Year 2012 brought unprecedented political instability in Romania, the poorest and most corrupt country in the European Union. First, in January Romanians took to the streets to protest the removal of popular physician Raed Arafat, who founded an effective emergency response system in a country where few programs really work[1], but was publicly humiliated by President Traian Basescu, a sea captain with no medical training. Protests soon turned against the austerity measures imposed by the cabinet of Democrat Liberal Prime Minister Emil Boc in 2009-11, as a result of which thousands of public servants (including teachers) lost their jobs or saw their meager salaries slashed by 25 percent. The Constitutional Court nixed an earlier government proposal to cut pensions, so the cabinet added another contribution retired people had to make to the national budget. Austerity helped Romania to avoid Greece’s fate, but disproportionally affected ordinary citizens, not the powerful business lobbies close to the Democrat Liberals, who had ruled the country since 2008 under the leadership of Prime Minister Emil Boc, with the help of the Social Democrats until 2009 and then of the euphemistically titled National Union for the Progress of Romania. The anti-government protesters alluded to this when they chanted: “Sorry, we cannot produce as much as you steal!” (Ne scuzati, nu producem cat furati!)[2].

The global financial crisis was a time of prosperity for well-connected politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen. The Accounts Court unveiled unprecedented waste in the local and central government during 2009 and 2010, at a time when politicians preached austerity, but practiced gluttony[3]. According to their asset declarations, Boc’s cabinet ministers became richer during their mandates[4]. Construction companies registered record profits from public tenders. Since joining the European Union, Romania has been unable to access structural funds, so its contribution to the EU purse has far exceeded its gains from it. The little money that was accessed had to be matched by impoverished local governments, a requirement that made a dire situation worse. According to the press, some of the accessed funds went to unnecessary destinations, including building swimming pools and skating rings in localities lacking basic water and sewage systems[5]. Well-connected firms were allowed to accumulate huge public debts, which the state Agency for Financial Administration could not recover because those firms declared bankruptcy[6]. The head of the Agency, Democrat Liberal Sorin Blejnar, was later indicted for his multiple crimes. Prime Minister Boc did little to curb waste of public money, to rid his cabinet of controversial ministers close to rich business groups, or to explain the origin of his collaborators’ wealth and his government’s decision to protect only some categories of the population.

In the face of the cabinet’s denial that protests were legitimate, the Democrat Liberals had to save themselves from their own government. The power struggle within the party — which pitted the discredited Boc faction (representing politicians close to President Basescu) against supporters of Vasile Blaga (a former Senate Speaker, Minister of Tourism and Regional Development, and Minister of Interior) — was settled in favor of Blaga. Boc, probably Romania’s weakest post-communist prime minister, had to resign together with his entire cabinet. It was hoped that the move, which signaled the Democrat Liberals’ willingness to take popular concerns to heart, will allow the party to reinvent itself before the November parliamentary elections by proposing another cabinet untainted by corruption allegations and association with the unpopular austerity measures. At Basescu’s proposal, on February 9 Mihai Razvan Ungureanu, former Minister of Foreign Affairs and current head of the External Information Service, heir to the foreign espionage branch of the notorious Securitate, formed a new cabinet.

Hailed as a possible presidential candidate and successor to Basescu, the young and well educated Ungureanu could neither implement a coherent governance program to appease the impoverished masses nor bring together the increasingly divided and unsure-of-themselves Democrat Liberals. In a highly controversial move, Ungureanu disbursed as much as 170 million Euros to mayors from the prime minister’s special fund, although both he and Boc had insisted that state coffers were empty and therefore public servants’ wages could not return to 2009 levels. As 95 percent of the money went to Democrat Liberal mayors[7], the fund allocation was driven by party concerns not local needs. The move amounted to the unofficial start of the campaign for local elections in the summer and parliamentary elections in the fall. Instead of giving the Democrat Liberal Party an advantage over the opposition, the fund allocation led to a dramatic political reconfiguration when deputies and senators of the government crossed the floor to the opposition, in an effort to gain seniority in the parties most likely to win the upcoming parliamentary elections. Some of these political migrants (traseisti) had joined the government by abandoning the opposition sometime after 2008. Others were long-term Democrat Liberals dissatisfied with the intra-party fighting between Basescu’s and Blaga’s supporters.

Thus, by the time the opposition introduced a motion of no-confidence, the Ungureanu cabinet had lost the backing of a majority in parliament[8]. On April 27, Ungureanu was ousted after only 77 days of unremarkable premiership, when the motion passed with 235 votes for and nine against. The fall of his cabinet spread fear and apathy among the Democrat Liberals, who lost the desire to fight and propose another candidate for the post. As a consequence, President Basescu grudgingly agreed to validate the Social Liberal cabinet of Victor Ponta, without either one of them fully anticipating the ensuing political problems. For the first time, post-communist Romania faced cohabitation between a president and a government of different ideological colors. In a country with low social capital levels, and high levels of distrust among ordinary citizens and among politicians, cohabitation spelled disaster by translating into complete institutional deadlock and an open winner-takes-all battle.

In more ways than one, the Social Liberal Union is an odd and unlikely electoral alliance. Its main partner, the leftist Social Democrats, represents the conservative faction of the Salvation Front, which claimed victory in the 1989 revolution. That cri de liberte was disingenuous, since the Front was the main heir to the Communist Party it pretended to defeat. In all post-communist elections the Social Democrats gained the largest number of votes among individual parties. After briefly governing together with the Democrat Liberals in 2008-2009, the Social Democrats partnered with the Liberal Party, against which President Basescu waged an open battle in 2004-2008 although the Liberals supported his 2004 presidential bid. The Liberals have remained Romania’s only significant “historical” party, and played an important political role in pre-communist Romania, but their current political platform has few “liberal” dimensions. After being outlawed by the communists, the formation officially re-registered during the 1989 revolution, retaining parliamentary representation ever since. The Social Democrats and the Liberals are strongly divided by their ideological and policy preferences, but will stay united as long as they see Basescu and the Democrat Liberals as their common enemies.

The Ponta cabinet was supposed to serve as a caretaker government tasked with organizing the 2012 local and general elections. Its mandate (May-November 2012) was too short to adopt significant policies, so failure to enact meaningful reforms would have been brushed aside as unavoidable by a population eager for political change. Its Democrat Liberal predecessors were so unpopular that, by comparison, the Social Liberals could have won the people’s hearts by simply doing nothing. Judging from their actions, however, Ponta and his cabinet were keen to totally destroy the Democrat Liberals and Basescu, not govern the country. Paradoxically, they got involved in a political battle and spent a lot of effort for little political gain – the local elections of June 10 showed the clear handicap of the Democrat Liberals, while the unpopular Basescu was serving his second and last presidential mandate and had already declared his intention to withdraw from the political scene at the end of his mandate[9]. The situation got out of control when the Social Democrat Union decided to push their rivals off the cliff.

Two different events apparently radicalized Ponta and his Social Liberal allies and convinced them of Basescu’s Janus-faced strategy of publicly preaching cohabitation while covertly delegitimizing the new government. First, shortly after his investiture, Prime Minister Ponta was publicly denounced for plagiarism in his doctoral thesis, defended in 2003 at the Law Faculty of the University of Bucharest. Basescu and the Democrat Liberals called for Ponta’s resignation and tried to gain political capital from the incident, even sponsoring the publication of an anti-Ponta note in the international journal Nature[10]. It was odd that Ponta’s plagiarism was unveiled only after his nomination as prime minister. According to Romanian academics, many politicians have gained academic titles through unorthodox methods. Their names, although known, are publicly released only when their rivals could gain political capital from discrediting those who plagiarize. Basescu’s supporters insisted that a prime minister who stole words could very well steal something else, and that Ponta should follow the examples of German Defence Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg and Hungarian President Pal Schmitt and tender his resignation. However, average Romanians did not understand what plagiarism meant, and so they dismissed the charge as another worthless battle waged by Bucharest politicians, the more so since Ponta’s accusers remained oblivious to similar charges levied against Democrat Liberal nominees and the University of Bucharest adamantly rejected the need for a comprehensive review of its academically questionable doctoral program.

Second, on June 20 the judges condemned Social Democrat leader Adrian Nastase, a potential Social Democrat presidential candidate in 2014, to a two years prison term for embezzling funds. Nastase stands accused for corruption in numerous other cases that the courts are yet to hear. The flamboyant Nastase, who likes to hunt rare animals and to collect objects d’art, made a fortune while serving as prime minister from 2000 to 2004, when he also severely restricted the liberty of the press, cracked down on outspoken civil society members, and sponsored the selling of Romanian orphans for adoption by foreign couples. Nastase, the only post-communist head of government ever sentenced in Romania, resisted his arrest, and thus missed the chance to make a convincing case for good behavior that would reduce his prison term to eight months[11]. In a telenovela-like incident that is currently investigated by the courts, Nastase staged his suicide, wrote good-bye letters to his family, and then was taken out of his house on a stretcher with a Burberry scarf around his neck. The official story was that he shot himself, but missed, and the scarf was covering the wound. His arrest represented a serious blow for himself and his party.

We might never know when the decision to impeach President Basescu was taken, and by who. What is certain is that the Social Democrats made several strategic but legally untenable moves in this direction with dizzying speed. On July 1, the government decided to transfer the State Gazette (Monitorul Oficial) under its jurisdiction. Laws, decrees, decisions, and ordinances enter into force only after their publication in the gazette, whose timing the government could decide in its own advantage. On July 3, the Democrat Liberal Ombudsman Gheorghe Iancu was revoked for no legitimate reason. This public official could ask the Constitutional Court to review the constitutionality of governmental decisions such as those on the president’s impeachment. That same day, the Social Liberal parliamentary majority asked for the removal of the Democrat Liberal Speakers of the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate, who were shortly afterwards replaced by two Social Liberal legislators. The Speakers play a key role in deciding the agenda of Parliament. On July 4, a governmental ordinance restricted the role of the Constitutional Court to examine governmental decisions, including the one on the Ombudsman[12]. The following day, the Social Liberals submitted to parliament a 20-page request to indict Basescu for undermining democracy, infringing the separation of powers and the independence of the judiciary, and creating tensions between the presidency and the government. None of these reasons amounted to the “grave infringement of the Constitution” stipulated by law, but the Constitutional Court validated the decision to impeach the president and to hold a referendum for the people to decide whether the president can return to Cotroceni. On July 6, parliament voted for the impeachment, after an earlier law declared the referendum valid if 50 percent plus one of all those who cast a vote take a stand against Basescu. Following international pressure, the validation criterion was changed – the referendum was to become valid only if 50 percent plus one of all registered voters participated in it.

The referendum of July 29 was inconclusive. Partial estimates suggested that 46.2 percent of all Romanian voters participated in the referendum. Of them, as many as 87.5 percent voted against the impeached president[13]. Basescu rushed to claim victory, insisting that the referendum was invalid and suggesting that his many supporters had yielded to his advice to boycott the vote. If the Constitutional Court approves the referendum results, then Basescu will return to the presidency as a much weakened president, against the wishes of 7.4 million Romanians who, on July 29, voted against him. That number exceeds the 5.2 million voters who chose Basescu over Social Democrat Mircea Geoana in the second round of the 2009 presidential elections and represents the highest number of Romanians who ever rallied against any politician since 1989[14]. In turn, Ponta also claimed victory and pointed to the very high percentage of voters who opposed Basescu, although voter turnout was insufficient for validation. The Social Liberals asked for voter turnout to be computed based on the 2011, not the 2002 census, as they expected the referendum participants to represent a higher percentage of the total number of registered voters. It is believed that Romania’s total population has decreased in the last decade. The request — which would have made sense if made before, not after, the vote –delays the confirmation of referendum results and calls for a change in the rules of the game that gives an unfair advantage to the government.

In short, Basescu is now in an untenable position. If not returning to Cotroceni, he and his Democrat Liberals lose the only power leverage they have in the face of an inimical electoral alliance that seems bent on establishing its control over the state machinery by disregarding procedure and the rule of law. This does not bode well for the fragile Romanian democracy, even if the Social Liberals might win a landslide parliamentary victory in November. If returning to Cotroceni, Basescu will give a lethal blow not only to his moribund Democrat Liberals but also to all newly created center-right formations that have gravitated around him during the referendum campaign. It is likely that the 7.4 million Romanians over whose heads Basescu returns to Cotroceni will unite against his allies in the November elections by giving their vote to the Social Liberals.

Notes:
[1] “Romania reinstates Raed Arafat after protests,” BBC News, 17 January 2012, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-16600965.
[2] Andreea Stefan, “Sloganul face stirea. In cat timp ajunge o pancarta pe ecranele TV,” DailyBusiness.ro, 20 January 2012, http://www.dailybusiness.ro/stiri-media-marketing/sloganul-face-stirea-in-cat-timp-ajunge-o-pancarta-pe-ecranele-tv-72945/.
[3] Romania Curtea de Conturi, Raport public pe anul 2009, January 2011, http://www.curteadeconturi.ro/sites/ccr/RO/Publicatii/Documente%20publice/Raport%20public%202009.pdf, and Raport public pe anul 2010, January 2012, http://www.curteadeconturi.ro/sites/ccr/RO/Publicatii/Documente%20publice/Raportul%20public%20pe%20anul%202010.pdf.
[4] For Minister of Tourism Elena Udrea, for example, the declarations are posted at http://www.cdep.ro/pls/parlam/structura.mp?idm=313&leg=2008&pag=5. For Udrea’s ties to President Basescu and her contribution to weakening the Democrat Liberals, see Andreea Pora, “Elena Udrea, colivareaza PDL,” Revista 22, 3 April 2012, http://www.revista22.ro/elena-udrea-colivareasa-pdl-14116.html.
[5] Prime Minister Mihai Razvan Ungureanu criticized as wasteful the use of public funds and pledged to discontinue the construction of swimming pools in poor villages. “Mihai Răzvan Ungureanu: Nu suntem o ţară de înotători, nu am o mare apetenţă pentru piscine săpate în diferite localităţi,” Romania libera, 5 March 2012, http://www.romanialibera.ro/actualitate/politica/mihai-razvan-ungureanu-nu-suntem-o-tara-de-inotatori-nu-am-o-mare-apetenta-pentru-piscine-sapate-in-diferite-localitati-255970.html.
[6] See Raport de Audit incheiat la Agentia Nationala de Administrare Fiscala Auditul performantei privind colectarea impozitelor si taxelor cuvenite bugetului public pentru perioada 2007-2010, Bucharest, 2012, http://www.scribd.com/doc/99784108/Document-2012-05-29-12382955-0-Sinteza-Raport-Audit-Anaf-Colectare.
[7] Clara Volintiru, “The Institutionalization of the Romanian Political System,” paper presented at the International Congress of the Society for Romanian Studies, Sibiu, 2-4 July 2012.
[8] For the motion of no-confidence, see Motiunea de cenzura: “Opriti guvernul santajabil, Asa nu, niciodata,” 18 April 2012, http://www.cdep.ro/motiuni/2012/1468.pdf.
[9] Some 60.7 percent of Romanian voters participated in the local elections. Of the 41 mandates for County Council President, the Social Liberal Union gained 35, the Democrat Liberals and the Democrat Union of Magyars 2 each, whereas the Conservatives and the National Union for the Progress of Romania 1 each. Of the 41 mandates of mayors of county capitals, the Social Liberal Union gained 27 (of which 18 went to the Social Democrats), the Democrat Liberals 10. See Cristian Andrei and Sorina Ionasc, “Alegeri locale 2012, rezultate finale,” Gandul, 12 June 2012, http://www.gandul.info/politica/alegeri-locale-2012-rezultate-finale-noua-harta-politica-a-romaniei-cine-a-castigat-in-orasul-tau-9735306.
[10] Quirin Schiermeier, “Romanian prime minister accused of plagiarism,” Nature, 18 June 2012, http://www.nature.com/news/romanian-prime-minister-accused-of-plagiarism-1.10845.
[11] Alina Grigoras, “Dr. Bradisteanu, three police officers to face prosecution in Nastase case,” Nine O’Clock, 26 June 2012, http://www.nineoclock.ro/dr-bradisteanu-three-police-officers-to-face-prosecution-in-nastase-case/.
[12] Andrei Astefanesei and Sorin Ghica, “Curtea Constitutionala, blocata prin ‘abuz de putere’,” Adevarul, 4 July 2012, http://www.adevarul.ro/actualitate/eveniment/Curtea_Constitutionala-blocata_prin_-abuz_de_putere_0_730727340.html.
[13] Biroul Electoral Central, Comunicat privind rezultatele partiale ale referendumului national din data de 29 iulie 2012 pentru demiterea Presedintelui Romaniei, 30 July 2012, http://www.becreferendum2012.ro/DOCUMENTE%20BEC/Rezultate%20partiale/ora%2014.00.pdf, and Mihai Voinea and Andrei Astefanesei, “Traian Basescu, presedintele Nordului,” Adevarul, 30 July 2012, http://www.adevarul.ro/actualitate/eveniment/Traian_Basescu-presedintele_Nordului_0_746325670.html.
[14] Lavinia Stan and Razvan Zaharia, “Romania,” European Journal of Political Research, vol. 49, no. 7 (December 2010), pp. 1139-1153.

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