Ponta takes Romania to ‘cusp of dictatorship’ as Sunday’s presidential referendum approaches

Hungary’s Viktor Orbán seems to be in good company these days.

As it turns out, he’s no longer the only Eastern European leader who gives pause to European Union leaders worried about a backslide to democracy.

Since becoming prime minister of Romania in May of this year, Victor Ponta (pictured above) has taken an unorthodox approach to respecting Romania’s constitutional framework.  Ponta’s biggest gamble so far comes to a climax this weekend — on Sunday, Romania will hold a referendum on whether to remove Romania’s president, Traian Băsescu.  Ponta and his political allies argue that Băsescu overstepped his authority, and have moved to have him suspended from office pending the referendum.  Romania’s Constitutional Court has ruled otherwise, but the referendum is still going forward.

Accordingly, if over 50% of eligible voters turn out, and a majority vote to remove Băsescu, it could trigger even more worries about a quasi-constitutional coup d’état.  The European Union earlier this month issued a stinging report about Romania’s new government since Ponta’s ascension as prime minister, and European Commission president José Manuel Barroso minced no words about his concern:

“Challenging judicial decisions, undermining the Constitutional Court, overturning established procedures and removing key checks and balances have called into question the government’s commitment to respect the rule of law,” Barroso said. “Party political strife cannot justify overriding core democratic principles. Politicians must not try to intimidate judges ahead of decisions or attack judges when they take decisions they do not like.”

Romania, a country of 19 million people centered on the eastern edge of the EU, joined the EU only in 2007 after emerging in 1989 from a Communist dictatorship under longtime strongman Nicolae Ceauşescu — EU leaders are currently assessing whether to permit Romania to join the Schengen Area — Europe’s free-travel zone which has no internal border controls.

Like most countries in Europe, Romania’s political climate has been altered by difficult budget choices in light of the sovereign debt crisis across the EU.  The country is dependent upon loans granted initially in 2009 from the International Monetary Fund in exchange for commitments to bring down Romania’s annual budget deficit from a high of nearly 7% in 2009.  Despite rapid growth throughout the 2000s, Romania’s economy contracted by almost 10% in 2009 and 2010, and grew at only an anemic 1.5% in 2011.

Emil Boc, whose Christian democratic/conservative Partidul Democrat-Liberal (PD-L, the Democratic Liberal Party, and which is also Băsescu’s party) won the greatest number of seats in the 2008 Romanian legislative election, governed until February 2012 and attempted to enact austerity measures in order to bring Romania’s budget under firmer control.

When Boc’s government fell, Mihai Răzvan Ungureanu of the free-market liberal Partidul Naţional Liberal (PNL, the National Liberal Party), attempted to build a new government, with the support of the social democratic Partidul Social Democrat (PSD, the Social Democratic Party), the third of Romania’s three major parties.*  Although Ungureanu attempted to continue economic reforms, his government fell on a no-confidence vote on May 7, when the PSD’s Ponta replaced him.

Since then, it’s been an incredible two months for Ponta, whose government has attracted concern with staggering speed.

In local elections in mid June, the Social Liberal Union coalition of the PNL and the PSD won 49.7% in the various county council races to just 14.8% for the PD-L, which foreshadows a potentially similar landslide for Ponta and his allies in the legislative elections set to be held on November 25 of this year.

In the meanwhile, as Der Spiegel notes, Ponta has repeatedly disrespected constitution norms in replacing the heads of both chambers of Romania’s parliament, placing the official parliamentary journal under government control, issuing a decree limiting the authority of the Constitutional Court, attempting to replace several Constitutional Court justices, and even trying to eliminate the 50% minimum turnout threshold for this Sunday’s referendum.

Băsescu, who has been Romania’s president since his election in 2004, and who was narrowly reelected in 2009, has faced a similar challenge before — in 2007, Băsescu was also accused of overstepping his bounds and, as today, suspended from office pending a presidential referendum.  In that vote, 75% of voters voted in favor of Băsescu, although the 44% turnout meant that even an anti-Băsescu majority would not have removed him from office.

This time around, with the PD-L much weaker politically, the outcome is much less clear: one local Romanian newspaper poll suggests that 66% of voters want to remove Băsescu, on a projected turnout of 61%.  But it’s difficult to know exactly how seriously to take any poll in Romania.

It’s not like post-Ceauşescu Romania has been a shining example of rule of law or the elimination of corruption. Ponta’s political mentor, Adrian Năstase, prime minister from 2000 to 2004, was sentenced to prison in June for corruption charges and the use of illegal funds in his 2004 presidential campaign.  Băsescu himself is not without flaws — he has done little to reduce corruption since becoming president, and he’s been attacked for allowing the United States intelligence agents to use Romania as a quasi-legal ‘black site’ in the mid-2000s.

On the eve of the vote, which could trigger further condemnation from the EU, Ponta granted a fascinating interview (read all of it) to Der Spiegel earlier this week to try to sooth fears that he is more authoritarian than democrat:

I must realize that I haven’t always explained my policies well, that I haven’t communicated well enough with Europe. I have no problem with correcting misperceptions and clearing up misunderstandings that cause concern among our European partners….

We are doing all we can to appease Germany, something that I pledged to your diplomats here in a personal conversation…. But there is a long-standing relationship between Merkel and Basescu, deep ties among conservatives, one has to accept that, it is completely legitimate. And I am optimistic that I will be successful in convincing the German government of my best intentions. It would help, of course, if Berlin were to listen to the arguments of both sides in Romania.

Despite Ponta’s protests to the contrary, it’s not clear that the rest of Europe is buying it — the criticism will only intensify if Romanians turn out Băsescu this weekend.

* The only other major political party is the highly regional Uniunea Democrată Maghiară din România (UDMR, the Democratic Union of Hungarians in Romania), which is devoted to representing the interests of ethnic Hungarians in Romania.  Ethnic Hungarians are most prevalent in the northwest and center of Romania, but they most densely populate eastern Transylvania, in the geographic center of Romania.

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