Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Romania PM demands president resign, row persists

(Reuters) - Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta demanded the president resign on Monday, saying he had lost all credibility, but Traian Basescu refused, indicating Sunday's referendum had not ended a feud which has delayed vital economic reforms.

The election bureau said turnout in the referendum, called by Ponta to seek support for Basescu's impeachment, was 46 percent - below the 50 percent needed to make it valid - though 88 percent of those who did vote, backed Basescu's removal.

The result - still to be confirmed by the Constitutional Court - lifted the leu currency, but meant the unresolved feud could dominate parliamentary elections in November and slow reforms linked to an aid deal backed by the International Monetary Fund.

"He (Basescu) will probably stay in Cotroceni (presidential palace), will have cars, villas and some profiteers around him who will continue to advise and praise him," Ponta said. "But for the Romanian people he stopped being a leader last night."

Basescu, a conservative whose perceived cronyism and support for economic austerity has made him unpopular, said he would not quit because the vote had shown that more than half of Romanians did not want to remove him. He had called for a boycott of the referendum.

The 88 percent vote for his impeachment, even on a low turnout, undermined Basescu's authority, but the result also reflected badly on Ponta's leftist Social Liberal Union (USL), the ruling party, analysts said.

"The political class was slapped by Romanians yesterday and it's time ... it understood that it can't go on without a minimum shred of consensus," said Sergiu Miscoiu of the political think tank CESPRI.

"Ponta's comments suggest he will continue with his belligerent attitude, which he may have learnt from Basescu," said Miscoiu. "There is a need for reconciliation if we want to clean up Romania's image and have somewhat functional institutions."

Basescu's role - he can block legislation once before being over-ruled by parliament, controls foreign policy and appoints the chief prosecutor and some judges - means he can delay but not stop reforms such as privatizations and health reforms.


The IMF will start a review of Romania's 5 billion euro aid deal this week, having delayed it until after the referendum, and may raise concerns over delays in cutting the budget deficit and carrying out longer-term reforms.

The European Commission had no immediate comment on the referendum result.

Brussels had accused Ponta of undermining the rule of law and intimidating judges in his drive to remove Basescu, and had insisted he respect the Constitutional Court's ruling that the referendum's validity depended on a 50 percent turnout.

The election bureau said it would send its final count to the Constitutional Court on Wednesday.

"(Ponta's) USL has the chance to repair some of the damage in the relationship with the EU by accepting the decision of the Constitutional Court without pushing for the removal of the president," said Otilia Simkova, analyst with Eurasia Group.

Brussels has had more success with Romania than with neighboring Hungary, where Prime Minister Viktor Orban has often been at loggerheads with the bloc over issues like the independence of the central bank and the judiciary.

"Sadly those 8 million people (against Basescu) don't seem to matter. On the other hand, Ponta managed to do exactly the same thing as Basescu, split the country into two," said Iulian Manolescu, a 38-year-old economist.

The failed impeachment may damage the popularity of the USL, which remains favorite to win the parliamentary election in November, but may now be unable to secure an outright majority.

Basescu's survival eased some market concerns, because if he had lost there would have been two elections - presidential and parliamentary - in the next few months. The leu rose 1 percent in early trading, moving away from record lows against the euro, though dealers said gains could be short-lived.

(Additional reporting by Ioana Patran and Andreea Birsan, editing by Tim Pearce)

Monday, July 30, 2012

Romanian president survives impeachment referendum

(Reuters) - Romanian President Traian Basescu survived a referendum on his impeachment on Sunday after the voter turnout fell short of the required level and derailed an effort by his opponents to oust him from office.

Leftist Prime Minister Victor Ponta's efforts to unseat the conservative Basescu have brought a stern dressing-down from the European Union, which accused him of undermining the rule of law and intimidating judges.

The row over Basescu has delayed policymaking, sent the leu currency plunging to record lows, and pushed up borrowing costs. It also raised concern about the future of Romania's 5 billion euro ($6.2 billion) International Monetary Fund-led aid deal.

The election bureau said the voter turnout was 46 percent, below the 50 percent threshold Ponta's leftist Social Liberal Union (USL) needed to make the referendum valid.

Exit polls showed more than 80 percent of those who went to the ballot box had voted to remove the president.

"The flame of democracy has remained alight. Romanians have rejected the coup d'etat," Basescu said.

Ponta, whose government took office in May, suspended Basescu and held the referendum to seek popular backing for the impeachment for overstepping his powers. The president is unpopular for backing austerity and for perceptions of cronyism.

The electoral bureau's figures have a margin of error of three percentage points and do not include Romanians voting abroad, but it is now almost certain that final figures - probably on Monday - will show turnout was below 50 percent.

Opinion polls had shown some 65 percent of Romanians wanted to remove the former sea captain from office, but the opposition had called for a boycott of the vote and many people were on holiday.

The president's most important power is nominating the prime minister, which could be crucial after a November election that may leave a split parliament. The president also appoints the chief prosecutor and some judges, including to the Constitutional Court.

That court, which previously said the threshold had to be observed, will make the decision on the vote's validity this week.

"The Romanian government will respect all decisions of the Constitutional Court and will act as a factor of stability in the next period, regardless of whether the referendum is validated or not," Ponta said.


Romania has made progress since the 1989 overthrow of communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and joined the EU in 2007, but the economy slipped back into recession in the first quarter of this year and pockets of severe poverty remain.

Ponta felt the full weight of EU wrath after his government took on the Constitutional Court, threatening to replace judges and reduce its powers, and ignoring one of its decisions. Brussels said it was concerned about the government's respect for the rule of law, democratic procedures and the judiciary.

The government had tried to make it easier to impeach Basescu by removing the minimum turnout rule, but was forced to back down following harsh EU criticism and a Constitutional Court ruling that a 50 percent turnout was obligatory.

Basescu initially urged Romanians to vote against what he called a coup d'etat, but this week he changed his mind and he and his allies, the opposition Democrat Liberal Party (PDL), asked supporters to boycott the referendum, citing concern about the possibility of electoral fraud.

"We have an entire political class that puts their own interest before the country's," said pensioner Monica Munteanu. "I am not voting."

Brussels has a wide range of levers with which to put pressure on Romania, whose justice system is under EU monitoring. Romania gets European cash to help it catch up with other members and the bloc contributes to its IMF-led aid deal.

Ponta promised to respect the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary, but Brussels replied that it had yet to see proof of this, for example by the replacement of a USL loyalist with a neutral figure as public ombudsman.

The USL says Basescu - whose term expires in 2014, when he cannot run again - had undue influence over the judiciary after the Constitutional Court ruled against some government laws.

The president can block legislation but only once before parliament can overrule him with a second vote.

"I voted to take him down because he cut my pension and he doesn't deserve to be in power," said Sandu Neacsu, a 66-year-old pensioner from Pantelimon near the capital Bucharest.

(Additional reporting by Bogdan Cristel; Editing by Sophie Hares)

Friday, July 27, 2012

Romania’s political crisis puts spotlight on ragged democracy in Eastern Europe

By Associated Press, Published: July 26

BUCHAREST, Romania — Romania’s President Traian Basescu says he’s on “Mission Impossible” to save democracy in this former Communist country.

His opponents hope he’s on an impossible quest to save his job.

As Romania holds a referendum Sunday on impeaching Basescu, the ugly political battle has raised questions about the rule of law in the fledgling EU member. It comes against the background of similar concerns about shaky democracy across Eastern Europe, in countries such as Hungary, Bulgaria and Serbia that are striving to join the European mainstream.

Basescu’s rivals are seeking to impeach him for the second time in five years.

They claim the 60-year-old populist former ship captain violated the constitution by meddling in government business, coddling cronies and using the powerful secret services against enemies. Basescu says the impeachment process is a political vendetta carried out by opponents plotting to seize control of EU funds and the country’s justice system.

The political turmoil has dented Romania’s credibility, with the U.S. and the EU expressing doubts about the left-leaning government’s respect for the independence of the judiciary. Critics accuse Prime Minister Victor Ponta, himself the subject of a plagiarism scandal, of orchestrating the move as part of a power grab.

The political instability began when Ponta became premier on May 7 following the collapse of two pro-Basescu governments. Ponta’s government quickly moved to remove both speakers of Parliament and replace them with politicians from the governing coalition. Parliament then suspended Basescu himself.

Observers say Ponta is using the same strong-arm tactics seen during communism.

“In the Communist days, the governments relied on force and fear to enforce their authority rather than a democratic process and the rule of law,” said Nick Hammond, a long-term British resident lawyer. “What they don’t understand is the old ways have to be shaken off.”

It’s a complaint heard throughout the region.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has been criticized repeatedly for allegedly circumventing democratic norms. Last week, the EU called on Bulgaria to step up efforts to root out high-level corruption and organized crime. In Serbia, the appointment of the wartime spokesman of late Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic as prime minister has caused concern about democratic backsliding.

