Tag Archives: romania

Give PiS a chance: why the EU has to play nice with Poland’s new populist government

Polish politician Jarosław Kaczyński and German chancellor don't always see eye-to-eye on EU matters. (Bartosz Bobkowski / Agencja Gazeta)
Polish politician Jarosław Kaczyński and German chancellor don’t always see eye-to-eye on EU matters. (Bartosz Bobkowski / Agencja Gazeta)

It’s not an exaggeration to say that Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of Poland’s governing party, Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (PiS, Law and Justice), is now as important figure in European politics as French president François Hollande. Poland_Flag_Icon

No one should be surprised that Kaczyński is now the de facto leader of Poland, and no one should have doubted that he would direct a PiS-led government to pursue its full-throated agenda of populist economic sops to Poland’s poorest easterners and socially conservative values, mixed with equal amounts of nativism, euroscepticism and paranoia.

But Poland’s fresh government is facing criticism at home and abroad that it is now dismantling many of the features of the country’s post-Cold War democracy. Notably, critics argue that the new PiS government is co-opting both Poland’s constitutional tribunal and its state-run media.

Andrzej Duda, Poland’s new president has refused to seat five judges appointed by the outgoing government to Poland’s constitutional tribunal. Though two of those judicial appointments were subsequently ruled invalid, the new PiS government pushed forward with five new appointments anyway, leaving three judges validly appointed and unconfirmed. Moreover, the new PiS government passed a law mandating a two-thirds majority (not a simple majority) for constitutional rulings. The new government has also asserted greater political power over the state-controlled media.

Barely three months into Poland’s new government, the European Commission is opening a formal inquiry against the PiS-led administration, headed by EC first vice president Frans Timmermans, to determine whether the new government’s actions amount to a ‘systemic risk’ to Poland’s rule of law, a standard that — so far — hasn’t been breached in Hungary or Romania.

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RELATED: Polish conservatives prepare to return to power after 8 years

RELATED: Poland election results: PiS sweeps to power

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Those concerns are legitimate, especially insofar as the new government is undermining judicial independence and press freedom, and some Europeans hopes that US president Barack Obama will even exert pressure, through the NATO alliance, on Poland’s new government. But the overwrought response from EU elites will only play into the hands of the PiS’s most eurosceptic leaders and, what’s more, Polish democracy is far too developed in the year 2016 to crumble as easily as many of Kaczyński’s critics fear.

Throughout the European Union, the Greek economic crisis and lingering problems with the eurozone have undermined the monetary pillar of EU integration, while the deluge of migrants from Syria, Iraq, Eritrea and elsewhere, in greater numbers than at any time since World War II, have eroded the Schengen zone and the principle of internal European borders. EU leaders have far greater problems than allowing Kaczyński and the PiS into goading them into confrontation, especially as British voters focus on a 2017 referendum that could result in the United Kingdom leaving the European Union.
Continue reading Give PiS a chance: why the EU has to play nice with Poland’s new populist government

Could Romania’s corruption-tainted Ponta be gone for good?


When a country’s prime minister is targeted in a corruption inquiry, you’d expect him to protest vigorously, using every political and governmental lever to bolster his support.Romania Flag Icon

Faced with his own troubles and an investigation by Romania’s National Anti-Corruption Directorate (known by its Romanian acronym DNA), prime minister Victor Ponta has apparently done the opposite — citing the need for recovery from a knee surgery, Romania’s prime minister notified the country that he would be stepping down on an interim basis of up to 45 days. For now, deputy prime minister Gabriel Oprea is now the acting prime minister while Ponta remains in Istanbul recuperating.

It’s an odd decision, though, and Ponta’s decision to leave the country within days of corruption charges could embolden his political enemies, though his center-left Partidul Social Democrat (PSD, Social Democratic Party) and its allies have a strong majority in Romania’s parliament.

