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After joining the European Union (EU) in January 2007, Romania was thrown into political turmoil in April when the prime minister fired cabinet ministers backed by President Traian Basescu and narrowed the ruling minority coalition. Parliament suspended Basescu that month, but he was reinstated after easily winning a May referendum on his removal. Meanwhile, the EU warned in June that Romania could face sanctions in 2008 if it failed to make progress on judicial reforms and anticorruption efforts.
In late 1989, longtime dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu was overthrown and executed by disgruntled Communists. A provisional government was formed under Ion Iliescu, a high-ranking Communist, and elections soon followed. Iliescu lost power in 1996 elections but reclaimed the presidency in 2000; the former Communist Party, renamed the Party of Social Democracy (PSD), took power in that year’s parliamentary elections, with Adrian Nastase as prime minister.
In 2004, Traian Basescu of the Alliance for Truth and Justice (comprising the National Liberal Party and the Democratic Party) defeated Nastase in a presidential runoff. The PSD secured a plurality of seats in Parliament, but Basescu’s presidential victory led to a majority coalition between the Alliance for Truth and Justice, the Humanist Party (which subsequently changed its name to the Conservative Party, or PC), and the Democratic Union of Hungarians in Romania (UDMR). Calin Popescu Tariceanu of the National Liberal Party (PNL) became prime minister.
The ruling coalition proved rather unstable. The PNL and the Democratic Party (PD)—which Basescu formally left to become president—clashed over the presence of Romanian troops in Iraq, constitutional reform, control of the security forces, and the holding of early elections. In December 2006, the PC withdrew from the coalition, and a rebel PNL faction led by Theodor Stolojan reorganized as the Liberal Democratic Party (PLD), which sided more often with the PD.
In order to fulfill European Union (EU) accession requirements in 2006, the government made a notable effort to speed up judiciary reform and eradicate corruption. The country joined the EU as scheduled on January 1, 2007. After accession, however, the friction between the president and prime minister quickly flared into direct confrontation, with the PSD exploiting the rift and lending tactical support to Tariceanu. Much of the disagreement appeared to stem from the president’s aggressive pursuit of the EU-backed reforms, which his opponents accused him of politicizing.
On April 1, Tariceanu fired eight ministers supported by the president and PD, ousting the latter from the ruling coalition. The remaining two coalition members, the PNL and UDMR, held just 109 seats in the 469-seat bicameral Parliament. At the PSD’s urging, Parliament on April 19 voted, 322 to 108, to suspend Basescu and organize a referendum on his removal. The lawmakers, including the PNL, accused him of exceeding his constitutional authority by meddling in the cabinet, influencing anticorruption prosecutors, and using the intelligence services against his political enemies. They proceeded with the referendum despite a nonbinding Constitutional Court finding that Basescu had not broken the law. In the May 19 poll, 74 percent of participating voters rejected impeachment, with a turnout of 44 percent.
The European Commission welcomed the result, urging the Romanian leadership to work together and continue with its stalled reform agenda. In a June report, the commission warned that Romania would face sanctions if it failed to make progress on corruption and judicial reforms within a year. Another EU warning in October, threatening to withhold a quarter of the country’s 2008 agricultural aid, was rescinded in December after the government improved its oversight of how the money was distributed to farmers.
Notwithstanding the EU warnings, the two sides seemed locked in a political stalemate for much of the year. The president lacked the authority to call elections or fire ministers, and his opponents appeared unwilling to face voters given their low popularity. Tariceanu’s minority government narrowly survived a no-confidence vote in early October, and his PNL won just 13 percent of the vote—behind the PD’s 29 percent and the PSD’s 23 percent—in European Parliament elections in November, though voter turnout was less than 30 percent. The PLD, which captured 8 percent, announced plans to merge with the PD the following month.
Romania is an electoral democracy. Elections since 1991 have been considered generally free and fair. The directly elected president does not have substantial powers beyond foreign policy. He appoints the prime minister, who remains the most powerful politician, with the approval of Parliament. The members of the bicameral Parliament, consisting of the 137-seat Senate and 332-seat Chamber of Deputies, are elected for four-year terms, and a 2004 constitutional amendment stipulates that the president is now elected for a five-year term. A 5 percent electoral threshold for representation in Parliament favors larger parties; six parties won representation in the last elections. The president is not permitted to be a member of a political party.