Basescu, who easily survived an impeachment referendum in 2007, now faces the toughest political fight of his life, with his most powerful asset — popularity with voters — gone.

“I think that Basescu should go, he has betrayed our trust and lied too much” said Malin Petrica, a 65-year-old security agent. “Will the other lot be better? I’m not sure. All we can do is hope. That’s what us Romanians do, we hope.”

The latest crisis was triggered after former Prime Minister Adrian Nastase, a longtime Basescu rival, was imprisoned for two years on corruption charges in June. That raised political tensions as Basescu’s political enemies reportedly plotted to unseat the president in revenge.

In a bid to survive, Basescu has apologized for his outspokenness and sometimes bawdy remarks. He has urged his supporters to boycott Sunday’s referendum in order to nullify it by a low turnout. The government says Basescu’s plea is evidence of his undemocratic behavior.

The crisis has pushed the national currency, the leu, to an all-time time low, hitting millions of ordinary cash-strapped Romanians. As reforms demanded by the International Monetary Fund stall, Romanians have been fed on a daily diet of mutual mudslinging between the two camps.

“The principal culprit (of the current crisis) is the Romanian political class — a lamentable bunch — who put personal gain above the country’s interests,” said Dennis Deletant, professor of Romanian Studies at University College, London who has written several books about Romania’s turbulent political history.

“No credible ‘serious violations of the constitution’ have been brought forward, which makes the impeachment process suspect in the eyes of many foreign observers.”

Basescu, who was first elected in 2004, has seen his ratings drop due to tough austerity measures implemented in 2010 to meet the terms of a 20 billion euro ($24 billion) IMF-led loan. His divisive style of governing has not helped his cause. But the campaign to unseat him has drawn strong criticism from the West.

“I am still very much worried about the state of democracy in Romania and so is the (European) commission,” Viviane Reding, vice president of the EU’s executive commission, said this week. “We will look at the facts, not at the (government’s) promises. We will look at the laws and the implementation of those laws.”

If, however, the referendum passes with the necessary turnout of more than 50 percent, Brussels is likely to accept the result.

Ponta’s government scored well in June local elections, easily defeating Basescu’s Democratic Liberal Party. It seemed poised to win parliamentary elections in the fall. But the abrupt removal of both speakers of parliament, the country’s ombudsman and a series of emergency ordinances aimed at facilitating impeachment dented its credibility at home and abroad.

Ponta has also been embroiled in a scandal involving accusations that he plagiarized his doctoral thesis, claims his camp says were driven by Basescu.

Some ordinary Romanians say they the whole political opera has turned them off politics.

“I have stopped even thinking about it. They all steal, some more and some less,” said Silvia Geambas, 29, who hand-crafts jewelry. “I have given up voting because they are not worth it. What we need are better roads, not all of this fighting.”

Romania faces test of democracy as PM attempts to get president impeached


Romania is embroiled in a serious test of its democracy this weekend as years of political feuding come to a head in a referendum forced by a leftwing government looking to ensure the rightwing head of state faces impeachment charges.

The country is on edge before Sunday's vote, triggered by moves over the past month by the government of Victor Ponta to rid himself of a longstanding political rival, President Traian Basescu, who has already been suspended from office pending the outcome of the vote.

The manoeuvring of the Ponta government has set alarms ringing in Brussels, with an EU report on Romania concluding that the country's political elite does not understand how democracy works, an indirect admission that the country should not be in the European Union at all – just five years after it joined.

The political crisis has left many Romanians confused and unsure about how to vote on Sunday. Endemic corruption and disenchantment with the political class have led many to believe that, regardless of the outcome, the referendum is a no-win situation.

"You would have to be mad to go into politics," said Daniel Susca, 33, a photographer. "Those who are serious and have built good careers do not want to go into politics because they would compromise everything."

According to Brussels, Ponta has won his referendum aimed at ending the president's political career by trampling on the country's constitution, ignoring the country's supreme court, bullying its judges and ombudsman, and resorting to emergency decrees to force the issue.

The serial abuse prompted the European commission last week to order Ponta to deliver on a list of 11 policy shifts. Summoned to Brussels and leant on by Berlin and Washington, the prime minister promised to obey. At the EU's insistence he has already reversed changes he made on staging referendums, making it likelier that Basescu will escape impeachment and have to be reinstated in office.

On Wednesday, the commission in Brussels stepped up the pressure. "I am still very much worried about the state of democracy in Romania," said Viviane Reding, the EU's justice commissioner. "We will look at the facts, not at the promises. We will look at the laws and the implementation of the laws, not at the letters."

"The current government is flagrantly breaking our laws and constitution. The abuses are simply unacceptable and we have to do something about it," said Stefania Mitran, 44, a Bucharest economist.

"The last time I took to the streets was when I was my son's age, 22 years ago during the Romanian revolution. I haven't attended any protests since because I felt that voting was enough."

A 62-year-old pensioner took a similar view. "The law is being trampled on. I understand and accept the democratic process as long as it is applied in a just manner," said Elena Ciucea. "If the constitutional court is no longer valuable to the state, self-will will become the law.''

In addition to being the target of unusually strong reprimands from Brussels, Ponta is also at the centre of a plagiarism scandal amid allegations that he lifted large tracts of his PhD thesis.

"As a prime-minister who copied a third of his PhD, can Victor Ponta expect students not to cheat?" complained Adrian Razvan Petre, who is just finishing school. "If he did it, why shouldn't I? His resignation is a question of honour."

Basescu has been in office as head of state since 2004 and Ponta as prime minister since only May. Ponta's arrival unleashed brutal trench warfare in Romanian politics; the prime minister is eager to use his ascendancy to settle scores.

Basescu is unpopular; his rightwing party took a pounding in local elections last month, taking only 15% of the vote. But the manner in which Ponta has waged his war against the president is the reason that Brussels has intervened.

The second poorest country in Europe, Romania joined the EU with Bulgaria in 2007. Both states were not really viewed as properly fit for entry but admission was seen as a clever geo-political move in the contest with Vladimir Putin's Russia for influence in the Balkans, particularly in countries with historically close ties to Moscow.

Because of the lack of solid underpinnings to Romanian democracy, the country was put under continuous EU scrutiny of its performance on the rule of law, rights and liberties, constitutional structures, and independent checks and balances aimed at countering political sleaze.

Last week's European commission report was highly critical of developments in Romania over the past five years, but particularly of trends in the past few months under the Ponta government.

But amid intense popular resentment of the entire political class, Basescu is despised: two thirds of people polled said he should be impeached.

Brussels has demanded that half of the electorate plus one has to vote on Sunday for the referendum to be valid, making Basescu's survival hopes dependent on a low turnout. The previous highest turnout was 44%.

The grudge match is grounded in the ruthless nature of Romanian politics. Adrian Nastase, a former centre-left prime minister was a mentor of Ponta and enemy of Basescu. He has been convicted of corruption and jailed.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Romanian Opposition Urges Voters To Boycott Impeachment Ballot

By Irina Savu - Jul 24, 2012

Romania’s opposition Democratic Liberals urged voters who support suspended President Traian Basescu to boycott a referendum on July 29 to help win his reinstatement by invalidating the impeachment vote.

The opposition said voters should stay away from the polling stations because the ruling coalition won’t meet the same organizational standards as in the 2009 presidential election, increasing the possibility for electoral fraud, Democrat Liberal leader Vasile Blaga told reporters in Bucharest today.

The ruling Social Liberal Union don’t understand that they “should set up the vote under the same conditions as in 2009, when we also had surveillance cameras, so we ask citizens to stay away from this masquerade” Blaga said.

Romania changed governments twice this year. Premier Victor Ponta and interim president Crin Antonescu want to oust Basescu amid a power struggle that weakened the country’s currency to an all-time low today.

The impeachment vote requires a minimum turnout of about 9.1 million of the country’s 18.3 million eligible voters, according to a Constitutional Court ruling. A lower turnout during the summer holidays may give the president a chance to keep his job.

Some 700,000 Romanians are planning to boycott the vote, according to a survey, Basescu said in an interview with private television station B1TV late yesterday. He also said he “normally” would have expected to garner about 35 percent of the votes in his favor.

To contact the reporter on this story: Irina Savu in Bucharest at isavu@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: James M. Gomez at jagomez@bloomberg.net

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

NYT: Transitions Stall in Bulgaria and Romania

Transitions Stall in Bulgaria and Romania
Published: July 23, 2012

BERLIN — Since Bulgaria and Romania joined the European Unionin 2007, they have been under intense scrutiny, not only by Brussels but also by Europol, Europe’s law enforcement agency.

