Monday, July 9, 2012

NYT: Vote to Impeach President Adds to Turmoil in Romania

Published: July 6, 2012

BERLIN — The political crisis in Romania deepened Friday after the Parliament in Bucharest voted to impeach President Traian Basescu amid rising international criticism of the government’s apparent attempts to usurp power and subvert the country’s young democracy.

The impeachment was one step among many that critics say Prime Minister Victor Ponta has taken in recent months to consolidate his rule. The governing coalition has already fired the speakers of both chambers of Parliament — an action the opposition called unconstitutional — and replaced the country’s ombudsman, who has the power to challenge emergency legislation before the Constitutional Court.

The court’s justices have been threatened with removal before their terms were up, although that idea was scrapped after an international outcry. But Mr. Ponta reduced the court’s power and is moving ahead with the impeachment.

Mr. Ponta and his left-leaning Social Liberal Union contend that Mr. Basescu has violated the Constitution and accuse him of acting as a dictator, although the powers of the Romanian president are limited compared with the prime minister’s. The Constitutional Court ruled Friday that Mr. Basescu had not violated the Constitution, although the decision was nonbinding.

“What dictator lets the opposition have the post of prime minister?” Mr. Basescu asked in the debate leading up to the vote, which he lost decisively, with 256 members of Parliament voting to remove him and 114 voting against. In the next step, Romanian voters will decide in a nationwide referendum, planned for July 29, whether Mr. Basescu can remain in office.

In a statement on Friday, the European Commission said it was “concerned about current developments in Romania,” in particular the moves to reduce the power of independent institutions like the Constitutional Court.

“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,” it said.

A spokesman for Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany said Friday that she was watching the situation “with deep concern.”

It is the second time that Mr. Basescu — a former sea captain, anticorruption crusader and polarizing political figure — has faced a referendum to remove him from office. A similar effort in 2007 failed when 74 percent of the voters opposed the move.

But Mr. Basescu’s association with detested austerity programs has taken a toll on his popularity, and opinion surveys show he could lose this time. Romania’s political class is divided by bitter personal rivalries and a public that has taken to the streets in sometimes destructive protests against the austerity programs, as well as the stagnant growth.

Parliament already passed a law that would ease the removal of the president through a referendum, requiring a majority of those voting. Previously, a majority of all eligible voters was needed.

After a recession in 2009, Romania was forced to turn to the International Monetary Fund for emergency loans, which required the government to take drastic measures to curtail deficits, including cutting government salaries and raising the sales tax. The recent political turmoil, and the stern warnings from foreign leaders, have helped to drive the country’s currency, the leu, to a record low against the euro.

The situation in Romania was the latest example of instability and weakening democratic institutions in the former Communist bloc. Civil society groups have criticized Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, for undermining democracy there. But the attention of European leaders appears to be so absorbed by the euro crisis that problems elsewhere seem to attract attention only when they reach a critical point.

“There’s a greater and greater political trend toward an emphasis only on the euro zone,” said Hugo Brady, a senior research fellow at the Center for European Reform, referring to the 17 countries that use the currency. “It’s almost as if it is now a 17-member European Union and other countries just by-the-by in terms of their problems.”

Romania has exhibited growing signs of political instability. The previous government fell at the end of April, two months after taking office, and Mr. Ponta became the country’s third prime minister to hold the office this year.

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