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Monday, July 9, 2012
News about Romania and its descent in chaos, in FT:
July 8, 2012 , FT
Fears grow for democracy in Romania
By Neil Buckley, East Europe Editor
First it was Hungary. Now there are worrying signs that democracy and the rule of law may be going off the rails in another ex-communist state to have joined the EU since 2004: Hungary’s bigger neighbour, Romania.
Bucharest’s parliament on Friday voted to suspend President Traian Basescu – triggering a referendum on impeaching the head of state.
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Critics say the grounds for impeachment is flimsy; the process was launched by questionable means, and it appears part of a power grab by Romania’s recently-installed prime minister, Victor Ponta, and his leftist USL coalition that has trampled on the constitution.
Brussels officials and Romanian analysts are drawing comparisons with how Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, has since 2010 entrenched his Fidesz party in power. But events in Romania are unfolding at dizzying speed.
Sorin Ionita, a political analyst at Bucharest’s Expert Forum think-tank, said the government had “dismantled [democratic] institutions”.
“What has happened, especially in the last week, is a series of clearly unconstitutional steps were taken by the government, by executive decree,” he added.
Expert Forum and other civil society groups have warned of the “Fidesz-isation” of Romania, which has a population of 20m.
Before Friday’s vote, Mr Ponta used an emergency decree to remove the constitutional court’s powers to review parliamentary decisions (which it could have used to block the president’s suspension).
Another emergency decree changed the referendum rules, requiring only a simple majority of those voting to remove the president – instead of 50 per cent of registered voters, as previously.
The Romanian ombudsman, who can challenge institutions’ actions in the constitutional court, was fired and replaced with a USL loyalist. So were speakers of both chambers of parliament.
The head of the upper house is now the co-leader of the ruling USL coalition, Crin Antonescu, who will become interim president if Mr Basescu is impeached, and probable candidate to succeed him.
“The previous week, Mr Ponta travelled to Brussels to represent Romania at the latest EU summit, defying a constitutional court ruling upholding Mr Basescu’s claim that this was the president’s job, as it had always been in the past. Mr Ponta cited a parliamentary ruling that gave him the right to go.”
Mr Ponta then attempted to remove the judges who had voted against him – prompting the court to write warning letters to European institutions.
In some ways, Romania is a repeat in more extreme form of the changes of government seen in several EU countries where populations are unhappy about cost-cutting and stagnation.
Romania pushed through some of Europe’s toughest austerity measures after securing €20bn from the EU and International Monetary Fund bailout in 2009, including temporarily slashing public sector wages by a quarter.
The former centre-right prime minister Emil Boc survived 10 no-confidence motions before finally resigning after street protests in January. After another centre-right government was toppled in April, Mr Basescu called on Mr Ponta’s centre-left coalition to govern until parliamentary elections in November.
Critics accuse the government since then of doing everything possible to extend its powers and secure a “supermajority” in the coming election, setting a potentially dangerous precedent.
“Once one government has done this, what is to prevent the next one doing something similar?” says one Romanian businessman.
Mr Ponta’s coalition says it is legitimately challenging Mr Basescu, who comes from the centre-right, because he overstepped his authority and meddled in politics. Romania’s constitution says the president must be neutral.
José Manuel Barroso, European Commission president, on Friday called on Romania to respect the rule of law.
But, like Hungary before, Romania is exposing the limited means European institutions have to exert pressure on countries straying from the democratic path.
The EU can under article seven of its founding treaty bring sanctions including suspending a member state’s EU voting rights. This is seen as a “nuclear” option, however, and the EU balked at using it against Hungary.
Brussels officials say if Romania’s situation deteriorates the EU could continue to block its membership of the border-free Schengen zone – a cherished goal – or suspend EU structural funds for inadequate progress on judicial reforms.
It is unclear, however, if Mr Ponta’s coalition will be able to go as far in Bucharest as Mr Orbán’s Fidesz did in Hungary.
Mr Ponta lacks Mr Orban’s charisma and personal following. Hungary, too, was strong enough financially in 2010 for the Orbán government to turn its back on IMF support and try unorthodox economic measures (though it was forced to seek new IMF help last year).
Analysts say Romania probably cannot afford to see its current €5bn IMF precautionary credit line suspended. That might force it to keep agreed economic reforms on track.
Investor jitters have already driven Romania’s currency to record lows against the euro. A local businessman says that milk, bread and meat prices rose between 3 per cent and 5 per cent from Wednesday to Friday as a result. Continued inflation at that rate, he notes, is not something the government could afford.
