Freedom in the World
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After parliamentary elections in November 2008, the two largest parties—the Democratic Liberal Party and Social Democratic Party—formed a new coalition government in December. Separately, a European Union (EU) progress report in July found that Romania’s struggle against endemic corruption was hampered by parliamentary obstruction and unfavorable court rulings, including light sentences. However, unlike its neighbor Bulgaria, Romania escaped major EU sanctions.
In 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 Social Democratic Party (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, or PNL, and the Democratic Party, or PD) 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 (later renamed the Conservative Party, or PC), and the Democratic Union of Hungarians in Romania (UDMR). Calin Popescu Tariceanu of the PNL became prime minister.
The ruling coalition proved rather unstable, with the PC withdrawing in December 2006 and a rebel PNL faction moving toward a merger with the PD. After Romania’s accession to the European Union (EU) in January 2007, the friction between the president and prime minister quickly flared into direct confrontation. The PSD exploited the rift and gave tactical support to Tariceanu. Much of the disagreement appeared to stem from the president’s aggressive pursuit of EU-backed judicial and anticorruption reforms, which his opponents accused him of politicizing.
In April 2007, Tariceanu ousted the Basescu-allied PD from the cabinet. 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 voted to suspend Basescu and organize a referendum on his removal, but he easily won the vote in May.
The PSD led local elections in June 2008, winning nearly a third of the mayoral races, including the contest in Bucharest. The Democratic Liberal Party (PDL), a union of the PD and the PNL splinter faction, was close behind. In the November parliamentary elections, the PDL narrowly defeated a PSD-PC alliance in the lower house, 115 seats to 114, and in the Senate, 51 seats to 49. The two then formed a grand coalition in December, controlling a combined 329 out of 471 seats in both chambers. Meanwhile, the PNL was left with 65 seats in lower house and 28 seats in the Senate, followed by the UDMR with 22 and 9. The remaining 18 lower house seats were set aside for ethnic minorities. Voter turnout was less than 40 percent; unlike in previous years, no major fraud allegations were reported. PDL leader and Cluj mayor Emil Boc was subsequently confirmed by Parliament as the new prime minister.
Political battles had continued to hamstring anticorruption efforts during the year. A new justice minister, Catalin Marian Predoiu, was named in February after two initial choices were rejected by the president. The last justice minister, Tudor Chiuariu, had resigned after just months in office in 2007 over an allegedly illicit real-estate deal, but he remained a top adviser to Tariceanu. In August 2008, Predoiu removed National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA) chief Daniel Morar and offered him a liaison post in Brussels, which he refused. Critics said the move was another bid by the Tariceanu government to blunt the anticorruption campaign. Predoiu was asked to stay on as justice minister under the new coalition government in December, and Morar remained at his DNA position at year’s end, pending the approval of his replacement.
A European Commission progress report in July 2008 praised the work of anticorruption agencies like the DNA and spared Romania major sanctions. However, it faulted Parliament for obstructing probes, and the judiciary for rebuffing cases over procedural errors and issuing inconsequential penalties for wrongdoing. In August, the EU suspended payments for a program that provided Romania with 150 million euros ($220 million) in farm subsidies annually, citing faults in the country’s management of the funds.
Romania is an electoral democracy. Elections since 1991 have been considered generally free and fair. The directly elected president, who is not permitted to belong to a political party, does not have substantial powers beyond foreign policy. A 2004 constitutional reform set the presidential term at five years. The president appoints the prime minister with the approval of Parliament. Members of the bicameral Parliament, consisting of the 137-seat Senate and 334-seat Chamber of Deputies, are elected for four-year terms. New rules governing the 2008 parliamentary elections replaced the old party-list voting system with single-member districts, although all districts with no majority winner were allotted based on collective proportional representation.