The constitution allots a seat to each national minority that passes a special threshold lower than the 5 percent otherwise needed to enter Parliament. In the 2004 elections, 18 such seats were allotted. While the ethnic Hungarian minority is represented in the ruling coalition, political participation and representation of Roma is very weak.
Romania significantly stepped up its anticorruption efforts ahead of EU accession. In 2006, anticorruption agencies were reorganized and granted greater authority to investigate corruption at the highest levels, including in Parliament. The quantity and quality of high-level corruption probes increased significantly, and a number of officials, judges, and police officers were arrested and convicted. However, the June 2007 EU progress report noted a pattern of weak or suspended sentences in high-level corruption cases, blunting the effects of the stepped-up prosecutions. In July 2006, the government approved legislation to establish a National Agency for Integrity, tasked with vetting public officials’ assets. It began operations in December 2007, but its future was uncertain after one of its chief proponents, Justice Minister Monica Macovei, was dismissed by the prime minister in April. In October, Agriculture Minister Decebal Traian Remes resigned after being caught on video arranging a bribe, and Macovei’s replacement as justice minister, Tudor Chiuariu, resigned in December after allegedly abusing his position in a real estate deal. Romania was ranked 69 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index, the worst ranking in the EU.
The constitution enshrines freedom of expression and the press, and the media are characterized by considerable pluralism. Government respect for media freedoms had been increasing in recent years. However, in January 2007, the Constitutional Court struck down reforms that had decriminalized libel and defamation, effectively reinstating them in the penal code. President Traian Basescu drew criticism in May for seizing the mobile telephone of a reporter who tried to interview him while he was grocery shopping on the day of the impeachment referendum. In September, Parliament appointed a former PSD official to head the public television broadcast station, raising concerns about political bias. The government does not restrict access to the internet.
Religious freedom is generally respected, although “nontraditional” religious organizations encounter difficulties in registering with the state. The government formally recognizes 18 religious groups, each of which is eligible for some state support. The Romanian Orthodox Church remains dominant. In December 2006, Parliament passed a law requiring all religions to have a membership equal to at least 0.1 percent of the population in order to be officially acknowledged. Moreover, nontraditional religions must undergo a 12-year “waiting period” prior to recognition. The government does not restrict academic freedom.
The constitution guarantees freedom of assembly and association, and the government respects these rights in practice. The Romanian civil society sector is vibrant and able to influence public policy, increasingly by working through EU officials and mechanisms. Workers have the right to form unions and strike, but in practice many employers work against unions, and illegal antiunion activity is rarely punished.
The judiciary is one of the most problematic institutions in Romania, though a number of important reforms were passed in 2006, ahead of EU accession. The justice budget was increased, and the court infrastructure was renovated. Improvements were made to the recruitment, training, promotion, and disciplinary systems for judges and clerks, but the June 2007 EU report said further efforts were needed in this area. The government and Parliament’s ongoing review of the civil and criminal codes was hampered by political clashes in 2007.
A June 2007 Council of Europe report, citing anonymous sources, reiterated earlier allegations that Romania had hosted a secret CIA facility where terrorism suspects were abused and interrogated between 2003 and 2005. Romanian leaders restated their denial of the claims. Conditions in ordinary prisons remain poor.
Romania’s 18 recognized ethnic minorities have the right to use their native tongue with authorities in areas where they represent at least a fifth of the population, but the rule is not always enforced. Discrimination against Roma continues, especially in housing, access to social services, and employment. Basescu was criticized for at least two well-publicized ethnic slurs in 2007, but in October he became the first Romanian government official to formally apologize for the Holocaust-related deportation of Roma during World War II. People with disabilities face discrimination in employment and other areas.
The constitution guarantees women equal rights, but gender discrimination is a problem. Only about 10 percent of the seats in Parliament are held by women. Trafficking of women and girls for forced prostitution has become a major problem. However, some law enforcement progress has become evident, and in 2006, the government created a new agency to evaluate antitrafficking efforts and assist victims.