E.U. member states knew that neither country was ready to join. They just had to look up the European Commission reports describing the endemic corruption, the powerful criminal networks engaging in human and drug trafficking, and the weakness of the judiciary and the rule of law. Still, there was the sentiment that it was better to allow Bulgaria and Romania to join to encourage the reformers rather than keep them out, which would delay modernization.

Since joining, both countries have, haphazardly, tried to deal with corruption. But as the European Commission made clear in detailed reports on the two countries published last week, the overall picture still is miserable.

“Transitions to a market economy and the rule of law are immensely complex,” said Antoinette Primatarova, a European expert at the independent Center for Liberal Strategies research organization in Sofia. “The European Commission underestimated the systemic deficiencies that we inherited from the communist era and before.”

Still, over 20 years since the collapse of the communist system in Bulgaria and Romania, one might have expected a younger generation in both countries to adopt a political culture that would represent a break with the past.

Yet the European Commission has accused Prime Minister Victor Ponta or Romania of running roughshod over the rule of law in order to oust President Traian Basescu from office.

Mr. Ponta, 39, leader of the formerly communist Socialist Party, has fired two ombudsmen from the opposition, dismissed directors of institutes responsible for looking into Romania’s communist past and tightened his grip on state television. Mr. Ponta also seems determined to protect former and indicted communists from the courts.

“Ponta has set back any improvements we tried to make over the past few years,” said Monica Macovei, a conservative lawmaker in the European Parliament.

As justice minister in Romania from 2004 to 2007, Ms. Macovei had started to overhaul the judiciary to make the courts independent and fight corruption. “The public and the politicians have to understand that the transition means accountability,” Ms. Macovei said. “That means checks and balances.”

In its report on Bulgaria, the Commission singled out the role of organized crime groups. According to Europol, Bulgarian criminal networks were active in 15 E.U. member states, specializing in human trafficking and credit card fraud.

Inside Bulgaria, the Commission said that these organized crime groups played a unique role. They were exercising their influence over the economy in a way that restricted competition and deters foreign investment. “It also gives these groups a platform from which to influence the political process and state institutions,” the Commission said.

So what went wrong with Bulgaria and Romania?

Ms. Primatarova believes that changing a political culture shaped over many decades takes more than the adoption of a host of essentially technical E.U. laws.

For years, the European Commission and the E.U. member states have stuck to a formula that stipulates that candidate countries should adapt their economic, trade, environmental and health legislation to E.U. legislation. But adapting is one thing. Implementing it — and changing a political culture — is another. The Commission, Ms. Primatarova said, failed to appreciate how long transitions take to replace deeply entrenched structures.

Yet several other former communist countries have done better with transition. In their cases, two elements seem to have helped: if they had strong dissident movements during the communist era, and later, if they decided to open the secret police files.

Poland, which joined the Union in 2004, had a strong anti-communist opposition that served it well in entrenching democracy during the 1990s. Poland, too, at an early stage started dealing with the communist past.

The former Czechoslovakia, which had a small dissident movement, introduced in the early 1990s one of the most radical “lustration” or “cleansing laws” of the communist secret services in the region. Czechoslovakia’s first post-communist president, the late Vaclav Havel, had no sympathy for collaborators.

Hungary also introduced a cleansing law in 1994. But it has been slow to make the secret police files accessible to the public, despite the intense anti-communist rhetoric of the government.

Both Bulgaria and Romania have only recently begun to deal with their communist past — and tentatively at that.

Ms. Macovei believes that opening the secret files earlier could have made a difference to tackling corruption or dismantling the entrenched communist networks.

Despite failing to do that, being inside the Union is making a difference, said Daniel Smilov, a political science professor at the University of Sofia. “It has given civil society the chance to fight for change and accountability,” he argued. “We would be far, far worse off outside the E.U. The transition would even take longer.”

Judy Dempsey is Editor in Chief, Strategic Europe for Carnegie Europe. (www.carnegieeurope.eu )

Monday, July 23, 2012

Government ends restrictions on hiring Romanians and Bulgarians


THE GOVERNMENT has scrapped restrictions on the employment in Ireland of workers from Romania and Bulgaria, measures which date to their accession to the EU five years ago.

The development follows evidence of a big drop in the number of people from both countries travelling to Ireland to seek work. In addition, it comes months after the European Commission asked the Government to examine whether the restrictions were necessary.

“It has become clear that the basis for the continuation of restrictions on access to the labour market for remaining categories of Bulgarian and Romanian nationals is questionable,” a statement last night from the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation said .

“As such, the Government has decided immediately to bring forward the transition date for access to the labour market for Bulgarian and Romanian nationals.”

When Romania and Bulgaria joined the EU, European law provided for a seven-year transition period before other member states were obliged to admit workers from those countries into their labour markets.

Although the restrictions were due to lapse automatically at the end of next year, the commission raised the matter with the Government seven months ago.

“The EU Commission cited the experience of previous enlargements of the EU, where it was shown that migration from the member states that newly joined the EU did not lead to disturbances of the labour markets of the receiving countries,” the department said.

The review that followed took account of work permit applications from Romanians and Bulgarians, the number of personal public service numbers (PPSN) assigned to them and the number of people from both countries living in Ireland.

“The review identified a clear pattern of work permit applications from the countries under discussion that follows closely economic circumstances and prospects of employment,” the department said.

“From a peak in 2003 the numbers seeking to come and work in Ireland from Bulgaria and Romania have collapsed from 2007 onwards.

“In 2003 some 3,600 permits were sought from nationals of both countries, declining to just over 500 applications in 2011.”

The statement also said demand for PPSN numbers from Romanians and Bulgarians has collapsed and said the level of PPSN numbers ever activated by them was low.

“The population of Romanians and Bulgarians living in Ireland is estimated to have fallen by approximately 3,000 between 2008 and 2011,” it said.

The statement said the restrictions on Romanians and Bulgarian workers had already been relaxed gradually. Self-employed workers from the two countries, students and “self-sufficient” people were already allowed to work in Ireland.

Romanian president urges voters to defeat "coup"

(Reuters) - Suspended Romanian President Traian Basescu rallied his supporters on Saturday before a referendum on his impeachment next week, urging Romanians to vote and defeat what he called the government's "coup d'etat".

Parliament, dominated by Prime Minister Victor Ponta's leftist Social Liberal Union (USL), suspended the rightist Basescu earlier this month, saying he had overstepped his powers. A referendum on July 29 will decide whether he should be removed permanently.

The government bowed to European Union demands this week and said it would respect a court ruling that turnout must be more than half for the referendum to be valid, a threshold which gives Basescu a better chance of surviving in office.

The government's decision to respect the court ruling has prompted suggestions that Basescu's supporters could keep him in office by simply staying away from the polls.

Their abstention would probably mean a large majority in favour of impeachment but turnout - usually about 50 percent in Romanian elections - would be too low for the result to be valid.

But Basescu called on Romanians to go to the polls to defeat the impeachment drive.

"I want everyone to vote on the 29th. There are a lot of people who say don't vote, don't legitimise the coup d'etat. I could agree with them, but only up to a point," Basescu told thousands of supporters at a rally in scorching heat in the northeastern city of Iasi.

"More than ever, Romania now needs to see that a force exists that puts an end to Ponta and Antonescu's abuses and coup d'etat. This force is none other than the Romanian people," said a confident Basescu.

Ponta and his USL ally Crin Antonescu, who is acting president during Basescu's suspension, have been harshly criticised by the European Union for pushing through a series of measures aimed at restricting Basescu's power.

Brussels says the measures have undermined the rule of law.

Ponta's government joined forces with parliament earlier this month to suspend Basescu, a conservative.

Opinion polls show most Romanians support permanently removing Basescu from office due to his association with austerity measures and a perception of corruption among his political allies.

The political turmoil has raised doubts about the future of an International Monetary Fund-led aid deal, sending the leu currency to record lows in a country already weathering a recession.

The president is in charge of foreign policy and the powerful secret services, which are a sensitive topic in a country still scarred by the communist dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu and his dreaded Securitate. The president also nominates the prime minister.

The EU's criticism of the government over the impeachment effort followed a similar row with fellow EU member Hungary, where political analysts say Prime Minister Viktor Orban has pushed the limits of EU standards to consolidate power.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Romania yields to EU on referendum turnout threshold

By Isabelle Wesselingh (AFP)

BUCHAREST — Romania's interim leader caved in to EU pressure Monday and approved a law requiring a turnout of more than 50 percent for a referendum on impeaching of suspended president Traian Basescu.

Brussels and the United States have voiced repeated worries over the drive by Prime Minister Victor Ponta's government to impeach Basescu and curb the powers of the constitutional court.

After days of intense outside pressure, interim president Crin Antonescu reversed course and approved a law requiring a threshold of more than 50 percent turnout for the July 29 vote to be valid, complying with a ruling by the constitutional court last week.

