Friday, July 27, 2012

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.

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