ANOTHER round of political turmoil is the last thing Romanians need right now. The country has changed governments twice this year. Thousands of people took the streets in January to protest against austerity measures and poor living standards.
Traian Basescu, the president, and Victor Ponta, the prime minister, are attacking each other mercilessly. It all started a month ago, when both expressed their interest in attending the European Council in Brussels. The parliament voted for Mr Ponta to attend. Yet Mr Basescu asked the Constitutional Court to state who has the constitutional right to go to Brussels on behalf of Romania. The court said on June 27th that it is Mr Basescu. Mr Ponta retorted shortly afterwards that he was expecting the court’s judges to take this decision because they are controlled by Mr Basescu. He added that Mr Basescu controls not just this institution, but also other public institutions. (He didn’t specify which ones.)
Mr Ponta upped the ante suggesting that his ruling alliance might start the procedure to suspend Mr Basescu. “Romanians must decide if they want to go with President Basescu and his five judges or if they want to go with us, on a different road”, he said. He ignored the court’s decision and flew to Brussels on June 28th. Mr Basescu had sent him a letter a few days earlier, warning him that if he decides to go without his approval, this would be considered “a breach of a constitutional right belonging to the president”. However, Mr Ponta said that this was a conflict not between the government and the president, but between the president and parliament, as parliamentarians had voted for him to represent Romania in Brussels.
The battle between Romania’s two top politicians has monopolised the country’s public debate. The European Council’s hot issues for Romania, such as the access to structural funds and Schengen membership, receded in the public debate. Even Andrei Marga, the foreign minister, was incapable of presenting the country’s official agenda. When asked by a Romanian newspaper to explain Romania's standpoint in Brussels, his spokesman said Mr Marga didn’t have enough time to “process the information”.
Why is it so important who represents Romania at the European Council? From Brussel’s point of view, it doesn’t matter much whether it’s the president or the prime minister who represents Romania, as the country doesn’t have a big influence on the council’s decisions. However, Mr Ponta’s participation could be seen as a sign of another political power gaining control in Romania. Mr Basescu is known to have close relationships with the centre–right Democrat Liberal Party, which recently shifted to the opposition. Mr Ponta became prime minister in April with his alliance of social democrats and liberals. He is known for his centre-left politics.
The war over who goes to Brussels is symptomatic of an internal fight between the Democratic Liberals and the Social Democrats. Mr Ponta was recently accused byNature, a science magazine, of plagiarising his doctoral thesis, which he strongly denied. He accused Mr Basescu of being behind the allegations and asked an ethics commission to look into the accusations. No matter what the commission’s findings will be, he is not willing to resign. In an interview with our correspondent Mr Ponta admitted that Romania is currently dealing with a credibility crisis at an international level. The quarrel at the political top is not helping. Mr Ponta believes that the fight will not end until parliamentary elections this autumn, when Romania is likely to change government yet again.
How is this crisis affecting Romania in the meantime? The Leu, Romania’s currency, fell very close to an all-time low against the euro. The political infighting could also influence Romania’s chances to become a member of the Schengen agreement this year. Romania’s top politicians seem to have already forgotten why thousands of people protested in freezing temperatures at the beginning of this year.