"I decided to approve this law and I believe this puts an end to a burning issue," he said after a meeting with Ponta and the heads of the two chambers of parliament.

He nevertheless expressed his personal reservations about the measure.

Romania's centre-left lawmakers earlier this month suspended the centre-right Basescu, who was once one of Romania's most popular politicians but whose popularity plummeted as austerity cuts were imposed in 2010.

The row over the fate of Basescu and over the powers of the constitutional court has thrown Romania into its worst crisis since it emerged from communist dictatorship just over two decades ago.

Ponta's Social Liberal Union ruling coalition, which took office only in May, initially refused to commit itself to the 50-percent threshold, but on Monday backed the requirement.

Parliament voted to impeach 60-year-old Basescu, a former sea captain who became president in 2004, over claims he improperly assumed the powers of the prime minister when he announced the austerity measures two years ago.

Antonescu on Friday blasted Brussels after it gave Ponta a list of its concerns over the political and judicial crisis in one of Europe's poorest countries, which has been an EU member since 2007.

"The president of Romania, even the interim president, doesn't take orders... from anyone except parliament and the Romanian people," he said.

Antonescu said a Brussels "to-do" list would "represent an unacceptable and unimaginable overreach of the European Commission's powers".

Earlier Monday, an EU official said that Bucharest had only sent a draft letter and commission spokesman Olivier Bailly said a formal response "must arrive urgently."

On Monday evening however Ponta said Hungary had answered all the questions that Brussels had put to it over the political crisis.

"On Friday, I sent a draft and today I officially answered (their) questions... so on the substance (of the matter) things are now clear," he told Romania's Realitatea TV.

He had spoken to the European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso by telephone that evening, he added.

The United States had also in recent days expressed its concern, calling on Romania to conduct impeachment proceedings in "a fully fair and transparent manner."

The crisis could yet threaten Romania's entry into the Schengen borderless travel area and lead to other repercussions.

Its entry into Schengen, which includes most EU states, would be a significant milestone for Romania, which was ruled by the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu until 1989.

But the Netherlands is blocking Romania's candidacy and other EU officials have expressed disquiet.

Attaining a 50-percent turnout is tough in Romania, where voters are increasingly disappointed with their political leaders.

But just 13 days ahead of the referendum, the number of eligible voters has still not been published and the number of polling stations abroad has been reduced.

Also Monday, the International Monetary Fund and the EU said they had postponed an assessment mission until after the referendum.

"This is a normal procedure. The IMF and the European Union do not want to come here during an election campaign," Ponta said.

Romania obtained a 20-billion-euro rescue package from the IMF, the EU and the World Bank in May 2009, in exchange for drastic spending cuts.

That austerity programme is credited with helping Romania emerge from two years of severe recession. Its economy grew by 2.5 percent in 2011 and is expected to rise 1.5 percent this year.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Romania's Basescu says victim of corrupt politics

By Radu Marinas

BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Romania's suspended President Traian Basescu said on Sunday the ruling party's drive to force him from office was an attempt to protect some of its lawmakers from corruption investigations.

European Union leaders have criticised leftist Prime Minister Victor Ponta for his campaign to oust Basescu, his long-time political rival. They accused him of failing to protect the rule of law and democratic institutions.

Ponta and his Social Liberal Union (USL), backed by a vote in parliament, earlier this month suspended Basescu for 30 days. A national referendum due on July 29 will decide whether the president will be impeached.

"My suspension was a long-planned move ... and was done to protect would-be convicts in Romanian politics," Basescu told private television station Realitatea TV in an interview.

"In the suspension vote (in parliament) there were 19 lawmakers under criminal investigation, let's call them would-be candidates for jail," he said, without elaborating.

Ponta accuses Basescu of blocking government reforms and abusing his position to grant favours to his allies and to interfere in the judicial system.

Basescu's Democrat-Liberal opposition allies have said the plan to drive him from power was a retaliation to the conviction of former prime minister Adrian Nastase, a senior member of Ponta's USL, in a landmark corruption trial in June.

The row has rattled markets, sending the Romanian currency to a record low last week, and raised fears the EU's second-poorest state may be faltering in its march to catch up with the richer West.

On Friday, a day after EU leaders expressed concern over the state of democracy in Romania, Ponta said he had responded in writing to a list of demands from the European Commission which included banning any pardoning decrees during the interim presidency.

But he balked at giving a clear signal on whether he would work to undo both an emergency government decree and a separate law scrapping a 50 percent turnout threshold for referendums.

All eyes are now on a tangle of legal statutes that have blurred the referendum rules, most importantly over the minimum turnout requirement.

Basescu would have a better chance of avoiding impeachment with the threshold rule in place, because many in the country of 19 million people could stay away, making the vote invalid.

Parliament, which is dominated by Ponta's USL, will discuss the referendum legislation on Tuesday and Wednesday and will also consider extending the voting to two days.

FT: Romania illustrates limits of EU power

By James Fontanella-Khan in Brussels

Romania’s prime minister is expected to sign up to a series of constitutional reforms on Monday that European leaders hope will reaffirm democracy in one of the EU’s newest member states.

But there is anxiety among some European lawmakers that the commitments made by prime minister Victor Ponta may end up being nothing more than empty promises.

The question of what to do with Romania – whose government has used emergency decrees to curtail the powers of the constitutional court, and voted to suspend the president – points to a broader dilemma for the EU: the relative powerlessness of European institutions when it comes to safeguarding the rule of law in member states.

Heather Grabbe, director of the Open Society Institute, an NGO in Brussels, says that the EU was deliberately designed to have limited powers to intervene in the internal judicial affairs of member states.

“The EU has always accepted that member states would join with very diverse constitutional arrangements and that’s fine as long as they obey their own rules,” said Ms Grabbe. “But when they stop doing that, as Romania seems to be doing now, it is very hard for the EU to react.”

A number of EU officials admit they have few powers to exert pressure on countries threatening the bloc’s core values. But following a series of clashes with member states over the respect of fundamental rights – including a stand-off between Brussels and Paris in 2010 over the treatment of Roma migrants – some officials and analysts argue that new tools should be deployed to protect Europe’s democracy.

Corina Stratulat of the European Policy Centre think-tank says the EU should apply “existing tools, but also create new mechanisms to deal with structural problems that undermine democratic practices in the EU”.

The EU’s most powerful weapon to punish a country that does not respect its democratic rule is Article 7 of the Lisbon treaty, which permits it to sanction a member state, including suspending its voting rights. But this measure, also known as the “nuclear” option, has never been used as it is considered too severe.

Monica Macovei, a Romanian member of the European parliament, says there is a reluctance to use such a measure, partly because MEPs fear it could be used against their own home country at some point in future. “Article 7 is too harsh, we need more intermediate ways of tackling the problem.”

The only time sanctions were used against a member state was in 2000 – before the Lisbon treaty was adopted – when the EU decided to isolate Austria after Jörg Haider, leader of the country’s far-right party, joined a government coalition.

The isolation policy, however, failed miserably, as the EU was later forced to drop the sanctions, while Mr Haider remained in power, highlighting the weakness of European institutions vis a vis national governments.

A similarly embarrassing incident took place in 2010, when Nicolas Sarkozy, then French president, deported 8,000 Roma migrants, despite the EU’s vocal opposition and threats of legal action.

A year ago, Hungary also stood up to the EU’s threats, ignoring Brussels’ demands to reverse a controversial media law that had been rammed through parliament by prime minister Viktor Orbán’s centre-right Fidesz party.

In Romania’s case, the EU still has a few cards to play given that Bucharest has yet to be granted the full benefits of being a member of the EU bloc.

The European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, is monitoring Romania’s progress in fighting corruption, organised crime and modernising its judicial system. Such mechanisms of supervision could be extended if Romania does not comply with EU demands, a move that would stigmatise Bucharest.

Alternatively, the EC could indirectly sanction Mr Ponta’s government by blocking Romania’s membership of the much cherished border-free Schengen zone or suspend the release of much-needed funds to boost growth.

However, it remains unclear whether any of these measures will represent a real threat to a prime minister whose greatest interest still lies at home rather than in Brussels.

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WP: Romania’s repressive moves

The Post’s View
Romania’s repressive moves

By Editorial Board, Published: July 14

COVERAGE OF THE crisis in Europe has tended to focus on economic questions, such as whether Greece or other governments will default on their debts or whether the euro currency will survive. The growing political damage to institutions, and to democracy itself, is sometimes overlooked. But in several countries there has been an alarming erosion of political comity and constitutional checks and balances, driven by populists who exploit the public’s dissatisfaction with economic hardship.

The latest example is Romania, where a new left-wing prime minister has been pressing to remove checks on his government while trying to force the country’s president from office. Victor Ponta, who took power last May without an election after two successive right-of-center coalitions collapsed, has alarmed other European Union governments as well as the Obama administration by quickly seeking to consolidate power.

