Romania: Is the Crisis Over? | Freedom House

Romania: Is the Crisis Over?

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By Zselyke CsakyResearch Director, Europe & Eurasia

Photo Description: Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta.
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This year has been a busy one for democracy advocates in Romania. In June, after the courts confirmed a two-year prison sentence in the corruption case of former prime minister Adrian Năstase, the newly appointed government—led by his Social Democratic Party (PSD) protégé, Victor Ponta—launched an unprecedented onslaught against several democratic institutions. These attempts to dismantle checks and balances, which received harsh criticism from the European Union, culminated in an unsuccessful July impeachment referendum against current president and longtime Năstase rival Traian Băsescu. The “hot summer” was not without consequences for the economy, as markets plummeted in a country that was already dependent on loans overseen by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Indeed, the ruling coalition came to power in May because its center-right predecessor had collapsed after imposing unpopular IMF-driven austerity measures. Now, Romanians are poised to render their verdict on the new government’s performance in parliamentary elections set for December 9. With its opponents still bearing the taint of austerity, the PSD-led coalition seems likely to win, raising questions about whether it will continue to erode democracy.

Ponta’s government got off to a rocky start, taking several controversial steps in its first few months. Over the course of just a few days in July, for example, it replaced the ombudsman and the speakers of both houses of Parliament with its own loyalists, threatened Constitutional Court judges with impeachment, and limited the court’s jurisdiction. The ruling coalition also tried to change the electoral law and establish a new first-past-the-post system, but this was blocked by the Constitutional Court.

Among other moves, the ruling coalition replaced the leadership of the public television broadcaster, and by August Reporters Without Borders felt obliged to condemn the “climate of intimidation” that had developed toward journalists, both domestic and foreign, who were seen as critical of the government.

Many of the Ponta government’s aggressive actions were linked to the impeachment effort against Băsescu, who is closely allied with the center-right Democratic Liberal Party (PDL), now in opposition. (Băsescu had also defeated Năstase in the 2004 presidential election.) On July 6, Parliament voted to suspend the president for overstepping his authority, scheduled a referendum on his permanent removal for July 29, and issued an emergency decree abolishing the 50 percent minimum turnout requirement for the vote. However, the Constitutional Court rejected the decree, and the referendum ultimately failed: 87 percent of those participating voted against Băsescu, but only 46 percent of eligible voters came to the polls.

Some observers have posited a direct connection between the impeachment attempt—which anticorruption advocates including former justice minister Monica Macovei labeled a coup d’état—and the Năstase prison sentence, which had been hailed internationally as a huge step toward accountability in the country. Năstase had been found guilty in January of illegally raising $2 million for his failed 2004 presidential campaign. After the decision was upheld on appeal in late June, he reportedly shot himself in the neck in an apparent suicide bid, but was finally taken to prison after a few days in the hospital. Although Romania’s EU-backed antigraft machinery has initiated almost five thousand trials in the past six years, including 15 against former cabinet ministers, Năstase’s conviction was probably the most important verdict handed down to date. Ponta and his allies may have seen the conviction as a threat, and Băsescu as either its instigator or an obstacle to any response. (Despite the plaudits, some claim that the trial was not without irregularities, pointing to the fact that the prosecution was allowed to call 972 witnesses, and the defense only five.)

Corruption is endemic in Romania, which ranks together with Bulgaria and Greece as the EU’s worst performers on Transparency International’s annual Corruption Perceptions Index. The most recent EU report measuring progress in the areas of corruption, judicial reform, and organized crime in Bulgaria and Romania was very critical of Romania’s results, and the country’s accession to the EU’s passport-free Schengen area has been repeatedly postponed.

Romanians are not very happy with their country’s institutions either. Life satisfaction is quite low among youth, having fallen to half the level from before the 2008 global financial crisis. Indeed, according to a recent study published by the Soros Foundation, two-thirds of teenagers believe life was better under communism, and “they are not completely opposed to the idea of an authoritarian ruler.” A survey conducted at the end of 2011 found that the Orthodox Church is the most trusted institution, followed by the army and city mayors. National political institutions are seen as far less trustworthy, with the presidency endorsed by only 12 percent of respondents, and the government and Parliament by 9 and 4 percent, respectively.

The situation was not helped by a scandal that erupted in June, when the British journal Nature published allegations that Prime Minister Ponta had plagiarized his doctoral thesis in 2003—with Năstase serving as thesis adviser. An investigative body was set up, and Ponta promised to step down if the allegations were found to be true. But after the committee decided unanimously that it was a case of copy-and-paste plagiarism, a separate government-appointed body came to the opposite conclusion, while a third panel, established by the University of Bucharest, confirmed the original finding. Difficult to follow? The bottom line is that Ponta did not resign, even though his subordinate, Education Minister Ioan Mang, was forced to do so after being implicated in a very similar case in May.

Cheating is not limited to politicians seeking academic credentials. Since the introduction of cameras and other antifraud measures at high school final exams in 2011, only half of the students have passed the tests. These numbers say less about the character of Romania’s youth than about the ubiquity of corruption in Romanian society. Young people can hardly be blamed for disliking the current system when they see, for instance, that the easiest way to get a lucrative position in the European Parliament (EP) is to be a member of the right family. Băsescu’s daughter Elena, a former model, became an MEP in an incredibly short time, and the wives of both Ponta and his ally, National Liberal Party (PNL) leader Crin Antonescu, are also members of the Romanian EP delegation.

Because all political forces are seen as marred to some extent by corruption, Romanian voters may instead be judging the leading parties based on their associations with, or opposition to, austerity measures. Despite the contentious events of the summer, Ponta’s coalition, the Social Liberal Union (USL), still commands a majority in opinion polls, while the Right Romania Alliance (ARD), a coalition of center-right parties linked to the previous government’s policies, lags at around 15 to 20 percent.

So what is at stake in December’s elections? Unfortunately, the most pressing question is not whether the next government will be capable of tackling Romania’s economic and institutional problems more effectively, but whether the country will continue to be governed in the way it was during the summer. Ponta has toned down his criticism of Băsescu since the failure of the impeachment vote, and has apparently impressed EU officials with his newly cooperative stance. But if his coalition wins and the president refuses to reappoint him as prime minister, a much deeper and longer-lasting crisis could follow.

* Zselyke Csaky is a human rights graduate who specializes in minority rights, privacy, and European affairs.

Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.

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