The National Anti-Corruption Directorate alleges that while working as a lawyer in 2007, Ponta (pictured above) received €40,000 for legal work that he didn’t perform from another attorney — who Ponta later appointed to his cabinet. For now, Ponta’s parliamentary majority refuses to lift his immunity, and his allies are even threatening to weaken the anti-graft laws under which the DNA has stepped up its scrutiny of the entirety of Romania’s political elite. The country consistently ranks among the most corrupt countries in the European Union alongside Bulgaria, both of which joined the European Union in 2007. Romania’s president Klaus Iohannis, a political rival who faced off against Ponta in last year’s presidential election, has already called on Ponta to step down. That’s unlikely — and fresh parliamentary elections in Romania aren’t due until 2016.

The chief prosecutor of the DNA, Laura Codruța Kövesi, has empowered the role of an institution that was founded only in 2002 — under her watch, the office won a conviction against Adrian Năstase, Romania’s prime minister between 2000 and 2004, on corruption charges, among many others.

Nevertheless, it’s odd that Ponta essentially sneaked out of the country for knee surgery on June 14, and it’s odd that Ponta sought to relinquish control as prime minister.  Continue reading Could Romania’s corruption-tainted Ponta be gone for good?

One solution to Moldova’s problems? Just join Romania.

moldovaPhoto credit to adrianhancu / 123RF.

By just about any measure, Moldova’s first quarter-century as an independent state has been inauspicious long before last weekend’s parliamentary elections.moldova

Emerging from the Soviet Union as a new state engaged in a war with separatists in Transnistria, Moldova is today the poorest country on continental Europe, and successive governments have left the country with antiquated and corrupt institutions that culminated in widespread protests (pictured above) and a political crisis in 2009. In 2014, no country in the former Soviet Union, including Ukraine, is perhaps more at risk from Russian aggression.

Though a coalition of three relatively pro-European parties appear to be moving forward to form a governing coalition, the winner in last Sunday’s vote was the Partidul Socialiştilor din Republica Moldova (PSRM, Party of Socialists of the Republic of Moldova), formed in 1997 and a fringe party until it received an endorsement from Russian president Vladimir Putin. The Socialists will enter Moldova’s 101-member Parlamentul (parliament), with 25 seats, the largest of five parties in the chamber.


The Socialists benefitted chiefly from a decision on November 29 by Moldova’s supreme court of justice to uphold a lower court’s decision two days earlier to disqualify the pro-Russia ‘Homeland’ Party after it was found to have accepted foreign resources. Continue reading One solution to Moldova’s problems? Just join Romania.

Iohannis upsets Ponta in Romanian presidential election


It’s becoming a more German Europe in more ways that one.Romania Flag Icon

In a stunning upset victory, Sibiu mayor Klaus Iohannis, an ethnic German, defeated prime minister Victor Ponta, in Sunday’s Romanian presidential election, challenging confident predictions that Ponta would easily take the presidency.

Ponta’s center-left Partidul Social Democrat (PSD, Social Democratic Party), dominated both the December 2013 national parliamentary elections and the May 2014 European parliamentary elections, and Ponta entered the runoff as the prohibitive favorite after a resounding victory in the October 2 first round, when he took 40.44% of the vote to just 30.37% for Iohannis, the new leader of the center-right Partidul Național Liberal (PNL, National Liberal Party).

But Ponta’s 10-point lead disguised the fact that he fell 10% short of an absolute majority and, as voters’ minds focused on the runoff, Iohannis gained from a surge in turnout — from around 53% in the first round to over 64% in the runoff.

That’s despite the endorsement that Ponta won from third-place challenger, Călin Popescu-Tăriceanu, a former PNL leader and the country’s prime minister between 2004 and 2008, who founded the Partidul Liberal Reformator (PLR, Liberal Reformist Party) in July, helped boost Iohannis to an unexpectedly wide margin of victory — 54.50% to just 45.49% for Ponta.

