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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