By DAN BILEFSKY
Published: October 12, 2012
BUCHAREST — Victor Ponta came to power in Romania in May amid high hopes that the boyish-looking 40-year-old — the youngest prime minister in the European Union — would usher in a generational change in a country that has struggled to overcome one of the harshest Communist legacies of the former Soviet bloc.
Instead, Romanian politics have seldom been more poisonous. After Mr. Ponta’s failed attempt to impeach President Traian Basescu in July, the two men can barely stand being in the same room with each other, according to associates. They are now locked in an uncomfortable cohabitation until elections in December. And even that vote, analysts say, may prove inconclusive.
The upheavals of this country of 22 million have added to concerns in the United States and Europe about the political instability and threats to democratic institutions that are intensifying across the former Communist bloc.
In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban has come under criticism for flouting democracy with a series of measures that have brought the judiciary and media to heel. In the Czech Republic, the government has teetered on collapse with ministers involved in wire-tapping and corruption scandals.
But Romania, in particular, lies in a region without a history of stable, enlightened governance, even before it suffered through the ravages of World War II and then decades of the meglomaniacal Communist dictatorship under Nicolae Ceausescu, who was overthrown in the most violent of the revolutions that undid the Soviet bloc beginning in 1989.
Since then, Romanians have labored to build democratic structures virtually from scratch, finding themselves in a far more challenging position than almost any of their post-Communist neighbors. Romania’s foibles, then, have provoked debate about whether it and Bulgaria, which both entered the European Union in 2007, were invited in too soon, before their cultures of lawlessness, corruption and winner-take-all politics could be uprooted.
The vociferousness of the domestic battle in Romania has overshadowed policy making, rattled the currency, the lei, and undermined investor confidence in a country that is the second poorest in the European Union after Bulgaria.
Mr. Ponta’s government issued more than two dozen emergency decrees since it took office, allowing it to bypass Parliament. It replaced the country’s ombudsman, who has the power to challenge emergency legislation before the Constitutional Court. Opposition politicians routinely accuse each other of being stooges and liars.
Some members of the pro-government media have accused critical foreign journalists of being anti-Romanian agents. The public remains disgusted with endemic graft and corruption. Adding to the mistrust are accusations that Mr. Ponta, a former prosecutor, plagiarized his doctoral thesis (he has acknowledged some shortcomings).
In an interview at the gargantuan and opulent 1,100-room Palace of Parliament — an architectural monstrosity built by Mr. Ceausescu as a monument to his authority and grandeur — Mr. Ponta acknowledged mistakes, but fell short of expressing outright regret.
He showed barely concealed contempt for Mr. Basescu, a former ship captain, whom he accused of brazenly clinging to power, despite having been rejected by a majority of Romanians, calling the president politically “illegitimate.”
“My mentality as a new generation of politician is to respect the institution even if I don’t respect the person,” he said, referring to the president. “He will never give up. He is a former sea captain and you won’t see a former sea captain being humble or giving up.”
Mr. Ponta said his main shortcoming had been not to effectively communicate the reasons behind the impeachment vote. To repair the country’s image, Mr. Ponta said he was studiously avoiding confrontations with the president, and had even recently removed himself from an acrimonious meeting about foreign policy to avoid another public and damaging bust-up.
Mr. Basescu declined an interview request, in keeping with the conspicuously low profile he has maintained since the referendum on his impeachment, which was favored by an overwhelming majority, even though the turnout of 46 percent was below the 50 percent needed to make the vote valid.
“Our European and American partners appreciate stability and predictability, and the lack of these two leads to overreaction and misunderstanding,” Mr. Ponta said, explaining the lessons he has learned since then.
Indeed, Western diplomats were so concerned that the country was teetering toward lawlessness that in August Washington sent the U.S. assistant secretary for European affairs, Philip H. Gordon, to Bucharest, where he met with both men and warned that Romania must uphold the rule of law.
Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and the European Commission president, José Manuel Barroso, have also voiced concern. Talks, which had been scheduled for September in Brussels on Romania’s bid to join the European Union’s coveted visa-free zone, have been postponed.
Romania has to “remove all doubts on its commitment to the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary and the respect for constitutional rulings,” Mr. Barroso warned Mr. Ponta last month in Brussels.
The move for impeachment was triggered by accusations from the government that Mr. Basescu had overreached his mandate by, among other things, refusing to appoint ministers chosen by the prime minister, pressuring prosecutors in legal cases and using the secret services against enemies.
Mr. Basescu, who has denied the accusations, accused the prime minister — already under fire for riding roughshod through parliamentary checks and balances — of orchestrating a “coup d’'état.”
Monica Macovei, a former justice minister and close ally of Mr. Basescu, asserted in an interview that the breaches of the rule of law in the run-up to the referendum were worse than anything seen since the Ceausescu era.
But she insisted that Romania’s membership in the European Union had been instrumental in overcoming the political showdown. Romania’s justice system is closely monitored by the European Union, which also gives Bucharest much-needed funding. That gives Brussels significant leverage over the country.
“We joined the E.U. to follow the rules, not to destroy them,” she said.
There is little indication, however, that the political tumult will end soon. Mr. Ponta’s leftist coalition is expected to do well in the elections in December, analysts say, but may fall short of winning a majority that might break the deadlock.
While the prime minister’s performance has generated doubts, voters appear even more disenchanted with the rightist party of Mr. Basescu, which they associate with deeply unpopular austerity measures.
More than anything, the relentless sparring and stalemate has engendered a deep sense of disappointment among Romanians in the promise of their young democracy and disillusionment in their political leadership.
“Our politicians behave like children fighting over a toy,” said Monica Cristea, 43, a manicurist from Poenari, a village near Bucharest, where many of her neighbors had left to find work in Germany and Italy. “They have destroyed our international reputation. I am outraged. I don’t like any of them.”