In a matter of weeks the parliamentary majority controlled by the new prime minister has replaced the leaders of the two chambers — one of whom is now in line to succeed the president — as well as an ombudsman who had sole authority to appeal the government’s decrees. The Parliament also sought to strip the Constitutional Court of authority to review its decisions, and Mr. Ponta spoke of replacing court members who ruled against him.

The Parliament then impeached President Traian Basescu, a right-of-center rival of Mr. Ponta. The vote mandated a July 29 referendum on whether Mr. Basescu will remain in office. But a government emergency decree and parliamentary legislation changed the rules for the vote so that impeachment could be ratified by a majority of those voting, rather than a majority of all registered voters.

Faced with an outcry from E.U. leaders, some of whom hinted that Romania could face sanctions, Mr. Ponta has appeared to retreat slightly. This week he said he supported a Constitutional Court ruling that would require a turnout of a majority of voters in the impeachment referendum in order for the results to be valid. That could ensure that Mr. Basescu remains in office, since many Romanians appear likely to skip the dog-days voting.

The revised voting rules must still be approved by Parliament, however, and Mr. Ponta’s campaign is not over: He will seek his own mandate in a general election this year. He is promising to reverse the stringent austerity Romania has endured since 2009, when it was forced to seek a bailout from the International Monetary Fund. Though relatively effective, the program prompted a popular backlash and street demonstrations that caused the downfall of the previous center-right coalition.

Contrarily, Mr. Ponta is also promising his E.U. interlocutors that he will stick to Romania’s international agreements, including one with the IMF. But the financial market’s view of his rhetoric has been reflected in the plunging value of Romania’s currency and a rise in its borrowing costs. Sooner or later, Romanians will discover that, as in the rest of Europe, there is no quick or easy solution to their economic problems — especially when it involves short-circuiting democracy.

Friday, July 13, 2012

NYT: Separating Law and Politics in Romania

The Conscience of a Liberal  by Paul Krugman 

July 12, 2012, 7:18 PM1 Comment
Guest Post: Separating Law and Politics in Romania

Another post from my Princeton colleague Kim Lane Scheppele, after the jump:

Separating Law and Politics in Romania

Kim Lane Scheppele (Princeton University) and Vlad Perju (Boston College Law School)
12 July 2012

As the Romanian political crisis spirals into dangerous territory, it helps to understand what is legal, what is political, and where the line between the two is blurred. Ordinary party politics is a contact sport that can generate much public passion, but it is perfectly legal. Constitution-smashing conduct crosses the line into revolutionary territory. The actions of the Ponta government combine polarized party politics with a constitution-smashing revolution.

Since the last post on this subject, the Romanian parliament voted Friday by 256 to 114 to remove President Basescu from office. On 29 July, the Romanian electorate will be able to confirm or reject the parliamentary vote. If the people vote to oust Basescu, which the polls predict they will, he must go. In the meantime, he is suspended from office.

Ponta and his allies have been so intent on removing Basescu that they have stopped at nothing to achieve this result. They changed the referendum law to make it easier to rid themselves of Basescu. They have fired the ombudsman, the only person who could challenge the government’s decrees before the Constitutional Court. They have ousted the presidents of both chambers of parliament in order to bring the line of succession for the presidency into their party alliance. They threatened to remove justices of the Constitutional Court who had sided with Basescu in the past and – when international criticism roared about the threats to the judges – instead cut the jurisdiction of the Constitutional Court. The prime minister’s allies also seized control of the official gazette in which all legal documents must be published before they can take effect, which theoretically gives them the power to delay the publication, and thus the entering into force, of decisions contrary to their political interests.

Which of these actions are merely aggressive party politics and which violate the Romanian constitutional framework? In this post, we will review the various actions that the government has taken in the last few weeks to distinguish political aggression from constitutional transgression, explaining in particular the many decisions of the Constitutional Court.

The Romanian constitution specifies the proper procedure for removing the president from office in Articles 95-96. In preparation for an impeachment vote, the parliament must prepare an indictment alleging that the president has committed “grave violations of the constitution,” which is the constitutional standard for impeachment. Ponta’s parliamentary majority submitted last Wednesday (4 July) a 17-page document asserting most importantly that the president had interfered with the jurisdiction of the prime minister which, in its view, was a grave constitutional violation.

The constitution requires the Constitutional Court to assess the sufficiency of the case against the president to ensure that the constitutional standard is met. As the Court held in decisions before the current crisis, the procedure for removing the president must be reserved for cases that involve grave violations of the constitution, and not used as part of the typical electoral cycle. In a hurried ruling on the new indictment last Thursday (5 July), the Constitutional Court issued an equivocal opinion that implied, but did not clearly state in its conclusions as the Court’s opinions typically do, that the allegations against Basescu failed to amount to grave constitutional violations. Ponta’s camp immediately “spun” the Constitutional Court’s decision to claim that the Court had sided with them even though a more balanced reading of the opinion would show that it went against them. Undaunted, and since the Court’s opinion is advisory only, the government continued its drive to remove the president and called for the parliamentary vote.

The Constitutional Court’s equivocation in this case is understandable. Just as the first referendum case was headed their way, the Constitutional Court justices issued an extraordinary plea for help to European bodies, claiming that they had been threatened with dismissal. Furthermore, in a case whose details have yet to surface, one constitutional judge claims to have beendirectly threated before the deliberations. ) Under almost unbearable pressure, the Court nonetheless issued an opinion that was not fully favorable to the government.

The parliamentary vote was held Friday (6 July) on the impeachment resolution and then the Constitutional Court was required to weigh in again to certify both the parliamentary vote and the assumption of the interim presidency by the new president of the Senate. The court provided the relevant certification on Monday (9 July), permitting the process to move to the public referendum. This was a routine decision, not hard by constitutional standards.

The Constitutional Court’s big and most surprising decision came on Tuesday (10 July), when it ruled on the constitutionality of a law that had passed the parliament on 26 June, amending the law on public referenda to make it easier for the government to oust the president. Before this amendment, the referendum law had required for passage of a referendum a majority vote of the electorate with a turnout of more than 50%, a double majority. The amendment provided that the president can be removed with a majority of the votes cast, only a single majority. The Constitutional Court held that the amended referendum law was constitutional but only when the turnout requirement was met. The Court insisted that it was “essential” that at least 50% of the registered voters participate before the referendum could be considered valid. The Court, then, required the double majority.

The Court’s decision took political courage and was a bit of a surprise. Given that the referendum will be held in the middle of summer, it will be very hard to generate a 50% turnout, so the decision on the turnout requirement may have in effect decided the substantive issue of whether the president is to stay or go.

The Constitutional Court had been over this terrain before. This is the second time that Ponta’s political allies have tried to dislodge Basescu. The first try was in 2007, but the attempt failed because 74% of the voters in the impeachment referendum voted for Basescu to stay. And then Basescu was reelected president again in 2009.

In the 2007 impeachment attempt, the Constitutional Court had to rule on a similar amendment to the referendum law. The 2007 referendum was held under a last-minute amendment that permitted the president to be ousted by a simple majority of votes cast, the single majority rule. In a decision that is not a model of clarity, the Constitutional Court left open the possibility that parliament may decide that a referendum can be valid with less than 50% turnout. The Court seemed to confirm this interpretation when certifying the results of the 2007 referendum even though the turnout was only 44% of registered voters.

The decision on Tuesday (10 July) changed course by requiring a 50% turnout for referenda to be valid, requiring a double majority. Unfortunately, the court’s reasons for the decision, which were published today (12 July), fail to square this new interpretation with relevant precedent. That effort is left to court observers, who can find a grounding for the court’s approach in the concurring – yet, at the time, largely ignored – opinion of Judge Kozsokar in the 2007 case.

In any event, Tuesday’s decision makes it clear that the constitution now requires a majority vote with a majority turnout to remove the president, a double majority.

But the government has another trick up its legal sleeve to avoid the Court decision. On 5 July, the Ponta government passed an emergency decree that amended the referendum law by again dropping the turnout requirement, making a simple majority of votes cast all is needed for a referendum to be valid. After Tuesday’s Court decision, the government initially pointed out that the Court’s decision held the challenged statute unconstitutional but it did not invalidate the emergency decree under which the 29 July referendum could still be organized.

The government’s statement left open the possibility that the government would override the Court’s decision by relying on emergency decree power instead of on the invalidated statute. While the Constitutional Court has the jurisdiction to review emergency decrees also, the justices can only do so if the decree is brought to them by the ombudsman. And early in this impeachment saga, Ponta’s allies in the parliament fired the ombudsman and substituted their own loyalist. He is not likely to bring the case to the Court.

