Romania’s embattled president, Traian Basescu, narrowly avoided impeachment in a controversial vote on Sunday.
The impeachment vote in one of Europe’s youngest democracies was seen by some as an attempted power grab by Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta and his ruling coalition in parliament. The European Union has strongly criticised what it sees as the undermining of law in Romania.
Romania acceded to the EU in 2007, but has been put under special monitoring. The EU is concerned about organised crime and judicial independence in Romania, one of the union’s poorest member states.
Inside Story – Is Romania’s referendum democratic?
Although about 88 per cent voted in favour of impeaching Basescu, a former ship captain and mayor of Bucharest, the referendum required 50 per cent voter turnout in order to be valid. Romania’s Central Election Bureau reported that just over 46 per cent of the country’s roughly 18.3 million eligible voters showed up. Basescu instructed his supporters not to participate in the vote.
In a speech given to supporters Sunday night, Basescu – who survived an earlier impeachment attempt in 2007 – hailed the low turnout as a sign that “the democracy flame is still ablaze” in Romania, according to AP.
Meanwhile, it remains unclear whether the political war between archenemies Basescu and Ponta will continue. On Monday Ponta, a bespectacled 39-year-old who worked as a lawyer before entering politics, called on Basescu to resign, saying he had been “rejected by Romanians”. But he also stated in an interview in his Bucharest office that he is “not going to seek confrontation with Basescu”, reported AFP.
After a no-confidence vote brought down Romania’s centre-right government in April, President Basescu named Ponta prime minister. Ponta did not get off to a good start: in June, a scandal erupted when Nature magazine found the prime minister had plagiarised his PhD thesis, prompting calls for him to resign.
Unlike in many European countries, both the prime minister and the president enjoy real power in Romania. But Ponta and Basescu were unable to work together, said Daniel Daianu, a former Romanian finance minister and an honourary advisor to Ponta. “He [Basescu] asked Ponta to form a government… but on a very confrontational basis. Instead of coming to an agreement,” he told Al Jazeera.
Basescu was once a popular politician in Romania. In the past year, however, he lost support from many due to his support for austerity measures. Anger over cuts in public employees’ wages and a hike in sales tax lead to mass protests earlier this year. A Bucharest resident who gave her name as Viorica told Reuters she voted to impeach Basescu because she had “suffered too much. They cut from my pension of 710 lei ($191); I don’t have enough money for medicine, food or maintenance.”
“What we see these days in Romania has nothing to do with ideology.”
– Laura Stefan, Expert Forum
Ponta and the Social Liberal Union coalition ruling parliament accused Basescu of going beyond his constitutionally defined powers by announcing austerity measures, and accused him of using the secret service against his political adversaries.
However, some say parliament’s drive to impeach the president stems mainly from a desire for power. Laura Stefan, a rule of law and anticorruption coordinator at Bucharest-based think tank Expert Forum, says she “refer[s] to what’s happening here in Romania as being a ‘coup d’etat implemented by lawyers’. … What we see these days in Romania has nothing to do with ideology.”
Maria Bucur, a history professor at Indiana University and an associate dean of its college of arts and sciences, describes the Social Liberal Union, composed of the Social Democratic Party and two centre-right parties, as a “coalition of convenience”, united not by ideology but by their deep dislike of Basescu.
Rule of law concerns
Under Basescu’s administration, the judiciary has launched several high-profile corruption investigations, one of which resulted in the conviction and sentencing of Adrian Nastase, a former Social Democratic prime minister, to two years in jail.
Stefan speculates the move to impeach was motivated partly by politicians’ fear of falling afoul of the law. After Nastase’s arrest, Stefan told Al Jazeera, “it became obvious for all the others that none of them is being protected anymore. That’s why they cannot allow this to continue. And they have to put an end to the independent judiciary and basically to the rule of law in this country.”
Critics see the call for impeaching Basescu as part of a broader effort to win control over the country’s governing institutions, especially the judiciary.
European Council President Herman van Rompuy tweeted on July 6 that he was “[v]ery concerned about the current development in Romania regarding the rule of law & the independence of the judiciary”.
In June, Ponta ignored a Constitutional Court ruling that Basescu, and not Ponta, should represent Romania at the European Council. Social Liberal Union legislators dismissed the speakers of both Romania’s chambers of parliament, and threatened to replace some judges.
Then, on July 3, the Ponta government dismissed ombudsman Gheorghe Iancu, whose job allows him to challenge laws passed by parliament in the Constitutional Court. Although the ombudsman is supposed to reside above the fray of party politics, Iancu was replaced by Valer Dorneanu, whom Silvia Tabusca, a professor of law at Romanian American University in Bucharest, described to Al Jazeera as being “very close” to the ruling coalition.
The Social Democratic Party, headed by Ponta, did not respond to requests for comment from Al Jazeera.
“When you have political actors not being able to actually work together and do policymaking, then it is difficult to imagine how the reforms that the IMF was asking for will continue.“
– Corina Stratulat
Daianu believes the political crisis has damaged Romania. “There is the perception outside, whether it is on solid ground or not, that there is institutional fragility, that the rule of law has been infringed upon,” he said. “Now Romania has to surmount all this.”
The political crisis had economic effects as well: In the lead-up to the impeachment vote, the leu, Romania’s currency, dropped to an all-time low against the euro, and yields rose on government bonds, reported Bloomberg.
The vote also caused a delay in a quarterly review of a 5bn euro ($6.12bn) IMF-led aid package to Romania. “Romania depends on the loans from IMF,” Corina Stratulat, an analyst at European Policy Centre, a think tank that supports European integration, told Al Jazeera.
“But for the money to be available, Romania has to continue the austerity programme. And when you have political actors not being able to actually work together and do policymaking, then it is difficult to imagine how the reforms that the IMF was asking for will continue.”
The impeachment effort has alienated some Romanians tired of political infighting. Madalina, a Romanian citizen who works at a hotel in Qatar, said she’s “sick” of the country’s politics. Romania set up 306 voting locations for citizens living abroad, including one in Qatar. However, Madalina did not vote in the referendum. “I prefer to stay away for all this, even if we put down Basescu,” she told Al Jazeera. “It will be the same for me.” Madalina asked that her last name not be used in this article.
The biggest question, said Stratulat, is whether Basescu’s survival will lead to a rapprochement between the rival camps. “Will they be able to accept the referendum results” if Basescu remains in office, asked Stratulat, “or will they push harder by other means? That will be a test.”
Daianu cited the need for a “pacification”, suggesting the president and prime minister agree on a truce. Basescu “should relent, he should come to an agreement with Ponta,” he said. “Ok, we’re not really good friends, but we should be responsible politicians in Romania.”