On 29 July 2012, post-communist Romania held a referendum to decide whether Democrat-Liberal President Traian Basescu could return to Cotroceni, the presidential headquarters, after being impeached by a parliamentary majority composed of the Social Democrats and the National Liberals (together representing the electoral Social Liberal Union, the USL), the Conservative Party (a pocket-size formation led by the controversial businessman and former Securitate agent Dan Voiculescu), and the National Union for the Progress of Romania (whose creation in 2010 by a handful of Social Democrat defectors was enthusiastically encouraged by the then ruling Democrat-Liberals). The referendum was invalid due to lack of quorum. Voter turnout was only 46 percent, not 50 percent plus one of all registered voters, as the law stipulated[1]. Even before the official results were announced, Basescu and the Democrat Liberals, who asked Romanians to boycott the vote, celebrated their victory: Basescu’s return to Cotroceni. Subsequent events proved they celebrated too early.

It is uncertain when exactly the ruling Social Liberals and Conservatives decided to impeach the president. According to Basescu and his supporters, the decision was taken in April, when the Social Liberals formed the government under the leadership of Prime Minister Victor Ponta. Following this scenario, impeachment was insistently advocated by Conservative leader Voiculescu, as revenge for Basescu’s return to Cotroceni after the 2007 referendum (which followed another impeachment of the same president), and by Liberal leader Crin Antonescu, the Social Liberal designated candidate for the presidential elections of 2014. The impeachment had little to do with Basescu’s performance as president and eminence gris of the Democrat Liberal governments of Emil Boc and Mihai Razvan Ungureanu of 2008-2012, and everything to do with a personal vendetta waged by corrupt, oligarchic politicians eager to turn public attention away from their own incompetence and involvement in corruption scandals. It therefore amounted to a “coup d’etat,” Romania’s sure “return to totalitarianism,” a “renunciation of democratic principles,” an “apocalypse” perpetrated by “rhinoceros” bent on turning Romania into a “prison camp,” and a sure sign of “political paranoia”[2].

According to Basescu’s critics, the impeachment was called for by the president’s long-term divide et impera strategy, which had radicalized Romanian political discourse. The president had systematically failed to act as “mediator” between the government and the opposition, as the Constitution required, and instead openly sided with the Democrat Liberals, whom he defended against all odds, often with the risk of delegitimizing his own public office by doing so. Some critics recalled his refusal in 2008 to install a government not backed by the Democrat Liberals, or his willingness to publicly announce the launch of austerity measures, although presidential constitutional prerogatives do not include economic issues. Criticisms extended to Basescu’s habit of intervening by phone into television talk-shows to publicly settle disputes. (One such intervention led to the January 2012 antigovernment protests.) Other critics referred to his meddling in the affairs of the judiciary, by phoning prosecutors and asking about the fate of selected cases or by publicly threatening his political rivals with being placed under investigation by prosecutors, threats that should have been vain if the judiciary were really independent. Still others pointed an accusatory finger to the plethora of self-interested politicians whose careers Basescu nurtured, not least his own daughter, Member of European Parliament Elena Basescu, his goddaughter, former Minister of Transportation Anca Boagiu, and his good friend, former presidential adviser and Minister of Tourism Elena Udrea[3].

However, it is likely that the impeachment reflected important shortcomings of the Romanian post-communist political system as much as the never-ending rivalry among individual politicians pursuing their own interests and willing to resort to the most extreme methods to undermine and delegitimize their political enemies. Ponta’s nomination marked the beginning of Romania’s first ever cohabitation between the center-leftist Social Liberal government and the center-right President Basescu, the real leader of the Democrat Liberals who ruled the country from 2008 to 2012. This cohabitation resulted from the refusal of the Democrat Liberals to nominate an alternate to Ungureanu, whose cabinet was unseated by the adoption of a motion of no-confidence on 27 April. Thus, cohabitation was the result neither of elections that would legitimize a president and a parliamentary majority of different ideological colors nor of parliamentary and presidential mandates of different lengths (four and five years, respectively), two situations in which these political actors would derive legitimacy from the popular vote.

Cohabitation has proved impossible because the Romanian semi-presidential system — where a directly elected president must work with a cabinet supported by directly elected parliamentary majorities — does not clearly divide powers within the executive. For example, the president has foreign policy powers that overlap with those of cabinet members. It is no accident that tensions between President Basescu and Prime Minister Ponta first emerged in that area, when both of them claimed the right to represent Romania at the June Council of Europe meeting. Further, it is no accident that the Social Liberals tried to gain political capital by publicly disclosing the unlawful promotion in military rank of thousands of politicians and journalists by the Boc and Ungureanu cabinets and suggesting that those promotions had Basescu’s tacit approval, since the president has powers in matters of defense[4]. As long as the president and the prime minister represented the same coalition, their attributions were divided by a gentlemen’s agreement, as was the case in 1999, when President Emil Constantinescu openly conflicted with Prime Minister Radu Vasile. Such an agreement, however, was impossible to strike in 2012, given Basescu’s desire to continue to act as a powerful president (presedinte-jucator), although he had the support of only a minority of legislators, and the Social Liberals’ insistence that their unchecked parliamentary majority granted them exclusive political legitimacy and the right to speak in the name of the people, although the president, not the legislators, had been elected by a wider electorate.

According to Article 95 of the Constitution, the president can be suspended from office “in case of having committed grave acts infringing upon constitutional provisions” by the “majority vote of Deputies and Senators, and after consultation with the Constitutional Court.” On 5 July, the Social Liberal majority introduced in parliament a proposal for the suspension of President Basescu. The document claimed that after 2009 Romanian democracy had been constantly eroded by the “discretionary and unconstitutional concentration of powers in the hands of one person, the president,” who had dictated “the form and the adoption of laws” and thus sponsored “legislative chaos,” infringed the rule of law, seriously decreased living standards, prompted the bankruptcy of thousands of small businesses, and even “dissolved the middle class.” Basescu stood accused of assuming the powers of the prime minister, in defiance of the constitution[5]. That same day, the parliamentary majority rejected a Democrat Liberal plea to create a legislative commission for investigating the validity of the accusations, but agreed to send the suspension proposal to the Constitutional Court. Such a commission was created in 2007, when Basescu was first suspended. The Court was given 24 hours to respond, a move evidently designed to intimidate the judges. On 6 July, in the absence of a decision regarding the constitutionality of the suspension, the parliament voted against Basescu. That suspension decision was upheld three days later by the Constitutional Court[6]. A referendum was to decide whether Basescu could return to the presidency. Liberal leader Antonescu became Romania’s interim president.

This was preceded by highly controversial government decisions that cleared the way for Basescu’s removal: the replacement of the Ombudsman and of the parliamentary speakers with Social Liberals; the transfer of the State Gazette (Monitorul Oficial) under the cabinet’s jurisdiction; and the amendment of the referendum law by governmental ordinance. Therefore, some analysts hoped that the Constitutional Court would invalidate the referendum. In its decisions of 9 July, however, the Court established that the suspension did not infringe the basic law, although the charges against President Basescu fell short of the “grave acts” stipulated by the Constitution. Basescu’s petition, which outlined this point, was dismissed. The Court declared the referendum valid if a majority of registered voters participated in it, not if a majority of those who cast a vote thought that Basescu should not return to Cotroceni, as the ordinance read. This Court ruling annulled the ordinance, which abusively amended the referendum law, and set the validation bar higher than what the government desired, increasing Basescu’s chance to regain his office if many Romanians on summer holidays or working abroad did not vote. The Court further allowed voting centers to be opened on the referendum day from 7 am to 11 pm, longer than the schedule observed for both the 2012 local elections and the 2007 referendum.

The referendum campaign was short, but fiercely combative. The Social Liberals asked Romanians to vote against Basescu, “the dictator,” under whose rule Romanian could not live well, as he had promised in his presidential campaign, because he allowed his Democrat Liberals to implement the austerity measures that rendered Romanians ever so poor. The president was denounced as an “adventurer” who mocked the rule of law and democratic principles and was interested only in gaining power at all costs. In turn, Basescu labelled Ponta and the interim President Antonescu “monkeys” and impeachers (suspendaci) who protected corrupt politicians deserving to go to jail (puscariabili), disregarded the national interest, and were mocked internationally as pitiful plagiarists (an allusion to the plagiarism scandal centered on Prime Minister Ponta). He dismissed the motion of censure as “a defect of democracy” and the pro-impeachment parliamentary vote as a coup d’etat, though neither had been deemed unconstitutional by a Constitutional Court, and alleged that the Ponta government was taking orders from Russia, which sought to turn Romania into an undemocratic country.

The Social Liberals were able to summon to their side the national television station, together with the powerful mass-media trusts that controlled the Antena television stations, and newspapers like Jurnalul National and Cotidianul. Their viewpoint was also supported by the writers gathered around Observatorul Cultural. By contrast, Basescu relied on the help of the Group for Social Dialogue, a Bucharest-based intellectual society, the B1 television station, and newspapers like Romania Libera and Evenimentul Zilei. In his public meetings, Basescu was accompanied by Democrat Liberal leader Vasile Blaga and representatives of smaller political parties or organizations sponsored by the Democrat Liberals: the Civic Center-Right Initiative, led by Ungureanu, the New Republic Party of Mihail Neamtu, and the Christian-Democrat Foundation, represented by Adrian Papahagi. None of the controversial Democrat Liberal ex-ministers were present, though former Minister of Foreign Affairs Teodor Baconschi, dismissed in February for insulting the thousands of Romanians who protested against Basescu and the Democrat Liberal Boc government, was the Foundation leader. While insignificant in terms of total membership and regional presence, these organizations cater to the better educated but more conservative youth, whose distrust of larger parties, including the Democrat Liberals, have prevented them from participating in elections.

Successive opinion polls pointed to Basescu’s defeat, so his strategy changed toward the middle of the referendum campaign. Claiming that the potential for the government to rig the referendum was high, Basescu argued that his Democrat Liberals were unable to monitor a significant number of election centers and therefore the only way to prevent fraud was for his supporters to boycott the vote. If designed to minimize fraud, the strategy was logically untenable, since fewer votes could be rigged as effectively as many votes and voter absence could allow the government to unlawfully introduce anti-Basescu votes instead. If designed to permit his return to Cotroceni, the strategy placed Basescu in a corner, since it significantly skewed the vote against him and thus was bound to weaken his legitimacy. He would return to Cotroceni, but as a candidate backed by a fraction of the popular vote.

This is exactly what would happen, if the Constitutional Court accepts the referendum results for what they are. But after the vote the Ponta government contested the results, claiming that voter turnout had been erroneously calculated on the basis of the 2002 census, not of the 2011 count, which would have shown a drastically diminished total population[7]. According to the government, a smaller total population would mean that those who participated in the referendum account for a majority of registered voters. The stakes are high. If the referendum is valid because most registered voters participated in it, then Basescu cannot return to Cotroceni as over 85 percent of voters said no. If the referendum is invalid because voter turnout reached only 46 percent, then Basescu can re-assume the presidential post. The Court will announce its decision at the end of August.

[1] For the referendum results, see Biroul Electoral Central, Rezultatul referendumului national din data de 29 iulie 2012 pentru demiterea Presedintelui Romaniei, 1 August 2012, http://www.becreferendum2012.ro/DOCUMENTE%20BEC/Rezultate/rezultat.pdf.
[2] See the series of articles published in the 22 review, Romania Libera, Evenimentul Zilei, the Contributors.ro website, and the blogs of some of Basescu’s most vocal supporters.
[3] See the letter signed by 100 Romanian intellectuals and academics addressed to the European Union leaders. Stelian Nastase, Scrisoare catre Uniunea Europeana, Bruxelles, 23 July 2012, http://www.stelian-tanase.ro/la-zi/scrisoare-catre-uniunea-europeana-bruxelles/. The newspapers Jurnalul National and Cotidianul also took the side of the Social Liberal government.
[4] The president’s powers in foreign policy and defense are specified in Articles 91 and 92 of the Romanian Constitution, 2003, http://www.cdep.ro/pls/dic/site.page?id=371.
[5] For the reasons underlying the suspension, see “Sedinta comuna a Camerei Deputaţilor şi Senatului din 5 iulie 2012 (sesiune extraordinară),” 5 July 2012, http://www.cdep.ro/pls/steno/steno.stenograma?ids=7143&idm=3&idl=1.
[6] Cristian Pantazi, “Curtea Constitutionala a dat cistig de cauza USL: Basescu a fost suspendat legal, Crin Antonescu e presedinte interimar. Limitarea atributiilor CCR, declarata neconstitutionala,” Hotnews.ro, 9 July 2012, http://www.hotnews.ro/stiri-esential-12752296-sedinta-curtii-constitutionale-incheiat-fost-dezbatute-5-puncte-din-7.htm.
[7] Romania’s population reached 22.81 million in 1992 and 21.68 million in 2002. Cf. Populatia la recensamintele din anii 1948, 1956, 1966, 1977, 1992 si 2002 – judete si medii. In July 2011, the population, including Romanians living abroad, reached 21.35 million. See Comisia Centrala pentru Recensamantul Populatiei si al Locuintelor, Comunicat de presa privind rezultatele provizorii ale Recensamantului Populatiei si Locuintelor – 2011, 2 February 2012.