Iohannis, a physics teacher by training, has served as mayor of Sibiu, a city in Transylvania, since 2000, and he led the relatively small Forumul Democrat al Germanilor din România (FDGR, Democratic Forum of Germans in Romania) from 2002 to 2013. As outgoing incumbent Traian Băsescu receded from the spotlight after a decade as president, Iohannis assumed the leadership of the PNL, the larger of Romania’s two major opposition parties, though Iohannis also had the support of Băsescu’s Partidul Democrat-Liberal (PD-L, Democratic Liberal Party).


Though the PNL joined forces with Ponta (pictured above) in 2011 to form the Social Liberal Union, it left the coalition in February 2014 to enter opposition, eyeing an alliance with the PD-L. When the PNL suffered disappointing losses in the May European elections, however, its leader Crin Antonescu stepped down, paving the way for Iohannis to reboot the party and become the joint PNL/PD-L presidential candidate.

Though ethnic Germans settled much of Transylvania, including the city of Sibiu, two waves of German exodus, first after World War II and again after the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Iron Curtain, have left few German-speaking enclaves in Romania. Today, just over 4% of Romanians are ethnically German. Continue reading Iohannis upsets Ponta in Romanian presidential election

A detailed look at the European parliamentary election results (part 2)

 Across Europe on Monday, officials, voters and everyone else were trying to sort through the consequences of yesterday’s voting, across all 28 member-states, to elect the 751 members of the European Parliament.European_Union

Late Sunday, I began analyzing the results on a state-by-state basis — you can read my take here on what the European election results mean in Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Italy and Spain.

This post picks up where that left off, however, with a look at some of the results in Europe’s mid-sized member-states.

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RELATED: A detailed look at the European parliamentary election results (part 1)

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With the count now almost complete, here’s where the Europe-wide parties stand:


The European People’s Party (EPP), which has been the largest group in the European Parliament since 1999, will continue to be the largest group, but with fewer seats (215) than after any election since 1994.

The second-largest group, the Party of European Socialists (PES) has 188 seats, a slight gain, but not the breakout performance for which it was hoping.

The Alliance of Liberals and Democrats of Europe (ALDE) will remain the third-largest group, notwithstanding the collapse of two of its constituent parties, the Liberal Democrats in the United Kingdom and the Freie Demokratische Partei (FDP, Free Democratic Party) in Germany.

The European Greens have won 53 seats, just two less than before the elections. The Party of the European Left, which had hoped to make strong gains on the strength of its anti-austerity message, gained nine seats to 44.

The Alliance of European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), a slightly eurosceptic group of conservative parties, including the Conservative Party of the United Kingdom, holds steady at 46 seats — that’s a slight loss of around eight seats. The Movement for a Europe of Liberties and Democracy (MELD) gained six.

The real increase was among the ‘non-inscrits,’ the unaffiliated MEPs, which will rise from around 30 to 104. The bulk of those MEPs include the newly elected eurosceptics that have made such a big splash in the past 24 hours, including Marine Le Pen’s Front national (FN, National Front) in France.

But, in addition to being a pan-European contest with wide-ranging themes that resonate throughout the European Union, the elections are also 28 national contests, and they’ve already claimed resignations of two center-left leaders — Eamon Gilmore, of Ireland’s Labour Party, and Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba, of the Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE, Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party).

Here’s a look at how the European elections are affecting nine more mid-sized counties across the European Union: Poland, Romania, The Netherlands, Belgium, Greece, the Czech Republic, Portugal, Hungary and Sweden.

Continue reading A detailed look at the European parliamentary election results (part 2)

What Iceland’s election tells us about post-crisis European politics


Iceland was supposed to be different.Iceland Flag IconEuropean_Union

In allowing its banks to fail, neo-Keynesian economists have argued, Iceland avoided the fate of Ireland, which nationalized its banks and now faces a future with a very large public debt.  By devaluing its currency, the krónur, Iceland avoided the fate of countries like Estonia and others in southern Europe trapped in the eurozone and a one-size-fits all monetary policy, allowing for a rapid return to economic growth and rapidly falling unemployment.  Neoclassical economists counter that Iceland’s currency controls mean that it’s still essentially shut out from foreign investment, and the accompanying inflation has eroded many of the gains of Iceland’s return to GDP growth and, besides, Iceland’s households are still struggling under mortgage and other debt instruments that are linked to inflation or denominated in foreign currencies.

