In the recent referendum in Romania, 88 per cent of voters supported impeaching President Traian Băsescu, yet the President survived on the basis that the turnout did not reach the required 50 per cent +1. The ambiguous nature of this result has prompted Romania’s Constitutional Court to announce that it will rule on the validity of the referendum in September. Cristina Bucur provides an overview of the current situation in Romania and examines the events which have brought the country to this point.
On 29 July Romania held a referendum to confirm whether or not President Traian Băsescu should be removed from office. Initially, it appeared as if the vote to dismiss the president had failed because fewer than 50 per cent of voters turned out at the referendum. However, Romania’s Constitutional Court has now announced that it will issue its ruling on the validity of the referendum on September 12. Although the 50 per cent participation threshold required for the validation of any referendum in Romania was not met, the Court argued that the information received from state institutions regarding the number of eligible voters registered in the electoral roll was contradictory. As a result, the government was urged to submit to the Court the updated permanent electoral lists based on which the referendum was organised by August 31. Meanwhile, President Băsescu cannot resume office until the Court reaches a final decision.
The Constitutional Court’s decision is just another part of a long and highly contested process about what constitutes a valid referendum. The debate regarding the participation threshold began in 2007, when President Băsescu was suspended for the first time during a period of cohabitation with the Liberal Party (PNL). The initial referendum law, adopted in 2000, stated that a local or national referendum is valid if at least 50 per cent +1 of the people registered on the electoral roll participate in the vote (Art. 5). This text reinforced the condition that the President can only be dismissed by a majority of registered voters (Art. 10). The participation threshold was nevertheless removed from a new law adopted on May 5, 2007, immediately after Băsescu’s first suspension on April 19, 2007. According to the new text, the decision regarding the president’s dismissal belongs to the people who turned out to vote. On that occasion, the referendum was invalidated not because the turnout was 44 per cent, but because nearly 75 per cent of people voted against the president’s dismissal (according to the Constitutional Court’s decision 5/2007 of May 23, 2007).
Romania’s first cohabitation period ended in December 2008, when President Băsescu’s PDL party came back to power. The Boc I government, which was a coalition between PDL and the current prime minister’s PSD, reintroduced the minimum participation threshold as a condition for the validity of a presidential impeachment referendum. This amendment was enforced through an emergency ordinance that was issued for the organisation of the parliamentary reform referendum, which took place on November 22, 2009. A new bill that restored the referendum law to its 2000 form was eventually passed by the lower chamber in March 2012 and put forward by president Băsescu in April 2012. A week later the Ungureanu government was defeated in a confidence motion, which started a new period of cohabitation between president Băsescu and a coalition government led by Victor Ponta (the prime minister and PSD leader) and Crin Antonescu (the PNL leader and coalition partner of the PSD).
In May 2012, the MPs of the new parties in power put forward a legislative initiative to eliminate the minimum participation threshold, which was passed by the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies on June 18 and June 26 respectively. The bill was sent by the PDL to the Constitutional Court but the government did not wait for the Court’s new ruling and issued an emergency ordinance on July 5 that removed the threshold from the referendum law. The Court’s final decision on July 10 stated that while the constitution does not give any details on the organisation of an impeachment referendum, the 2000 Law does require a participation threshold of 50 per cent for all local and national referenda. As a result, an attempt to remove this requirement only for the presidential referendum was seen as unconstitutional.
As the government accepted the participation threshold, the campaign debate moved into its final stage that focused on the number of voters required for the validity of the referendum and the accuracy of the electoral roll. While the PDL advised their members and supporters to boycott the referendum in order to invalidate it irrespective of the results, the USL voiced concerns regarding the number of eligible voters registered on the electoral lists and argued that it was out of date and overestimated the size of the electorate. Following a 46 per cent turnout, of which 88 per cent were in favour of removing the president, the USL alliance contested the accuracy of the number of eligible voters included on the electoral lists to the Constitutional Court. On the day of the Court’s ruling even the Minister of Interior and Administration who organised the referendum notified the Court that the Ministry cannot guarantee the “verifiability” of the number of people included on the electoral lists as it lacks the legal means of controlling the data compiled by the local authorities.
It is not clear how these developments affect the results of the local elections, which were organised last June using the same electoral lists, or indeed the organisation of the next general election, which is scheduled to take place next November.
A version of this article first appeared on the Semi Presidential One blog.
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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Cristina Bucur – Dublin City University
Cristina Bucur is a Government of Ireland Postgraduate Scholar (Irish Research Council for Humanities and Social Sciences) and a fourth-year PhD candidate in Politics and International Relations at the School of Law and Government of Dublin City University. She has previously studied European politics at the universities of Bologna and Bucharest. Cristina’s work lies in the area of comparative politics and her current research project focuses on ministerial survival in semi-presidential systems. Other research interests include the structure, organisation and interaction of government and political parties under different institutional frameworks, core executive politics and political leadership.