Friday, December 14, 2012
Romania’s election: Clear victory, uncertain future
Clear victory, uncertain future
Victor Ponta wins by a landslide, but he may not make good use of his victory
Dec 15th 2012 | from the print edition
MOST Romanians were not interested in the parliamentary election on December 9th. The result was widely predicted. Victor Ponta’s USL alliance of liberals and social democrats duly won, though by an even bigger margin than expected, with 60.1% of the total vote. The centre-right ARD took a measly 16.7%. Only 41.7% of voters bothered to go to the polls.
“Society has given up on politics,” argues Tom Gallagher, an academic who writes about Romania. People are more interested by local issues that concern them directly. Politicians in Bucharest appear to most of them to be a corrupt, squabbling and inbred class that makes little difference to anyone’s daily life.
Recent statements by Mr Ponta, the outgoing prime minister, and Traian Basescu, the president and Mr Ponta’s arch-rival, have done little to dispel voters’ disillusion. “In the period immediately after the election, he who raises the sword will die by the sword,” warned Mr Ponta, who has bickered with Mr Basescu for the past year—and even tried to impeach him.
In an interview before the election Mr Basescu compared giving the prime minister’s post to Mr Ponta to swallowing a pig. He said he would appoint a prime minister who is pro-European, respects the constitution and the rule of law and whose background does not make him an easy target for blackmail, implying that Mr Ponta does not fit the bill. The European Union criticised Mr Ponta’s government last summer for trying to take control of the judiciary and other public institutions. Mr Ponta has also been accused of plagiarising his PhD thesis and lying in his CV. He denies all such allegations.
According to the constitution, Mr Basescu has the right to appoint the next prime minister, after consultation with the party that wins the most votes. The USL wants Mr Ponta to remain prime minister. So another conflict between the president and parliament seems inevitable. The Ponta camp may try to impeach Mr Basescu again.
All this is a huge distraction for a country in urgent need of reform. Instead of turning his attention to the struggling economy and weak currency, Mr Ponta has begun talks with a tiny party, the Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania. He is trying to form a coalition that has a two-thirds majority in parliament, the number needed to change the constitution. Among the changes he has in mind is a redefinition of the role of the president in foreign and military policy. He also wants to curb the Constitutional Court’s powers.
Early in the new year the European Commission will publish its latest assessment of Romania’s progress since it became a member of the EU in 2007. It is likely to be sobering. Since its accession Romania has mostly stagnated, says the Romanian Academic Society. Chronic political infighting and corrupt administration make it the least capable of absorbing EU funds (it uses only around 10% of what is on offer). It remains poor. According to Eurostat, the commission’s statistical office, GDP per head in Romania and Bulgaria is below 50% of the EU average. Turkey, an EU candidate, now ranks above both countries.
The IMF is watching Romania closely too. In 2009 the Fund and the EU bailed out Romania to the tune of €20 billion ($27.8 billion). The IMF has a €5 billion two-year standby financing agreement for Romania that expires in March. During the election campaign Mr Ponta vowed to roll back austerity measures and lower taxes. This is unlikely to encourage the IMF to grant a fresh standby agreement.
In spite of it all, Peter Sanfey, an economist at the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development, remains relatively optimistic about this country of 20m people. It has a well-diversified economy with a balanced mix of services, industry and agriculture, he argues. For all its domestic political rivalries and strife, the government deserves some credit for macroeconomic stabilisation, even resisting the temptation of a pre-electoral spending splurge. It might not hav