The constitution grants a lower house seat to each national minority that passes a certain voting threshold, and 18 such seats were allotted in 2008. The UDMR has long represented the ethnic Hungarian minority, but for the first time in 12 years, it was left out of the ruling coalition in December 2008. Political participation and representation of Roma is very weak. Separately, for the first time since its 1992 founding, the ultranationalist Greater Romania Party won no seats in Parliament in 2008.
Romania stepped up its anticorruption efforts ahead of EU accession in January 2007. High-level corruption probes have improved, but EU progress reports in 2007 and July 2008 noted a pattern of weak or suspended sentences. A DNA study cited in the 2008 report found that 90 percent of defendants received the lowest possible sentence. Parliament has consistently undermined anticorruption agencies, in part by taking advantage of a rule requiring its approval for corruption probes of both current and former government ministers with Parliament seats. The Chamber of Deputies in August voted against lifting the immunity of former prime minister Adrian Nastase and former transport minister Miron Mitrea, though the Senate decided to allow the prosecution of Labor Minister Paul Pacuraru and former economy minister Codrut Seres. In September, the new National Integrity Agency (ANI), tasked with vetting public officials’ assets, issued its first request to seize the unexplained wealth of a former lawmaker. However, the agency lacked subpoena powers, among other tools. Romania was ranked 70 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index, with only Bulgaria scoring worse within the EU.
The constitution protects freedom of the press, and the media are characterized by considerable pluralism, though Romanian journalists often suffer verbal abuse and minor physical assaults. At least four reported receiving death threats in 2008. Government respect for media freedoms increased in the run-up to EU accession. However, in January 2007, the Constitutional Court struck down reforms that had decriminalized libel and defamation, effectively reinstating them in the penal code. In September 2007, Parliament appointed a former PSD official to head the public television station, raising concerns about political bias; private outlets remain heavily influenced by the political and economic interests of their owners. The Senate in June 2008 unanimously passed a measure requiring the media to balance negative news with an equal proportion of positive news, but the Constitutional Court quickly struck it down. In September, the president sued a journalist and the daily Cotidianul for an editorial accusing him of arranging an electoral deal between the PDL and the Greater Romania Party, though he was seeking only 100 lei ($40) in damages. The government doesnotrestrict access to the internet.
Religious freedom is generally respected, but “nontraditional” religious organizations encounter both difficulties in registering with the state and discrimination by some local officials and Orthodox priests. The government formally recognizes 18 religions, each of which is eligible for proportional state support. The Romanian Orthodox Church remains dominant and politically powerful. In December 2006, Parliament passed a law requiring all religions to have a membership equal to at least 0.1 percent of the population to be officially acknowledged. Moreover, nontraditional religions must undergo a 12-year “waiting period” prior to recognition. Vandalism aimed at religious minorities is not uncommon. The government does not restrict academic freedom, but the education system is weakened by unchecked corruption.
The constitution guarantees freedoms of assembly and association, and the government respects these rights in practice. The 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. Broad protests by workers seeking major wage increases grew as the November 2008 elections approached.
The judiciary is one of the most problematic institutions in Romania. Despite budgetary, staffing, and structural improvements, the July 2008 EU report found continued difficulties in filling judicial and prosecutorial vacancies, contradictory rulings by higher courts, and shortcomings in the performance of the Superior Council of Magistracy as a judicial disciplinary body. The report noted an increase in corruption probes within the police force, but said similar efforts in areas like health care and education were lacking. Conditions in Romanian 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. Roma, homosexuals, people with disabilities, and HIV-positive children and adults face discrimination in education, 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 concern. However, some law enforcement and victim-protection progress has been reported in recent years. According to various estimates, one-fifth to one-third of Romanian women have suffered domestic abuse at least once, and the criminal code does not provide for restraining orders. Abortion is permitted after 14 weeks of pregnancy only to save the woman’s life or in other extraordinary circumstances. Amid opposition from religious groups and many doctors, the government ruled in June 2008 that an 11-year-old rape and incest victim could have an abortion at 21 weeks, though the girl underwent the procedure in Britain in July.