniting in a post election government. Also reportedly discussed is the possibility of joining forces in the present parliament to try to spark a no-confidence motion against Tariceanu and his National Liberal Party-led coalition to bring on an early national ballot or to form a new government of national unity.

However, PD leader Emil Boc said that any arrangement bringing the two parties together is out of the question. There will be no co-operation with PSD whatsoever. Boc also said his party would vote against any proposed collaboration prior to a general election. Should parliament vote against three successive proposed governments, early elections would have to be organised.

Basescu himself could spark an early election, having threatened on May 21 to table new legislation that would overhaul the country's electoral laws. Rejection of the legislation, which would see the installation of a 'first past the post' electoral system and a strengthening of the powers of the presidency, would result in another referendum, and be another blow to the weakened minority Tariceanu government.

The prime minister said he would remain at his post and work to unite the parties on the right of Romanian politics to shore up his government's position.

There is no question of abandoning government. There is no space for useless speculation about this. The country can't remain ungoverned, said Tariceanu.

Romania's political turmoil has been of concern to the EU, which has seen the infighting slow the pace of promised reforms in the four and a half months since the country was admitted as a member of the bloc on January 1.

The EU supported Basescu in his battle to be reinstated as president, seeing him as a driving force in both ensuring Romania met the minimum accession requirements before it joined and in maintaining the push for reform. After the results of the referendum were announced, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said he hoped Romania would put the past disputes behind it.

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, he said.

However, as the EU prepares its six-month progress report on Romania, due in late June, the country may find itself losing out on additional financial support. The union has expressed dissatisfaction with the country's lack of progress in the areas of eliminating corruption and achieving economic and political stability. The report could trigger safeguards that would limit Romania's access to EU funds.

The spectre of inflation is also rearing its head again as the agriculture and energy sectors anticipate the severe drought and potentially soaring temperatures that Romania, and much of Europe, are now facing. With the possibility of further instability in Romania's corridors of power, the chances that the stalled reform program will be reinvigorated and the problems of the economy addressed are reduced, with no quick fix solutions on the horizon in either the fields of politics or policy.

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