The Ponta government appeared to change course in Brussels on Wednesday (11 July), under intense pressure from the European Union, by claiming that it would uphold the rule of law and follow both the constitution and Court decisions. But the government has declined to revoke its emergency decree. Instead, it has called for an extraordinary session of parliament to bring the legislation in line with the Court’s ruling. The timeline for the elections and the vagaries of parliamentary politics might give the government just enough cover to argue that, despite its best efforts, it was technically impossible to revise legislation in time for the July referendum. And then it might still rely on the decree.

Ponta’s apparently reassuring statements in Brussels don’t necessarily reassure those who have watched him closely in the three months he has been in power. He has been known to say one thing abroad and another at home before. In an interview with El Pais just before a commission of academic experts, which includes among its members the president of the Romanian Academy, ruled two weeks ago that his dissertation had been plagiarized, Ponta asserted that he would resign if the judgment went against him. Once at home, his representatives denied he had said that, which prompted El Pais tomake the recording of the interview public,. (Despite the adverse finding on the plagiarism matter, Ponta has stayed on.)

Nor would this be the first time the government ignores a ruling of the Constitutional Court. Last month, the Court was called to settle a conflict between the president and the prime minister over who should represent Romania at the European Council. The Court ruled that the power belonged to the president, because the constitution gives most of the explicit foreign policy responsibilities to him. (The Romanian constitution’s provisions on the responsibilities of the president and the prime minister with regard to foreign policy are similar to the provisions of the French constitution, and France sent the president instead of the prime minister to the same European summit.)

In response to the Constitutional Court’s decision, the government, acting through its Minister of Foreign Affairs, refused to approve the president’s travel plans and to forward his name as the head of the Romanian delegation, according to standard procedure. Romania was represented at the June meeting of the European Council by the prime minister, which caused a bit of a fuss at the meeting. The public prosecutor’s office is currently investigating this matter, although it is unclear that any laws were violated.

In this climate, all eyes are on the Constitutional Court. What else is the Court doing to stave off constitutional crisis in Romania? The Court has been sidelined by both a statute and an executive decree which have removed its jurisdiction, but it has nonetheless made decisions over the last week that have tried to sort law from politics. The referendum decisions are only part of the story. In other decisions, the court has punted when it comes to the government’s power to replace Basescu loyalists with their own.

The first decision concerns the parliament’s decision to fire the ombudsman. The ombudsman is the only state official who can directly challenge governmental decrees before the Constitutional Court. So – no ombudsman, no Constitutional Court challenges. The ombudsman was replaced by someone affiliated with the Ponta coalition on 3 July, at the beginning of this fast campaign to remove the president. Ponta’s opponents say the ombudsman was sidelined to permit the government to evade the Court. The current ombudsman has been unresponsive to repeated calls from NGOs and civil society to challenge the constitutionality of the government’s recent emergency decrees.

The law on the ombudsman (Law 35/1997) permits the parliament to fire the ombudsman, but only if the ombudsman has violated the constitution or other laws. The parliamentary majority argued that the ombudsman’s actions had been politically motivated and in support of the president’s agenda. On that ground, parliament was called back from vacation for an extraordinary session in which it voted to remove the ombudsman. The Constitutional Court declined to review this decision on the ground that it does not impact constitutional values and principles.

The Court acted similarly in a case involving a challenge to the procedure used to remove the president of the Senate and to replace him with a president from Ponta’s coalition. While the Court claimed to be the guardian of its jurisdiction in general, it nevertheless declined jurisdiction in that case on the ground that the choice of the Senate president does not impact constitutional values and principles either. This is surprising, to say the least, considering that the president of the Senate becomes the interim president after parliament voted to impeach the national president last Friday.

A close reading of the Court’s reasons published Thursday (12 July) shows that its strategy is to claim jurisdiction over the decisions of parliament after striking down as unconstitutional attempts to limit its own powers, while at the same time voluntarily limiting its review to only those decisions that, in its narrow interpretation, “impact on constitutional values and principles.” This survival strategy is likely a reaction to the enormous political pressure on the Court in recent days.

Now what? On the political side, Ponta has just stated in an interview to foreign journalists that he worries about the crisis of legitimacy that will follow if the president were soundly defeated in a referendum that failed to meet the 50% turnout requirement insisted upon by the Court. It is a real and disturbing possibility that a government might “solve” the crisis by relying on the still-valid executive decree that permits a referendum to pass on a single majority or by claiming legitimacy directly from the people, thus bypassing the double majority requirement of the Constitutional Court. Since the Court will have to certify the referendum result, such assertions of power could result in a major constitutional crisis.
The constitutional court

On the legal side, while the recent decisions both on the referendum and on attempts at limiting its jurisdiction show a certain amount of bravery on the part of the Constitutional Court, one also sees effects of the extraordinary pressures on the Court. In its other decisions, the Court is being less than clear, avoiding some questions while stalling for time. The Court, in short, is probably doing the best it can to preserve itself while still fulfilling its responsibilities to keep politics within constitutional boundaries. The Court has suddenly been thrust into the spotlight and it is actually attempting to maintain some constitutional order. But in this time of daily constitutional challenges, that is not easy. Nor is it clear that the Court will win

WSJ: Romania Heads Down Risky Political Road


Romania has chosen a poor time to gain a reputation for political instability. Its prime minister, Victor Ponta, was summoned to Brussels Thursday after a series of attacks on the country's constitution, culminating in impeachment proceedings against President Traian Basescu. Investors have already got the jitters: the leu has fallen 2% against the euro this month. That might prove the tip of the iceberg if Mr. Ponta persists with his risky strategy.

The big danger Romania could face is losing its €5 billion ($6.1 billion) precautionary credit line set up last year by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund. The government could tap those funds if Romania's banking system freezes up due to any deepening of the euro-zone crisis. That might happen if foreign banks cut credit lines to their Romanian subsidiaries, which account for over 80% of the country's banking sector, in turn restricting their ability to lend. Greek banks alone contribute nearly 20% of foreign bank lending in Romania, according to Royal Bank of Scotland.

So far Romania has kept its economic side of the bargain. Spending cuts and tax rises have reduced its government deficit to 5.2% of GDP last year, from 9% in 2009; economic growth hit 2.5% in 2011 after two years of contraction.

But staying on the right path isn't a given. The current row might look mostly political in nature: the leftist Mr. Ponta has been trying to restrict the powers of Romania's independent constitutional court. But he is winning popular support for impeaching the right-leaning Mr. Basescu by tying him to unpopular austerity measures since 2009. Sure, Mr. Ponta is trying to have it both ways, publicly committing his government to the EU/IMF program. But with parliamentary elections due in November, the temptation to back track on fiscal tightening will be strong.

Moreover, Romania doesn't just risk losing its credit line from the EU and IMF. Pressuring independent courts sends a bad signal to foreign investors about threats to the rule of law in Romania: already German Chancellor Angela Merkel and European Commission President José Manuel Barroso have expressed concern about the risks to Romanian democracy. With the European economy still teetering, testing its leaders' patience is a reckless route for Romania.

NYT: Premier of Romania Relents in Standoff

Published: July 12, 2012

BRUSSELS — A constitutional crisis in Romania seemed to be near resolution on Thursday, quieting fears for now of growing political instability on the eastern fringe of the European Union.

The confrontation in Romania brought a sharp rebuke from European officials, including the head of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy, who spoke of his “deep concerns” about the infighting and its potential for undermining the nation’s judiciary. This follows a similar crisis in Hungary, reviving worries about whether the European Union can protect its core values if relatively new democracies threaten to stray.

The troubles in Romania began with the arrival of a center-left government in May under Prime Minister Victor Ponta, which immediately clashed with the conservative president, Traian Basescu, ostensibly over economic issues. Last week, after only two months, the Parliament voted to suspend the president pending a referendum on impeachment, which has been set for July 29.

That, in turn, led to squabbling over a law passed by the previous government in its final days requiring that at least 50 percent plus one of the entire electorate turn out for such a referendum to be valid. Mr. Ponta’s government had sought to remove that requirement by decree, but the move was invalidated Tuesday by the Constitutional Court.

The government initially indicated it would ignore the court’s ruling. But late Wednesday in Brussels, where Mr. Ponta said he had traveled to “give reassurances” to European officials, he said he would have his emergency decree revoked, in accordance with the court decision.

Meeting with a small group of journalists on Thursday, Mr. Ponta said he would also leave it to the court to decide on the day after the vote whether the threshold had been met. “I’m not the dictator,” he said, rejecting charges that his bloc was trying to consolidate power. “My government is going to respect” the court’s decision, he said, even if it means Mr. Basescu remains as president.

