Monday, November 26, 2012

PM Says Romania Can't Afford New Political Crisis

By LAURENCE NORMAN

BRUSSELS—Romania's Prime Minister Victor Ponta pledged to bury his political feud with President Traian Basescu after next month's parliamentary elections, predicting he will return as premier and turn his full attention to the country's economic and social challenges.

The 40-year-old Mr. Ponta, one of Europe's youngest leaders, acknowledged mistakes in his handling of a political crisis this year, during which investors sold off Romanian assets, the economy declined and the European Union and U.S. scolded Mr. Ponta over what they saw as threats to the rule of law.

He said neither he nor Mr. Basescu, 61, want a new political crisis after what he called the recent "hot summer."

"After the elections, nobody can afford…a new crisis. I think that the president will stay in his place, the government will have the support of a new parliament and we will have a lot of work to do next year," he said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal.

The crisis erupted after Mr. Ponta took office in May, when his coalition used its parliamentary majority to try and impeach Mr. Basescu over charges he had exceeded his powers as president.

A July 29 referendum to remove Mr. Basescu from office failed after fewer than 50% of the country's eligible voters cast ballots. The Constitutional Court ordered Mr. Basescu restored to office the following month.

The impeachment attempt, alongside the replacement by the government of the country's ombudsman, the use of emergency decrees and allegations of pressure on the judiciary and constitutional court, brought a sharp retort from Brussels. European Commission chief JosĂ© Manuel Barroso talked of a threat to two decades of Romanian democracy-building, and after a visit by Mr. Ponta, set out 11 demands—dubbed the "11 commandments" in Bucharest—of Mr. Ponta's government.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the U.S. State Department also pushed the new government to reverse course.

Three months on, the two political arch rivals are at least speaking. Thursday's interview was delayed 35 minutes as Mr. Basescu and Mr. Ponta compared notes by phone on the latest twists at an EU summit aimed at agreeing on a multiyear budget plan.

Mr. Ponta's coalition of Social Democrats and Liberals is the current favorite to win the Dec. 9 vote, and Mr. Ponta says he is confident the government will command an absolute majority in Parliament. In theory, Mr. Basescu could ask someone from his party to try and form a government—or even ask one of Mr. Ponta's coalition colleagues to take the premiership.

"It's not going to happen," said the prime minister. "I am sure that even the president will do everything for the stability of the country."

Bogdan Oprea, a spokesman for Mr. Basescu, said the president has made it clear he will pick as prime minister "the person who represents the national interest." He declined to say whether that could be Mr. Ponta.

However, Mr. Oprea said: "I can assure you he will find the right decision to have social and political stability in Romania after the elections."

Mr. Ponta, who measures his words carefully, admits the first six months in power have been a steep learning curve. Asked if he would change anything he did over the summer, the prime minister shoots back, "plenty of things."

He is more positive about the EU executive's role in the summer crisis than are many of his supporters, who have accused Mr. Barroso and his team of political bias toward Mr. Basescu.

"I have never wanted to export" the political crisis "or to blame the European Commission for something that was our fault at the end-the president and myself," said Mr. Ponta. "Even during this hot summer…I fought against all the ideas of euro-skepticism. I said no, this is our problem."

As part of his efforts to rebuild ties with Brussels, Mr. Ponta agreed that the president should represent Romania at EU summits-the subject of an early dispute with Mr. Basescu that was a catalyst for the political crisis. Mr. Ponta says his government is determined to stick to budget discipline and win a new precautionary loan from the International Monetary Fund in April, when the current $5 billion package expires.

He brandishes other pro-EU credentials. He wants his country, which isn't in the euro zone, to join the region's single bank supervisor that is set to be launched next year. Most non-euro-zone countries have been noncommittal about joining. And he said he wants Romania to join the euro zone eventually, although he won't say when.

Those efforts have borne some fruit. EU officials say privately that they were impressed by Mr. Ponta's response to its summer demands. One official said Mr. Ponta is seen as "someone we can work with" is one of the moderates within the governing coalition.

Still, real concerns remain among Romania's European partners, especially over alleged intimidation of the judiciary by the government's supporters and attacks by senior political figures on an anti-graft agency, which has successfully taken on dozens of politicians.

Mr. Ponta, a former prosecutor, said corruption has grown "worse and worse" under Mr. Basescu and said he would ensure judicial independence. He pledged to fire government officials found to be involved in corruption or other wrongdoing.

Meanwhile, Mr. Ponta said he is eyeing tax reform at home. He has pledged to keep the 16% flat income-tax rate but wants a special rate of 8% and 12% for lower-income Romanians, at least for a time. When that will be done isn't clear. Everything depends on "the development of the budget and the economy."

1 comment:

Mihai II al Romaniei said...

Well said. Time will tell. This article gives me confidence and optimism for my people and my country. Romania is about the people. Politicians must remember...it's about the people... not themselves.

Michael II of Romania
Head of the Romanian Royal Family MichaelofRomania.com