On Sunday, Romanian President Traian Basescu narrowly survived an impeachment referendum after voter turnout fell below 50 per cent, the level required for the vote to be valid. In an interview with EUROPP editors Stuart A Brown and Chris Gilson, Paul Sum of the University of North Dakota details the factors behind the political crisis, assesses the EU’s role in safeguarding democracy in the country, and speculates on what the future holds for Romania. 

Why has Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta recently been so keen to remove President Traian Basescu from office, and what does this mean for Romania and its people?

The political conflict between Prime Minister Ponta and President Basescu is embedded within the institutional design of the Romanian state and the evolution of the Romanian political party system. Romania uses a semi-presidential executive-legislative arrangement. The system resembles that of France with a conventional parliamentary body that includes a head of government (the prime minister) and a head of state (the president) who shares substantial executive power. When the Romanian president and the prime minister have represented different political parties, what the French would call cohabitation, the political conflict within this dual executive has been acute. Constitutionally, the role of the Romanian president is open to much interpretation.

Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta Credit: Alberto Novi (Creative Commons BY NC SA)

Basescu has come to understand that under “crisis” circumstances, the president might extend his powers beyond what most would interpret as ordinary. A good example of this was the brutal political battle between Traian Basescu of the Liberal Democratic Party (PDL) and Călin Popescu-Tăriceanu of the National Liberal Party prior to the appointment of Emil Boc (PDL) as Prime Minister in 2008. Thus, institutional design encourages conflict between the head of state and head of government, and this is not a new phenomenon. When Victor Ponta of the Social Democratic Party (PSD) assumed office in May of this year, Romania entered another period of cohabitation. Victor Ponta has decided to attack the presidency in pre-emptive fashion before Basescu can marshal forces against him.

Another relevant consideration for the conflict is the dynamics of the Romanian political party system. The current political party configuration has afforded the Prime Minister this option. Ponta represents the Social Liberal Union (USL) which is a coalition between the PSD and the PNL. One might think this to be an odd partnership since ostensibly the former would be associated with the left-side of the political spectrum and the latter with the right. Indeed, this was the case for a number of years but since February 2011, the two have found common ground in combating the power of Traian Basescu and the PDL. The USL has a majority parliamentary coalition which has given Victor Ponta a free hand to advance their common cause, even if they violate the rule of law. It is not unreasonable to speculate that if the Prime Minister does not deliver a decisive blow to the President, the foundation of the coalition might begin to quake. The PNL has not forgotten their experience when they coexisted with Basescu in the dual executive arrangement.

Romanian President Traian Basescu Credit: Lucian Crusoveanu (Creative Commons BY NC ND)

The emergence of the USL and the pattern of party alignments in Romania over the years show that ideology plays a secondary role in Romanian politics, at least among the political class. Ideological shifts that permit new political alliances have not been unusual. For example, the PDL has its roots as a centre-left political party, yet now defends the centre-right. Many new democracies begin with political parties that are weakly institutionalized, meaning they operate more to advance the political interests of particular leaders and identifiable networks rather than occupying clear ideological space. In Romania, the parties have not become more institutionalized and instead retain many qualities associated with clientelism. Parties serve their networks of supporters, often through access to the resources of the state, and this often trumps maintaining ideological consistency. As a result, democratic politics in Romania has evolved into clashes among personalities more often than clashes among competing ideas, and the political actors have adopted a “take no prisoners” approach.

The Romanian people are largely left out of the equation. Unless you are connected to one of the political networks, it is very difficult to be heard. Romanians not only lack confidence in their governing institutions, many hold disdain for them. Indeed, many Romanians are very suspicious of anyone who might be considered a partisan or party activist since they must somehow be “connected” and thus “corrupted.” Many feel alienated from the system; many become apathetic.

Given Prime Minister Ponta’s recent actions (sacking the speakers of both chambers of parliament, firing the ombudsman, threatening constitutional court judges with impeachment and prohibiting constitutional court from reviewing acts of parliament), do you think democracy is under threat in Romania?

Yes, these actions are cause for concern. The desired outcome, the removal of President Basescu, seems to have become the justification for these means. Whenever such choices are made, the integrity of democratic governance is jeopardized. The USL might have pursued this course of action without cutting such corners. The Romanian constitution prescribes a process that would have allowed for a hearing of the issues, and impeachment, if the charges were deemed valid. However, with the removal of key officers in Parliament, and the applied pressure on the Constitutional Court, the entire process, in my mind, looks like a political witch hunt and any substantive issues fall to the wayside. The process has poisoned the very real issues of misconduct that make it very difficult to address the improprieties of Basescu as well as others within the political class from all sides. Nevertheless, many Romanian citizens are disillusioned with Basescu (more than 87 per cent of those who voted in the referendum favour impeachment) and associate him with the harsh economic realities and the culture of corruption. These are serious issues. The process of how we arrived at the referendum seems to be of less importance than the ability for the public to voice its dissatisfaction. Thus, many Romanians have seemed willing to discard the rule of law to voice their dissatisfaction with the political class if they cannot attain justice and good governance.