Mr. Ponta blamed the crisis on public demands for quick action to ease the painful austerity measures championed in recent years by Mr. Basescu after a brush with insolvency. Romania, which is not part of the euro zone, received a $30 billion bailout loan from the International Monetary Fund, the European Union and the World Bank in 2009, having been hit hard by the global financial crisis.

After meeting with Mr. Ponta on Thursday, Mr. Rompuy urged him to “engage in a constructive dialogue” with the European Commission and address the issues identified as “problematic.” Later, the commission’s president, José Manuel Barroso, said he had received “assurances” from Mr. Ponta that he would address the issues of concern and “urgently” deliver the promises in writing.

Mr. Ponta said in the interview that he was “completely ready to back down” if the commission found that any of his government’s actions had violated European norms. But he also warned that continued political gridlock in Bucharest could end up strengthening extremist or anti-European parties, as has been seen in several European countries.

Stelian Tanase, a writer and longtime political analyst in Bucharest, blamed young and inexperienced politicians — Mr. Ponta is 39 — for provoking the crisis. “I think the government made a lot of mistakes in just two months,” he said. “It’s too much, too fast for a European country.”

But Mr. Tanase also described the recent developments as the latest chapter in a “war” between Romania’s two main political “clans.”

The left, he said, wants to avenge the prosecution of their former prime minister, Adrian Nastase, which they charge was politically motivated. Mr. Nastase attempted suicide last month after Romania’s Supreme Court ruled he must serve a two-year prison sentence for corruption.

“The problem is that these politicians hate each other,” Mr. Tanase said. “It’s about power, nothing else.”

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Romania court: Majority of voters must show up if ballot on ousting president is to be valid

By Associated Press, Published: July 10

BUCHAREST, Romania — Romania’s Constitutional Court said Tuesday that a majority of the electorate must turn out to vote in order for a referendum on ousting the president to be valid, a ruling that may make it harder for President Traian Basescu’s opponents to push him out.

The court’s decision is the latest development in a growing power struggle in Romania between factions loyal to Basescu and those supporting his rival, Prime Minister Victor Ponta. The wrangling has led to international concern about the fate of democracy in the eastern European nation, which emerged from communism in 1989.

Last Friday, parliament, which is dominated by Ponta backers, voted to impeach Basescu, accusing him of meddling in affairs that are the province of the prime minister, trying to influence judicial affairs and making bigoted remarks about Gypsies and disabled people. Basescu has denied any wrongdoing, saying that he may be outspoken but that he has not committed “grave violations” of the constitution.

On Monday, the Constitutional Court upheld the decision to impeach, setting the stage for a July 29 national referendum on whether Basescu should be removed from office. But Tuesday’s court ruling provides some relief for Basescu’s camp, because getting a 50 percent turnout of the electorate is by no means a certainty in Romania.

According to the most recent census, there are 18 million potential voters in Romania, meaning at least 9 million would have to vote. But the voter census data are believed to be outdated, and more recent population counts put the number of all Romanians at 19 million.

Basescu became president in 2004, and was impeached in 2007 but survived a referendum. He is a center-right politician, though as president he is not allowed to be a member of any party. Unlike presidencies in some European nations, Basescu’s position is not merely ceremonial. He is elected in a popular vote and is in charge of foreign policy, the powerful intelligence services and the country’s defense policies.

Ponta heads the left-leaning Social Democratic Party. He became prime minister May 7, the third in four months after the previous two were ousted over unpopular cuts to spending and other economic austerity measures. Unlike his predecessors who were deferential to Basescu, Ponta has moved instead to sideline Basescu and his allies.

The coalition of Social Democrats and Liberals led by Ponta did very well in June local elections, but Ponta’s popularity has declined after he was accused of plagiarizing large sections of his 2004 doctoral thesis, accusations subsequently upheld by a Romanian academic panel.

Ponta, 39, has conceded that he did not credit his sources in footnotes, leaving the credits to the bibliography, but claims the accusations are politically manipulated by Basescu. The latest political turmoil has also dented his government’s popularity.

Basescu, 60, a former sea captain has become increasingly unpopular in recent years due to the imposition of the austerity measures and also his confrontational style. But some believe he has been treated unfairly by the heavy-handed impeachment process.

Ponta’s government said it will comply with Tuesday’s court ruling. Meanwhile, the prime minister has been asked to visit Brussels on Thursday to discuss his country’s political turmoil with European Union officials.

EU officials have questioned the speed with which Romania’s Constitutional Court upheld the impeachment and want Ponta to explain the situation. “We are concerned by the speed and consequences of decisions taken over the last few weeks,” EU spokeswoman Pia Ahrenkilde Hansen said.

Romania joined the EU in 2007.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

WSJ: Romanian Court Clears President's Impeachment


Romania's top court on Monday cleared the way for a national referendum on whether to remove the country's president from office, despite criticism from European and U.S. officials fearful that democratic checks and balances are under threat.

On Friday, the Romanian parliament voted by a wide margin to impeach President Traian Basescu, saying he had overstepped his constitutional authority—the latest round in a bruising political battle between the right-leaning Mr. Basescu and the country's new leftist prime minister, Victor Ponta.

"These decisions definitely prove that all democratic and constitutional rules have been respected," Mr. Ponta said Monday night.

Critics of Mr. Ponta at home and abroad, however, have objected to a series of steps taken ahead of the vote—including firing the state's independent ombudsman and changing a law on referendums—that make it easier to oust the president.

German government spokesman Steffen Seibert on Monday used unusually strong language to condemn the impeachment process, saying it is "unacceptable when a European Union country infringes the fundamental principles of rule of law."

Mr. Ponta, a 39-year-old Social Democrat, said the Romanian people, not German Chancellor Angela Merkel or other EU leaders, will decide whether Mr. Basescu should stay or go. He said Romanians would vote July 29 and "we hope for their voice to be respected."

Although the court said the parliamentary vote to suspend Mr. Basescu should stand, it didn't side completely with Mr. Ponta. It rejected a government effort to limit the court's jurisdiction over parliamentary decisions.

The court is expected to rule Tuesday on another matter, the rules governing the presidential recall vote. The judges must decide whether new legislation lowering the bar for removing the president to a simple majority of votes cast is legal. Before, a majority of registered voters was required—a higher hurdle instituted in 2010, after a previous bid to impeach Mr. Basescu.

Relations between the court and Mr. Ponta's government have been strained. Last week, the court issued a statement accusing Mr. Ponta and his party of trying to dismantle it, after politicians questioned the court's independence and called for the replacement of some judges.

The European Commission, the EU's executive arm, said Friday it was worried that Mr. Ponta's actions "appear to reduce the effective powers of independent institutions like the Constitutional Court" and urged Romania to respect European "principles and values."

Washington, meanwhile, called on Bucharest to respect "the rule of law and democratic ideals."

EU worries about democratic backsliding in Romania, which joined the group in 2007, come after more than a year of struggles between Brussels and Hungary over issues ranging from judicial independence to media freedom.

Such skirmishes over political standards have been an unwelcome diversion for European leaders grappling with a financial crisis. And they have prompted complaints the EU doesn't have adequate tools to keep states from rolling back democratic gains.

Romania's political turmoil has slowed progress in dealing with the country's economic problems and raised doubts about its ability to meet the requirements of its bailout-loan agreement with the EU and International Monetary Fund.

That in turn has weakened Romania's currency and raised the borrowing costs for the EU's second-poorest member, after Bulgaria. Romania, which doesn't use the euro, was rescued by the EU and IMF in 2009, after the global financial crisis brought it to the brink of insolvency.

Mr. Basescu, elected to a second term as head of state in 2009, has seen his popularity plummet as Romania's economy has struggled to recover from a recession and public anger has mounted at tax increases, public-sector wage cuts and other austerity measures he backed.

Anti-government demonstrators who took to the streets of Bucharest and other cities early this year in at-times violent protests, often called for the ouster of Mr. Basescu. His political ally, Prime Minister Emil Boc, resigned instead.

In contrast to the center-right,Mr. Ponta's left-leaning alliance, which pledges more measures to stimulate growth and a stronger social safety net, has been doing better at the polls, winning a major victory in local elections last month.

Soon after, allegations emerged that Mr. Ponta had plagiarized large sections of his doctoral dissertation on the International Criminal Court. Mr. Ponta's allies blame Mr. Basescu for raising the issue to discredit a popular rival.

An academic panel, which defied a government order to disband, concluded that Mr. Ponta had committed plagiarism and should be stripped of his degree. Another commission in the Ministry of Education is still reviewing the matter. Mr. Ponta has said that he credited his sources in his bibliography, but not always in footnotes.

FT: Romania: leu low as tensions run high

The Romanian leu has started what could be a tense week in Bucharest by trading near the record lows it reached on Friday, when parliament voted to suspend president Traian Basescu and order a referendum on his impeachment.