But Iceland’s weekend parliamentary election shows that both schools of economic thought are right.

Elections are rarely won on the slogan, ‘it could have been worse.’ Just ask U.S. president Barack Obama, whose efforts to implement $800 billion in stimulus programs in his first term in office went barely mentioned in his 2012 reelection campaign.

Iceland, as it turns out, is hardly so different at all — and it’s now virtually a case study in an electoral pattern that’s become increasingly pronounced in Europe that began when the 2008 global financial crisis took hold, through the 2010 sovereign debt crisis in the eurozone and through the current European-wide recession that’s seen unemployment rise to the sharpest levels in decades.

Call it the European three-step.

In the first step, a center-right government, like the one led by Sjálfstæðisflokkurinn (Independence Party) in Iceland in 2008, took the blame for the initial crisis.

In the second step, a center-left government, like the one led by Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir and the Samfylkingin (Social Democratic Alliance) in Iceland, replaced it, only to find that it would be forced to implement harsh austerity measures, including budget cuts, tax increases and, in Iceland’s case, even more extreme measures, such as currency controls and inflation-inducing devaluations.  That leads to further voter disenchantment, now with the center-left.

The third step is the return of the initial center-right party (or parties) to power, as the Independence Party and their traditional allies, the Framsóknarflokkurinn (Progressive Party) will do following Iceland’s latest election, at the expense of the more newly discredited center-left.  In addition, with both the mainstream center-left and center-right now associated with economic pain, there’s increasing support for new parties, some of them merely protest vehicles and others sometimes more radical, on both the left and the right.  In Iceland, that means that two new parties, Björt framtíð (Bright Future) and the Píratar (Pirate Party of Iceland) will now hold one-seventh of the seats in Iceland’s Alþingi.

This is essentially what happened last year in Greece, too.  Greece Flag IconIn the first step, Kostas Karamanlis and the center-right New Democracy (Νέα Δημοκρατία) initially took the blame for the initial financial crisis.  In the second step, George Papandreou and the center-left PASOK (Panhellenic Socialist Movement – Πανελλήνιο Σοσιαλιστικό Κίνημα) overwhelming won the October 2009 elections, only to find itself forced to accept a bailout deal with the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund.  In the third step, after two grueling rounds of election, Antonis Samaras and New Democracy returned to power in June 2012.

By that time, however, PASOK was so compromised that it was essentially forced into a minor subsidiary role supporting Samaras’s center-right, pro-bailout government.  A more radical leftist force, SYRIZA (the Coalition of the Radical Left — Συνασπισμός Ριζοσπαστικής Αριστεράς), led by the young, charismatic Alexis Tsipras, now vies for the lead routinely in polls, and on the far right, the noxious neo-nazi Golden Dawn (Χρυσή Αυγή) now attracts a small, but significant enough portion of the Greek electorate to put it in third place.

The process seems well under way in other countries, too.  In France, for examFrance Flag Iconple, center-right president Nicolas Sarkozy lost reelection in May 2012 amid great hopes for the incoming Parti socialiste (PS, Socialist Party) administration of François Hollande, but his popularity is sinking to ever lower levels as France trudges through its own austerity, and polls show Sarkozy would now lead Hollande if another presidential election were held today.

It’s not just right-left-right, though. The European three-step comes in a different flavor, too: left-right-left, and you can spot the trend in country after country across Europe — richer and poorer, western and eastern, northern and southern. Continue reading What Iceland’s election tells us about post-crisis European politics

Ponta’s ruling party extends control with absolute majority in Romanian parliament

Romanian voters, as expected, rewarded prime minister Victor Ponta (pictured above) with a resounding victory in Sunday’s parliamentary elections.

