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Romanian report Romanian report
by Euro Reporter
2012-08-28 11:14:00
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Romania parliament clears president's return to office

Romania's parliament accepted on Monday a court ruling to return the country's suspended president to office, drawing a line under a political row that has brought international criticism and punishment from financial markets. The country's ruling leftist alliance, led by Prime Minister Victor Ponta, had fought a long and often bitter campaign to oust its main political opponent, rightist President Traian Basescu, provoking condemnation from Brussels and Washington.

Parliament voted to suspend Basescu last month and an overwhelming majority of voters chose to impeach him in a referendum. But Romania's Constitutional Court last week struck down the referendum because turnout was less than the required half the electorate.

Parliamentary speaker Valeriu Zgonea told reporters on Monday the leftist-dominated lower house recognized the ruling. "We cannot interfere (with), block or ... alter Constitutional Court decisions," he said. The end of the political battle over Basescu's immediate political future will please international critics, who had accused the government of failing to respect the rule of law during its campaign. But it sets the stage for a power struggle between the still bitterly opposed rightist president and leftist government in the countdown to a parliamentary election later this year.


Corruption will last in Romania

This summer has shown up the nature of Romania's entire political class. Early this summer, there were signs that this would be a good summer for Romania. A former prime minister, Adrian Năstase, a man recognised even by party colleagues as one of Romania's most corrupt politicians, had just received a two-year prison sentence. A government that had been completely unable to curb the corruption rampant among the political elite was removed from power. Several of the most controversial ex-ministers had resigned or had been forced to resign after their parties had lost local elections in early June by a large margin. The new prime minister – a smart young man – had nominated a number of well-known experts and public personalities as his advisers. The transition government was led, for the most part, by people with good records. All in all, it looked much better than previous governments.

What followed was a surprise even for the most sceptical of us. Năstase tried (or, at least, made a good show of trying) to kill himself, but failed. The reaction was a show of incompetence that could also be interpreted as a clever attempt to manipulate public opinion towards a presidential pardon of Năstase. Fortunately, President Traian Băsescu resisted the huge pressure in the first days following the suicide attempt. Slowly but surely, the mass media started to ask some uncomfortable questions about what really happened to Năstase. Some appalling decisions were exposed, people were investigated. Finally, Năstase ended up in prison. Then, predictably but still somewhat surprisingly, politicians migrated in large numbers towards the centre-left government, reversing a migration that happened when the Democratic Liberal Party (PDL) was in charge of the government. This happened even though both the party leaders now in charge of the government – Prime Minister Victor Ponta, of the Socialist Democrats (PSD), and Crin Antonescu of the National Liberal Party (PNL) – had in the past come out strongly against such practices, calling for a ban on ‘political migration'.

Very quickly, the new ruling coalition absorbed some of the most corrupt, but low-profile, members of parliament, people happy to jump boat if doing so meant staying in power – a sine qua non condition of retaining access to state contracts. As for the coalition, it needed them to exert convincing control of the both chambers of parliament. Once this happened, the coalition quickly moved to take complete control of the state institutions, then managed to suspend the president and initiated a referendum to impeach him – a process accompanied by so many questionable legal and political steps that the European Commission intervened.

On top of everything else, Ponta was proven to have lied about a master's degree and to have plagiarised much of his doctoral thesis. The accusation came from the camp of President Băsescu, who seems oddly unaware that himself exaggerated his own daughter academic credentials in 2009 when defending her nomination for a place in the European Parliament. (Some of Basescu's closest, and most powerful, allies are doctors in science without any peer-reviewed scientific publication.) Two of the ministers appointed by Ponta proved to have serious problems – one was dismissed as he plagiarised the other presented herself falsely as a graduate of a prestigious US university. Ponta resolved the issue by dismissing the governing body of the expert group that had accused him of plagiarism, claiming that it was staffed by Băsescu's supporters.  The run-up and aftermath of the referendum were shameful to a European democracy. Băsescu and his party called for a boycott of the referendum, advocating a rejection of a democratic process in the knowledge that his only chance of staying in power was to invalidate the referendum, by helping to ensure the turnout was below 50%. That is what happened: just 46% of voters turned out. That low turn-out should not disguise the fact that over 7.5 million Romanians voted against Băsescu, well above the number (a little under 5.3 million) that voted him back into office in 2009.

Then the government tried to pressurise the constitutional court into declaring the referendum to be valid, arguing that the electoral lists were full of errors. Băsescu's PDL is also alleged to have applied serious pressure. (The court on August 21 ruled that fewer than 50% of the electorate had voted, rendering the referendum invalid and ending Băsescu's suspension as president.) In addition, scandals engulfed both camps. In a leak that suggests that Băsescu and his supporters control much of the secret services, transcripts of a number of phone calls were leaked that demonstrated that serious pressure was being exerted on two ministers – Ioan Rus, minister of the interior, and Paul Dobre, minister for public administration – to ensure the referendum's result was validated. (Citing that pressure, both later resigned from the government.) For its part, the government made public a number of documents showing that Băsescu had spent sizeable sums of public money preparing a luxurious villa for his retirement while advocating strong austerity measures for ordinary Romanians. As for Crin Antonescu, he made a series of mistakes that made him appear unfit for his temporary post as president. He accused the US ambassador of being an ally of Băsescu and Romanian Hungarians and, thereby, of being responsible for the referendum’s failure (the counties in which ethnic Hungarians had the lowest turn-out in the vote). A video of him talking to a delegation from the International Monetary Fund showed Antonescu incapable to be in charge of Romania's foreign affairs – and to be unable to see his limitations.


Romanian ruling coalition loses support on failed impeachment

Romania’s governing coalition lost public support after a failed attempt to oust suspended President Traian Basescu because of a low turnout at a nationwide referendum on July 29, a survey showed. The Social Democrats and the Liberals, which now form the Social-Liberal Union and will run together in parliamentary elections later this year, would win 54 percent of the votes if an election were held now, according to an Aug. 22 survey by polling company IRES, Evenimentul Zilei newspaper reported. That compares with 61.4 percent in an IMAS poll published on Aug. 9.

The Liberal Democratic Party, which backs Basescu, would win 23 percent up from 16.3 percent of votes, in the previous poll, the survey of 1,547 people showed. It had an error margin of 2.7 percentage points. The new People’s Party, founded by media owner Dan Diaconescu, would get 10 percent, the same as in the previous poll.

A political feud between Prime Minister Victor Ponta and Basescu, which led to the president’s suspension on July 6, may continue as the Constitutional Court invalidated an ouster referendum, allowing Basescu to return to his office. The power struggle pushed the currency to a record low and boosted the government’s borrowing costs.

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