The leu was at 4.52 to the euro at 13:00 Bucharest time on Monday, a slight recovery from Friday’s close of 4.53 but much weaker than its recent average of 4.46. Romanians were nervously awaiting a Constitutional Court hearing into the legality of the impeachment move.

In a matter of weeks, a country that seemed to be weathering the global economic turmoil with its political stability intact has been thrown into crisis.

Prime minister Victor Ponta and his leftist USL coalition, which took office only in May, have been accused by critics of nothing less than trampling on the constitution. His challengers draw comparisons with Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian prime minister, who has centralised power in his ruling Fidesz party.

But even Orbán did not move as fast as Ponta. As Neil Buckey writes in the FT, “events in Romanian are unfolding at dizzying speed“.

In Orbán’s case, it took months for foreign partners to raise their concerns and even then they did with the usual diplomatic caution. With Ponta, they have decided to ignore convention and speak out straight away.

The US, the EU, France, Germany, the Council of Europe and several rights groups, including Freedom House and the Helsinki Committee, have all fired off critical statements.

The European Commission said:

The rule of law, the democratic checks and balances and the independence of the judiciary are cornerstones of the European democracy and indispensable for mutual trust within the European Union.

Ponta and his allies have gone straight for the political jugular – Romania’s long-running economic difficulties. While the country has won plaudits from the EU and the IMF for sticking to an austerity plan agreed with Brussels and Washington, the centre-right governments that ruled before Ponta faced protests and widespread popular anger.

Parliament on Friday voted 256 to 114 to suspend Basescu, saying the president overstepped his duties when announcing budget cuts in 2010 (when he signed off on an austerity package) and making other economic policy decisions.

The planned referendum on his impeachment will take place on July 29, giving Basescu less than three weeks to save himself. If he is impeached, presidential elections will follow, with every possibility of victory for a Ponta-backed candidate. It could also precipitate early parliamentary elections, before their current due date in November or December, in which the left could also expect to do spectacularly well.

Ponta’s coalition won a big victory last month in local elections, when it captured nearly 50 per cent of the vote – an extraordinary figure in a proportional representation voting system – against about 16 per cent for Basescu’s Democrat-Liberal party.

The Constitutional Court will rule on key procedural changes made by the coalition to ease impeachment and limit the court’s powers to block an impeachment. The court is due to hear a Democrat-Liberal Party challenge to these changes.

Buckley writes that critics say the grounds for impeachment are flimsy; the process was launched by questionable means, and it appears part of a Ponta power grab.

Ponta himself says there’s absolutely nothing to worry about. He said in a speech:

The concerns of our European and international partners are legitimate but we want to assure them that the government will secure the country’s stability. The political conflict won’t affect the state institutions as the government will respect all the decisions of the Constitutional Court and the rule of law.

But as Romania’s EU partners know, Hungary’s Orbán has repeatedly made similar promises. Ponta has a very useful – and dangerous – precedent.

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Germany says suspension of Romania leader "unacceptable"

BERLIN (Reuters) - Germany sharply criticized on Monday the Romanian government's suspension of President Traian Basescu and urged it to show respect for the rule of law and the independence of state institutions.

On Friday, Prime Minister Victor Ponta's leftist government suspended Basescu saying he had overstepped his powers. Ponta is now trying to amend the rules of an impeachment referendum set for July 29 to make it easier to remove Basescu.

"The German government observes with deep concern the actions of the Romanian government under Prime Minister Ponta. The process to remove President Basescu is unacceptable," German government spokesman Steffen Seibert told a news conference.

Using unusually strong language against another European Union member state, Seibert said the suspension of Basescu and the calling of a referendum took place in a way that "flouts the basic principles of the rule of law".

The government's actions undermine the independence and capacity of Romania's constitutional court, Seibert added.

"We expect the Romanian government to restore confidence in the country and in its constitutional process," he said.

Ponta's government wants to change how many votes are needed to impeach the president, from a majority of the whole electorate to a majority of those who actually vote - a move which could determine the result.

The government has also passed an emergency decree backing its referendum rule law, making it harder for the constitutional court to block the drive to impeach Basescu and prompting concerns in the EU that Ponta is dispensing with the judiciary.

Romania's government denies its actions are threatening the rule of law and says the political row will not hurt the justice system.

Seibert said Berlin was in contact with its EU partners over the situation in Romania, which joined the EU in 2007 and is one of the poorest and most corrupt countries in the 27-nation bloc.

Germany is the EU's largest economy and championed the bloc's enlargement into the former communist bloc.

Monday, July 9, 2012

FT: Fears grow for democracy in Romania

By Neil Buckley, East Europe Editor

First it was Hungary. Now there are worrying signs that democracy and the rule of law may be going off the rails in another ex-communist state to have joined the EU since 2004: Hungary’s bigger neighbour, Romania.

Bucharest’s parliament on Friday voted to suspend President Traian Basescu – triggering a referendum on impeaching the head of state.

Critics say the grounds for impeachment is flimsy; the process was launched by questionable means, and it appears part of a power grab by Romania’s recently-installed prime minister, Victor Ponta, and his leftist USL coalition that has trampled on the constitution.

Brussels officials and Romanian analysts are drawing comparisons with how Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, has since 2010 entrenched his Fidesz party in power. But events in Romania are unfolding at dizzying speed.

Sorin Ionita, a political analyst at Bucharest’s Expert Forum think-tank, said the government had “dismantled [democratic] institutions”.

“What has happened, especially in the last week, is a series of clearly unconstitutional steps were taken by the government, by executive decree,” he added.

Expert Forum and other civil society groups have warned of the “Fidesz-isation” of Romania, which has a population of 20m.

Before Friday’s vote, Mr Ponta used an emergency decree to remove the constitutional court’s powers to review parliamentary decisions (which it could have used to block the president’s suspension).

Another emergency decree changed the referendum rules, requiring only a simple majority of those voting to remove the president – instead of 50 per cent of registered voters, as previously.

The Romanian ombudsman, who can challenge institutions’ actions in the constitutional court, was fired and replaced with a USL loyalist. So were speakers of both chambers of parliament.

The head of the upper house is now the co-leader of the ruling USL coalition, Crin Antonescu, who will become interim president if Mr Basescu is impeached, and probable candidate to succeed him.

“The previous week, Mr Ponta travelled to Brussels to represent Romania at the latest EU summit, defying a constitutional court ruling upholding Mr Basescu’s claim that this was the president’s job, as it had always been in the past. Mr Ponta cited a parliamentary ruling that gave him the right to go.”

Mr Ponta then attempted to remove the judges who had voted against him – prompting the court to write warning letters to European institutions.

In some ways, Romania is a repeat in more extreme form of the changes of government seen in several EU countries where populations are unhappy about cost-cutting and stagnation.

Romania pushed through some of Europe’s toughest austerity measures after securing €20bn from the EU and International Monetary Fund bailout in 2009, including temporarily slashing public sector wages by a quarter.

The former centre-right prime minister Emil Boc survived 10 no-confidence motions before finally resigning after street protests in January. After another centre-right government was toppled in April, Mr Basescu called on Mr Ponta’s centre-left coalition to govern until parliamentary elections in November.

Critics accuse the government since then of doing everything possible to extend its powers and secure a “supermajority” in the coming election, setting a potentially dangerous precedent.

“Once one government has done this, what is to prevent the next one doing something similar?” says one Romanian businessman.

Mr Ponta’s coalition says it is legitimately challenging Mr Basescu, who comes from the centre-right, because he overstepped his authority and meddled in politics. Romania’s constitution says the president must be neutral.

José Manuel Barroso, European Commission president, on Friday called on Romania to respect the rule of law.

But, like Hungary before, Romania is exposing the limited means European institutions have to exert pressure on countries straying from the democratic path.

The EU can under article seven of its founding treaty bring sanctions including suspending a member state’s EU voting rights. This is seen as a “nuclear” option, however, and the EU balked at using it against Hungary.

Brussels officials say if Romania’s situation deteriorates the EU could continue to block its membership of the border-free Schengen zone – a cherished goal – or suspend EU structural funds for inadequate progress on judicial reforms.

It is unclear, however, if Mr Ponta’s coalition will be able to go as far in Bucharest as Mr Orbán’s Fidesz did in Hungary.

Mr Ponta lacks Mr Orban’s charisma and personal following. Hungary, too, was strong enough financially in 2010 for the Orbán government to turn its back on IMF support and try unorthodox economic measures (though it was forced to seek new IMF help last year).

Analysts say Romania probably cannot afford to see its current €5bn IMF precautionary credit line suspended. That might force it to keep agreed economic reforms on track.

Investor jitters have already driven Romania’s currency to record lows against the euro. A local businessman says that milk, bread and meat prices rose between 3 per cent and 5 per cent from Wednesday to Friday as a result. Continued inflation at that rate, he notes, is not something the government could afford.

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