By Paul Ciocoiu
Romanians will vote July 29th in a national referendum on the presidency of Traian Basescu, who could be removed from office after being impeached last week by parliament on allegations that he overstepped his authority.
The impeachment, the latest chapter in a struggle between Basescu and Prime Minister Victor Ponta, raises new questions about the stability of Romania’s democracy and prompted messages of concern from the EU.
Basescu was impeached on Friday (July 6th) in a 256-114 vote of parliament, which is dominated by Ponta’s party, the Social Liberal Union (USL). Romania’s president for eight years, Basescu is accused of overstepping his constitutional prerogatives and interfering with the government’s activity.
Critics accuse him of turning Romania intro a de facto presidential regime, bringing the population into poverty by enforcing unpopular austerity measures and making racist remarks against Roma and disabled people. He was suspended for 30 days, while new Senate Speaker Crin Antonescu serves as interim president.
Basescu rejected the accusations in a speech shortly before parliament’s vote. “I have a clear conscience I did my duty to my country and my people,” he said.
Basescu has been at odds with the USL and Ponta — Romania’s third prime minister this year — since Ponta assumed power in May. The party last week also removed the speakers of the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies, both who were Basescu’s allies, and changed the constitution to allow Basescu to be removed by a simple majority of votes cast in the national referendum, rather than by a majority of registered voters.
The new, lesser standard will make it more difficult for Basescu to keep his job. Basescu withstood an impeachment referendum in 2007 but is far less popular now, in part because of the nation’s weak economy.
The impeachment vote was led by the Social Liberal Union, headed by Prime Minister Victor Ponta. [Gabriel Petrescu/SETimes]
The EU has expressed concern, particularly as the USL also changed the ombudsman and tried to oust judges of the Constitutional Court, the highest court in the country, whom it accused of siding with Basescu. Both the decision to impeach Basescu and the results of the referendum must be validated by the nine judges of the court.
Ponta also moved to decrease the powers of the Constitutional Court, which has the last say on laws passed by parliament.
A wave of criticism followed from EU and the US, calling on authorities in Bucharest to ensure the rule of law and independence of the judiciary and threatening the new developments could even affect Romania’s trailing efforts to join Schengen. Amid the political tensions which put on hold the decision-making process amid a feeble economic recovery, the national currency hit a record low against the euro.
“It is likely that events will soon prove the correctness of Mr. Basescu’s observation, made on Tuesday, that his dismissal is only a stage in an attempt to crush the independent spirit of the justice system,” Tom Gallagher, professor of East European politics at the University of Bradford in Northern England, told SETimes.
The effects of such actions will be visible soon, Gallagher said.
“I think the government will face growing opposition once it is clear that Romania is likely to pay a heavy and growing economic cost for flouting basic democratic norms in a way not seen anywhere else in democratic Europe for many years,” he said. “Stability will prove elusive for Ponta and his allies.”
Some seemed baffled by the political maneuvers.
“I am not a fan of Basescu, but to suspend him for passing austerity measures at a time when the whole Europe is engrossed in crisis seems a bad joke to me,” Dumitru Staroste, a teacher in Bucharest, told SETimes. “And that takes me to the unfortunate conclusion that the new generation of Romanian politicians is deeply rooted in the same old diseases all the post-communist leaders suffered from.”