By MIRCEA GEOANA
ROMANIANS are even more tired, frustrated and angry than many other Europeans. Romania, the seventh most populous country in the European Union, ranks at the very bottom of almost all European human development measures. Its poorest citizens are paying the harshest price for the current fiscal tightening and years of negative or slow economic growth. Five years after Romanians acceded to the European Union, their hopes have been shattered, the promises made to them have been repeatedly broken, and their quest for dignity at home and in Europe has been denied.
On Sunday, Romania’s president, Traian Basescu, narrowly survived a referendum calling for his impeachment, despite the fact that more than 80 percent of those voting supported his dismissal. His lifeline, a last-minute legal maneuver introduced by the Constitutional Court and accepted by Parliament, required an absolute majority of eligible voters to participate for the referendum to be considered valid. Although more than seven million people voted against him — more than the number that elected him in a narrow 2009 presidential runoff election — they did not constitute more than 50 percent of the electorate.
To further complicate matters, the court has postponed until Sept. 12 a decision on whether the referendum was valid, throwing the country into a prolonged period of political uncertainty.
The partisan divide, which reached its pinnacle in Sunday’s referendum, has been managed clumsily by all sides. The majority in Parliament, an alliance of the Social Democratic Party and the National Liberal Party, were angered by Mr. Basescu’s interference in the legislative process and went on a blitzkrieg, changing laws and institutions and replacing the leaders of both chambers of Parliament. With Parliamentary elections only a few months away, the escalating drama called into question the country’s democratic, economic and political stability.
Romania’s plight is closely connected to Europe’s current troubles. In the middle of an economic and political predicament that they did not create and had no control over, citizens all over Europe feel cheated. Governments they voted for have failed to protect them.
While Mr. Basescu held the fiscal austerity card high as a sign of Romania’s commitments to Europe, the country was sliding into poverty and chaos. Austerity is creating room for extremism on both the left and right, and now an adversarial and acrimonious style of politics is making Romania’s European partners doubt its democratic strengths and question its commitment to shared European values.
Strident voices steal the stage while the democratic mainstream of Europe is busy fighting the debt crisis. Frustrated with the limits of their own policies, European officials have now vigorously reacted to Parliament’s ham-handed attempts to create a clear political playing field. Europe wants to contain anti-democratic trends, but Romania’s citizens should not be forced to foot the bill for democratic lapses elsewhere in Europe. Creating an artificial set of ostracized countries on the continent’s geographic and political periphery will put us on the slippery slope toward a redivided Europe.
The crisis has been brewing for many years while observers largely ignored it. Focusing mostly on corruption and the justice system, critics rarely addressed Romania’s core problem: the profoundly dysfunctional political process.
For two decades, politicians in Romania have walked a tightrope between public priorities and the vested economic interests. Many businesses seek lucrative government contracts, and too many politicians are interested only in the spoils — a practice that perverts the political process. Boycotted elections, won or lost by a small number of votes, and suspicion of fraud have been trademarks of the past decade.
A vitriolic political environment emerged, one that lacks actual debate. The political parties are blamed, concealing the reality of the corrupt political system plagued by nepotism and fiefs pushing agendas that have little to do with the citizens’ priorities. The justice system cannot be independent as long as political forces systematically use it as a battleground and tool of influence. Parts of the news media and nongovernmental organizations have been made economically vulnerable and increasingly partisan.
I know how hard it is to bring about meaningful and lasting reform. But I have seen it happen before. As foreign minister from 2000 to 2004, I was involved in the effort to bring Romania to the point of joining NATO and the European Union. Now we must undertake bold reforms once again and act in solidarity for the public interest despite our political differences.
The agenda is clear: legal checks and balances must be strengthened; the fight for social justice and equal opportunity must become a central task of government; competing politicians must tone down the rhetoric and actually talk to one another. Without a functional and independent justice system, the country will not be able to escape the vicious nexus of private economic interest and politics. And that, in turn, will require a review of Parliament’s role and the financing of the political parties and elections.
It is now up to all of the country’s politicians to come up with a new plan to answer the slap Romania’s citizens delivered to them in Sunday’s referendum.
Mircea Geoana, a Romanian senator, has served as Romania’s ambassador to the United States and its foreign minister and ran for president in 2009.