Ponta, who became prime minister in May 2012 and promptly proceeded to govern with an aggressive posture — engaging in several fights with Romania’s constitutional court and organizing a constitutionally sketchy impeachment referendum against his ideological nemesis, Romanian president Traian Băsescu — has benefitted from Romanian discontent over the economy.

Despite only tepid growth in 2010 and a 0.4% contraction in 2011, the previous government of Emil Boc, an ally of Băsescu, became increasingly and staggeringly unpopular after implementing severe austerity measures, in part to secure loans from the International Monetary Fund and a €20 billion bailout from the IMF and the European Union in 2009 to stabilize Romania’s budget.

Ponta’s center-left alliance of three parties called the Uniunea Social Liberală (USL, Social Liberal Union), defeated Băsescu’s hastily-formed alliance, the Alianţa România Dreaptă (ARD, Right Romania Alliance) by a lopsided margin of 58.6% to 16.7% in elections for the 315-member Chamber of Deputies (Camera Deputaţilor), the lower house of Romania’s parliament (Parlamentul României), giving Ponta an absolute majority.

Two smaller parties also won sufficient support for seats — above the 5% threshold for winning seats in the Chamber of Deputies.  The Partidul Poporului – Dan Diaconescu (PP-DD, Popular Party — Dan Diaconescu), a newly formed party backing Diaconescu, a media figure that waged a nationalist and socialist campaign, won 13.5%.  The Uniunea Democrată Maghiară din România (UDMR, the Democratic Union of Hungarians in Romania), which represents the political interests of ethnic Hungarians in Romania, won 5.3%.

The simultaneous election for the 137-member Senate (Senat), the Romanian parliament’s upper chamber, saw nearly identical results — Ponta’s USL won 60.0%, the ARD 17.0%, Diaconescu’s party 14.2% and the ethnic Hungarians 5.4%.

Given Ponta’s overwhelming majority, the next step would typically be that Băsescu, Romania’s president, appoints Ponta as prime minister to lead a government.  But the bitter and toxic relationship between the two, however, has been the central narrative of Romanian politics in the past year, and Băsescu may refuse to appoint Ponta — perhaps by attempting to appoint as prime minister one of the other leaders of the parties that comprise the USL.

Despite valid concerns about Ponta’s dedication to the rule of law, if Băsescu doesn’t appoint Ponta in the face of the USL’s overwhelming electoral victory, he could risk triggering a constitutional crisis and, potentially, the threat of new elections, thereby frightening international investors and providing his opponents a new reason to seek his impeachment (again).

Nonetheless, the new government would have to work with Băsescu until 2014 when his term ends (unless Ponta attempts to impeach Băsescu).

Romania’s IMF funds will be exhausted next year, however, so the new government will have to work with the IMF and the EU to secure new budgetary funding.  With election season over, however, it seems almost certain that the next government, led by Ponta or otherwise, will be forced to adopt much of the budget-cutting posture of Romania’s previous Boc-led government.

Although Ponta’s government has restored some of the pensions and wages cut by the previous government, he hasn’t moved to cut the 24% VAT that Boc’s government introduced.

What Sarah Palin means for the Romanian election

Earlier this week, The Atlantic‘s David Graham pointed us to the fact that former Alaska governor and one-time Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin fell behind just U.S. president Barack Obama and 2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in popularity, at least in terms of most searched politicians.

Graham notes:

I’m going to let you in on a little journalism secret. Time was, political reporters knew that any post about Sarah from Alaska was any easy way to get eyeballs. (In one week in May 2010, I wrote three separate items under the rubric “Sarah Palin Real-Estate Watch.” All were well-read.)

You want to know who doesn’t turn eyeballs?

Victor Ponta.

Indeed, if you look at a Google Trends analysis comparing Victor Ponta and Sarah Palin, you’ll see quite clearly just how much more often ‘Sarah Palin’ is searched than ‘Victor Ponta.’

Yet for all the attention to Palin, it’s not her, but Ponta, Romania’s prime minister, who arguably holds the greater role in influencing not only European affairs, but U.S. foreign policy as well.

His party is set to win an overwhelming majority on Sunday in Romania’s parliamentary elections — the latest polls show his party/alliance, the Uniunea Social Liberală (USL, Social Liberal Union), with 62% of the vote and just barely one-fourth that support for the nearest opponent.  It’s important because Ponta has increasingly been viewed as bending the rule of law in order to benefit himself and his party.  He initiated a constitutionally suspect referendum against Romania’s president, Traian Băsescu, and the two are likely to lock Romania in political paralysis for the foreseeable future.  Continue reading What Sarah Palin means for the Romanian election

Ponta set to consolidate power in Romanian in Sunday’s elections

It’s all but certain that Romania’s prime minister, Victor Ponta, will emerge from Romania’s Nov. 9 parliamentary elections as not only the winner, but with an extraordinary mandate to govern in his own right. 

Ponta (pictured above) became prime minister earlier this year in May after the government of Emil Boc fell over protests against the austerity measures that Boc’s government had implemented, in large part dictated as a condition of loans from the International Monetary Fund that have buoyed Romania’s budget since 2009.

Shortly after taking office, however, Ponta start acting in ways that have caused alarm throughout the European Union — Ponta called a constitutionally suspect referendum on July 30 to remove Romania’s president, Traian Băsescu, for overstepping his authority, despite a ruling to the contrary from Romania’s Constitutional Court.  That referendum failed because only 46.23% of voters turned out for the referendum (lower than the 50% threshold required), but Ponta and Băsescu have been locked in political warfare ever since, and will likely continue to do so until Băsescu’s term ends in 2014, although it seems very likely that Ponta and his allies could try to impeach Băsescu after Sunday’s parliamentary elections.

Ponta’s referendum against Băsescu was only one of several constitutionally suspect actions in the first months of his tenure as prime minister.  Ponta made blatant attempts to put allies in charge of Romanian public television, attempted to push through a new first-past-the-post electoral law (that was ultimately rejected by Romania’s constitutional court), stacked the leadership of Romania’s parliament with his allies, and has been accused of plagiarism in his doctoral thesis.

Given that Romania, Europe’s ninth most-populous country with 21 million people, has been a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization since 2004 and a full European Union member since 2007, U.S. and European policymakers are anxious that Ponta will attempt to steamroll the Romanian judiciary and/or Băsescu.  The political turmoil in Romania has already caused EU officials to delay Romania’s entry into the border-free Schengen Area,  the free-travel zone that covers much of Europe.

It seems even more unlikely that the election will settle the feud between Ponta and Băsescu, who seems set to do everything he can within his role as Romania’s head of state to frustrate Ponta.  It’s possible that Băsescu could even refuse to nominate Ponta as prime minister following Sunday’s election, which would result in a constitutional crisis and, potentially, new elections.

The election comes at a time when outside investors are losing patience with Romania’s increasingly negative political climate, and, in particular, the IMF will increasingly pressure Romania’s government for concessions before early next year, when its current €5 billion funding package expires.

The latest polls all show a remarkably consistent lead for Ponta’s Uniunea Social Liberală (USL, Social Liberal Union), a patchwork alliance of various parties that formed just in 2011, primarily Ponta’s own Partidul Social Democrat (PSD, Social Democratic Party), the one-time center-right Partidul Naţional Liberal (PNL, National Liberal Party) and others.

Together, the USL as an alliance holds at least 161 seats (the PSD with 92 seats, the PNL with 57) in the 315-member Chamber of Deputies (Camera Deputaţilor), the lower house of Romania’s parliament (Parlamentul României), going into Sunday’s elections, and look very much likely to extend that lead.

Currently, the largest party in the Chamber of Deputies, with 98 seats, is the Partidul Democrat-Liberal (PDL, Democratic Liberal Party), Băsescu’s party, which had governed after its victory in 2008 parliamentary elections until Boc’s government fell earlier this year.  The PDL, which is running under a center-right patchwork alliance, the Alianţa România Dreaptă (ARD, Right Romania Alliance), that formed only in September 2012 as an alliance among the PDL and two smaller parties, the National Peasant Christian-Democratic Party and Civic Force.