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The Premier pleaded for cooperation with President and Parliament on European issues. Vasile Blaga urged the PM to resign and accused him of heading the country toward dictatorship. Ponta replied, saying he is accountable to Parliament and Romanians, not to ‘one master’ as Blaga is.“The measures this government has taken during the first 50 days into office and is going to take in the coming period should lead to fundamental changes over our administrative capacity and the absorption capacity of European funds. At the start of our term, we lay bottom absorption rate wise, with serious dysfunctions with respect to some sectorial programs,” Ponta told the joint Houses of Parliament. He added that the European Council decisions would not diminish the EU funds available to Romania with regard to financing of economic growth mechanisms and job creation in the European Union. Victor Ponta said that, with respect to fiscal consolidation and structural reforms, government “will put before MPs” all the legislative amendments and administrative decisions aimed at emphasizing structural reforms, investments able to create economic growth and jobs, as well as to strengthen stabilization mechanisms and to build a clear vision over the future of our economic and monetary union”. The premier stated he had tried and would keep trying to have an institutional cooperation with Romania’s president", he said."
Romania president faces impeachment poll
By Neil Buckley, East Europe Editor
Romania’s parliament voted on Friday to suspend the president and triggered a national referendum to impeach him, in an escalating power struggle that has raised international concerns about democracy and rule of law in the country.
The suspension vote followed days of tensions in the Balkan state, which joined the EU in 2007, as Victor Ponta, the prime minister and his leftwing USL coalition challenged the powers of Traian Basescu, the president.
· The prime minister and his party say Mr Basescu, supposed to be neutral under Romania’s constitution, has exceeded his authority, interfered in politics, and acted in a party political way.
But Mr Basescu and opponents of Mr Ponta accused the prime minister of trampling on the constitution to launch the impeachment process.
José Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, demanded earlier on Friday that Romania respect the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law, after the country’s constitutional court said Mr Ponta was trying to undermine it.
Developments in Romania since Mr Ponta became premier in May have drawn comparisons with efforts by Viktor Orbán,prime minister of neighbouring Hungary to entrench his party in power.
Romanian MPs voted overwhelmingly 256-114 to suspend the president, meaning a referendum will be held on July 29 on whether to remove Mr Basescu, head of state since 2004, from office.
That will require only a simple majority of those who vote, after Mr Ponta used an emergency decree to change a previous rule requiring a majority of all registered voters.
Analysts expect the referendum to be carried. That would leave Crin Antonescu, leader of the other party in the USL coalition who this week became head of Romania’s senate or upper house, as interim president.
Romania’s currency fell to a record low against the euro on Friday amid the political turmoil, which has paralysed decision-making and raised concerns over the future of a €5bn precautionary credit facility with the International Monetary Fund.
Romania had to seek a €20bn IMF and EU bailout during the 2009 financial crisis, and then implemented some of Europe’s toughest austerity measures, including slashing public sector wages 25 per cent and benefits 15 per cent.
The centre-right government of Emil Boc survived 10 no-confidence motions during the austerity programme before being toppled after street protests in January. It was followed by another shortlived centre-right government, which was replaced in May by one from the opposing social democrat-liberal coalition headed by Mr Ponta.
Mr Basescu accused Mr Ponta’s government on Friday of “shattering the rule of law in an attempt to put the law at the USL’s disposal”.
“I believe this is a mistake and what you have been doing will have long-time consequences,” he added, according to local news agencies. Mr Basescu denied exceeding his authority, saying he had taken “full responsibility as head of state” at a time of “terrible” economic crisis.
Speaking for the ruling coalition, Mr Antonescu countered that it was carrying out “not a coup d’état” but a “very democratic, constitutional and parliamentary exercise”.
But Sorin Ionita, a political analyst at the Expert Forum think-tank in Bucharest, said the government had “dismantled [democratic] institutions”.
He added: “What has happened, especially in the last week, is a series of clearly unconstitutional steps were taken by the government, by executive decree.”
Expert Forum and other think-tanks have warned of a “Fidesz-isation” of Romania, a reference to Mr Orbán’s Fidesz party in Hungary.
Mr Basescu was previously suspended in 2007 but survived an impeachment referendum. His popularity has waned since then, however, amid Romania’s austerity programme and allegations of cronyism. 6 iulie, FT.
This material is posted with intention to educate, and for educational purposes only, for Romanians who cannot afford the Financial Times. Thanks
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