Should the EU be doing more to ensure democratic institutions in Romania are not abused?

Yes, the EU should be doing more. For many Romanians, the promise of EU membership was that an external actor would become a stabilizing force which would provide a safeguard against democratic backsliding. My view is that the EU has had a positive impact on this process so far. Through their statements and close monitoring, EU officials have mitigated what might have been a more overt attack on the democratic constitution on Romania. I am not trying to minimize the actions of the Ponta government but I do feel that without the EU’s supervision, the actions might have irreversibly damaged the Romanian governing structure. Beyond condemning statements and continued monitoring, I am not sure what else the EU can be realistically expected to do. Many observers have suggested that the EU should intervene swiftly and decisively when member states enter into crisis situations, whether it is a constitutional crisis like in Romania or an economic one in Greece. Yet, the European institutions have no such power, and I dare say that there would be an outcry if they tried to intervene in a more heavy-handed way. The ends cannot justify the means when it comes to EU actions, and currently there is not a permanent monitoring and sanctioning process for rights violations in EU member states. The process permitted through Article 7 is clumsy and does not provide clear standards for action. The implications for establishing such a standard cannot be forged in the heat of the moment and should not be tailored to address a particular case.

Commentators have highlighted the contrasting responses within the European Parliament to the situations in Romania and Hungary. Do you think that this has affected the EU’s reaction to the situations in both countries?

The situations in Hungary and Romania point to the need for a stronger response mechanism in the EU. The European Parliament would seem to be the logical place for such a process. However, this needs institutionalization. Without it, we have the European Parliament, like other European institutions, considering these situations on a case by case basis, which does suggest that the broader political context of the EU affects the decision-making. Thus, the EP addressed Hungarian constitutional questions within a different context from the Romanian one.

Where do you think Romania will be in 5 years’ time?

I tend to be optimistic about Romania. I do not think we are at a major impasse where Romania will slide into an authoritarian form of government. My reasoning is partly based on the fact that the Ponta Government is facing intense international pressure to back away from its recent course of action. Besides pressure from the EU, the IMF played a key role by delaying its next visit until after the referendum. I suspect the Government’s conduct during the voting and its response to the outcome will determine the tenor of these discussions, and I suspect further that Victor Ponta understands this, especially with the American Ambassador echoing the same sentiments. Moreover, many observers overestimate the internal coherence of the PSD and PNL alliance under the umbrella of the USL. These two political formations have not worked well together in the past and multiple conflicts exist among their leaders. As the autumn 2012 Parliamentary elections approach, the pressure for leaders on both sides to distinguish themselves as independent and in control of the alliance will be irresistible. Additionally, the PDL may be down but they are not out. They will fan any flames that might appear during the campaign, and may be in a position to discredit the USL as undemocratic given the recent events and international scorn that has been levied.

My optimism, however, is tempered in the short term. The outcome of the referendum is that a vast majority of voters chose to impeach the President, yet the required turnout of 50%+1 of eligible voters was not attained. Because the voter lists in Romania have the reputation of being inflated that threshold was actually much higher than 50 per cent, perhaps as much as 60 per cent, which may have been the difference between a valid and invalid result due to the turnout threshold. The Basescu camp’s strategy to have supporters stay away from the polls also seems to have impacted the outcome. The political turmoil will deepen significantly in light of this ambiguous outcome. The choices that Ponta and Basescu make in response will be critical, yet neither inspires confidence. A supportive response from the EU, that recognizes the substantive issues facing Romania without choosing sides, may provide a bridge to move forward in a positive way.

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Note:  This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.

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About the author

Paul Sum University of North Dakota
Paul E. Sum is an Associate Professor at the University of North Dakota. His research agenda addresses cross-national differences in political culture and citizen mobilization especially within the context of democratization. His area of expertise is East-Central Europe and he maintains a special relationship with Romania. His current interests explore determinants of generalized trust in terms of dispositions, experiences and contexts. He also continues to be interested in the effectiveness of civil society development assistance, especially the extent to which such assistance furthers the development of social capital through non-governmental organizations.. He has worked with the U.S. Agency for International Development, World Bank, Council of Europe, OSCE, Democracy International, National Democratic Institute, World Learning, International Research & Exchanges Board, and American Council for Learned Societies. He is the Chair for the Society for Romanian Studies related groups section of the American Political Science Association.

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