The ARD / PDL, however, remains deeply unpopular in a country that saw just 1% GDP growth in 2010, contracted by 0.4% in 2011, and has pushed through three years of harsh austerity measures.

In the 137-member Senate (Senat), the Romanian parliament’s upper chamber, Ponta’s PSD holds 40 seats and his allied PNL holds 27 seats, with just 35 for the PDL.

One recent poll, however, gave Ponta’s USL fully 62% of the vote to just 17% for the ARD, the second choice of Romanian likely voters.

Continue reading Ponta set to consolidate power in Romanian in Sunday’s elections

Aftermath of Romanian referendum leaves both sides with victory

Romania’s president Traian Băsescu narrowly survived a referendum on Sunday that would have removed him from office, but his meager support in the referendum will only further encourage his political rival, prime minister Victor Ponta. 

Although 87.52% of those who voted supported Băsescu’s impeachment (just 11.15% voted against it), only 46.23% of eligible voters turned out to vote on the referendum — lower than the 50% threshold required to remove the president.

In many ways, the vote may be the best situation for Ponta, whose social democratic Partidul Social Democrat (PSD, the Social Democratic Party) has formed an electoral union with the free-market liberal Partidul Naţional Liberal (PNL, the National Liberal Party).  Băsescu, who belongs to the rival center-right Partidul Democrat-Liberal (PD-L, the Democratic Liberal Party), will remain in office, but with significantly less political standing.

Ponta, whose electoral union won a landslide victory in recent local elections, is now the undisputed top mover in Romanian politics, and he will go into November elections with a very strong hand, given that Romanian voters blame the PD-L for austerity measures designed to bring Romania’s budget down to just 3% of GDP (as required pursuant to the terms of a loan from the International Monetary Fund that originated in 2009).

Ponta also remains another potential troublemaker (alongside Hungary’s Viktor Orbán) for the European Union to worry about.  He may have gone too far in the past three months since becoming prime minister — the European Union has been sounding the alarm at top volume for the past couple of weeks that it is not happy with Ponta’s efforts to undermine Romanian democracy and already-fragile legal institutions — calling the referendum, limiting Romania’s Constitutional Court, stacking Romania’s parliament with his own hand-picked leaders.

That he called the referendum was bad enough, but European leaders had made clear that Băsescu’s removal would have not been looked upon kindly.  Ponta and his allies therefore will emerge from Sunday’s vote having punished Băsescu, but not enough to bring the full force of EU ire upon them.

Romania votes today

Romanians go to the polls today for a special referendum to determine whether to remove Traian Băsescu, Romanian’s president since 2004, from office.

Voters will be faced with one question:  Sunteți de acord cu demiterea Președintelui României, domnul Traian Băsescu?  (Do you agree with the dismissal of the President of Romania, Mr. Traian Băsescu?)

If over 50% of eligible voters turnout, and if a majority answer “Yes,” then Băsescu will be removed from office.  Such a dismissal would be a massive political victory for Victor Ponta, Romania’s new prime minister since May 2012.  Ponta (who belongs to Romania’s leftist Social Democratic Party and whose allies include the free-market National Liberal Party) is looking to consolidate his power before heading into parliamentary elections on November 25 — his alliance currently seems much more popular than the Democratic Liberal Party to which Băsescu belongs and to which Emil Boc belongs — Boc was Romania’s austerity-minded prime minister from 2008 until February of this year.

Ponta and his allies have accused Băsescu of overstepping his constitutional authority as president, despite a ruling by Romania’s Constitutional Court to the contrary.

Ponta been accused by European Union officials of undermining democratic institutions in Romania — the removal of Băsescu, however unpopular he may be, will only reinforce doubts about the direction of Romanian rule of law.

As we wait for word from Bucharest, here are some of the first movements of Romanian composer György Ligeti’s Musica ricercata:

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