Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Infighting blights Romania in the shadow of European austerity

Election victory for Victor Ponta's left-leaning government is marred by tensions with the president and his European backers

Simon Tisdall
guardian.co.uk, Monday 10 December 2012

Fresh political battles loom in Romania, one of Europe's poorest countries, following Sunday's big election victory by the ruling left-of-centre coalition led by the prime minister, Victor Ponta. After Ponta tried and failed to impeach Romania's combative president, Traian Basescu, last summer, Basescu vowed never to reappoint him as prime minister. If Basescu sticks to his word, a new constitutional crisis may follow. Even if he accepts another Ponta-led administration, a new attempt at cohabitation, given the bad blood on both sides, looks likely to end in tears.
The results of the parliamentary polls were clear-cut, suggesting Romanian voters have little patience with continued political feuding. Ponta's Social Liberal Union (USL), backed by Crin Antonescu's liberals and Dan Voiculescu's conservatives, won about 58-60% of the vote, according to exit polls, with the pro-Basescu Right Romania Alliance (ARD) trailing on 18%. The outcome will be seen as a strong repudiation of Basescu, who is widely accused of exceeding his powers and who narrowly survived July's impeachment referendum thanks to a low turnout.
But the voting also reflected deep differences on economic management, mirroring the wider European debate on austerity. Basescu has backed tough and unpopular measures to counter the effects of the financial downturn, including a 25% cut in public sector salaries and sharp sales tax rises. Two successive centre-right coalition governments backed by the presidency collapsed earlier this year before Ponta took over, pledging a more balanced, socially responsible approach.
Speaking last week, Ponta said he was committed to "fiscal consolidation and smart growth". He set his battle with Basescu and Romania's political right in a broader pan-European context:
"Romania was one of the countries hit hardest by the economic crisis in Europe. The austerity programme enacted at the time was a poorly judged, knee-jerk response that had a devastating social and economic impact on our country. Teachers and doctors were put on lower salary levels than those for unskilled workers, and Romania experienced massive emigration of our middle class … Europe has witnessed rising popular frustration at the failure of austerity to deliver employment and sound fiscal balances. Voters from Denmark, France, the Netherlands, Lithuania and Romania have put their trust in pro-European Union, progressive governments with economic programmes like ours – shunning the values of populist politics based on xenophobia and protectionism ... International consensus, buoyed by the likes of the IMF, has already started to warn of the consequences that too much austerity will have on an already struggling Europe."
Romania's infighting also has a European political dimension. At the height of last summer's impeachment crisis, the European commission in Brussels, Angela Merkel, Germany's conservative chancellor, and Viktor Orb├ín, Hungary's maverick prime minister, were accused by Ponta's supporters of gross interference in Romania's internal affairs by appearing to back Basescu. In September Romanian members of the European parliament and others wrote an open letter to EU leaders, complaining that the country's problems were not being dealt with objectively.
"We have been particularly troubled by the way the European commission has responded to events. The line between the legitimate enforcement of the EU's democratic standards and partisan political interference … is a crucial safeguard," they said.
Hannes Swoboda, leader of the social democrats in the European parliament, said the commission's meddling in the impeachment referendum row had led a to a slide in Romanians' support for EU membership after they were "saddled with a president they manifestly do not want". Swoboda said: "Many Romanians have concluded that the commission's intervention had less to do with enforcing democratic standards than keeping a political ally from the European People's party [the largest centre-right group in the European parliament] in power."
While Ponta and his allies are hoping Basescu and his European backers will not pick another fight, it remains unclear which way the president will jump. Financial analysts were quoted on Monday predicting that Basescu will give way rather than risk more damage to the country's political and financial reputation, including its hopes of obtaining a crucial new IMF standby loan.
But whatever Basescu says now, tensions are certain to continue. Andrew MacDowall, writing on the FT's Beyond Brics blog, warned: "There is still a chance that the pugnacious Basescu will attempt to use his political leverage to force a post-election split in the broad-church USL and hive off its more amenable factions to build a coalition with his ARD … and representatives of minorities, most notably Hungarians. Basescu may see this as a last chance to stave off another impeachment attempt."

No comments: