On August 21, the Constitutional Court confirmed the results of the July 29 referendum, in which Romanians were asked to dismiss President Traian Basescu for failing to remain neutral, as the constitution requires, and for exceeding his powers as president by interfering in economic policy and other areas reserved for the prime minister. The court decision, which came with considerable but largely unjustified delay, acknowledged that 8.4 million of the 18,292,464 Romanians with the right to vote participated in the referendum. As many as 7.4 million (that is, 87.52%) voted against Basescu’s return. More importantly, the court noted that voter turnout amounted to 46.24% of all registered voters, short of the 50% plus one required by the referendum law[1]. According to amendments introduced in 2007 by the then ruling Democrat Liberals — and upheld in 2012 at the request of the European Union — the president was to be reinstated in all situations, except when the referendum was valid because turnout exceeded a simple majority and a majority of participants voted against Basescu. That rule did not apply in 2007, when Basescu was first impeached by his political archenemies — the Social Democrats, the Liberals, and the Conservatives[2].

As the referendum was organized during the summer, when many Romanians travel or vacation, surprising was not so much that turnout fell short of simple majority but that it was so close to it. Validation required only four additional percentage points, so the ruling Social Liberals – seeking to prevent Basescu’s return with all possible methods, however questionable — contested the referendum results. Their argument was that, in reality, turnout exceeded simple majority because the total number of registered voters was lower in 2012 than in 2002, the census year the Electoral Bureau considered when computing the referendum results. The government suggested that Romania’s population had constantly decreased after 2002, and therefore the total number of registered voters also shrank. To use the 2002 data in 2012, the Social Liberals said, meant to unfairly decrease the turnout rate on the basis of a larger, but non-existent, electoral mass. Romania’s total population diminished from 22.81 million in 1992 to 21.68 million in 2002 and 19.04 million in 2011[3]. However, the number of Romanians living abroad and of registered Romanian voters constantly increased over the same time period. Whereas in 1992 most Romanian citizens lived within the borders of Romania, in 2011 over one million lived abroad permanently. The number of registered voters increased from 16.380.663 in 1992 to 18.200.722 in 2012, as Romania’s population aged, fewer children were born (and thus the number of non-voting minors decreased), and scores of non-nationals of Romanian descent acquired citizenship[4].

Regardless of how much smaller these totals were in 2012 than in 2002, the fact remains that the Social Liberals sought to change the rules after the game. Concerns about the number of registered voters were largely valid, but they should have been raised before, not after, the referendum. As the 2011 census data are yet to be released, local elections were held on June 10, 2012 on the basis of the 2002 data. The government raised no objection when those election results were made public. Its calls to erase the citizens living abroad or those with expired identity cards from the lists of registered voters proved preoccupation with blocking the confirmation of referendum results, and thus delaying Basescu’s reinstatement, more than with the quality of Romanian democracy, since the right to vote is not restricted by residency or card validity. The government’s objections to the legitimacy of the referendum results were strong enough to convince at least some Constitutional Court judges to delay the confirmation of results and thus place the country in a constitutional limbo. Still un-elucidated events involving the sending of an unauthorized letter from the Court to the government, the organization of a largely self-serving mini-referendum by the government, together with a series of contradictory statements made by justices, unnecessarily radicalized the pro-Basescu and pro-government camps.

The Court decision might have settled the battle between the Social Liberal government and Basescu in favor of the impeached president, but the war is far from over. Basescu can return only after the decision is read to Parliament. Thus, he will have to wait in a political context where every delay means a small victory for the government. In addition, Basescu’s return places him in a delicate position. Notwithstanding his insistence that the Court decision strengthened rule of law, it also weakened Romanian democracy and Basescu’s legitimacy. First, his return resulted not from the support of a majority of voters but from a legal artifice that invalidated the referendum based on turnout, a first in Romania. The validity condition echoes requirements imposed in other European Union states like Italy, but Romanian voters seem unable to grasp the concept, as the 2007 referendum – the only one they were part of and with which they compare the 2012 impeachment exercise — did not include it. Second, the 46% turnout was too close to simple majority for a politician to claim to speak in the name of “the people,” as Basescu does. The four percentage points needed for validation will likely haunt Basescu for the remainder of his political career. Third, focus on turnout loses sight of the referendum results, which were overwhelmingly against the impeached president. Not only that the number of voters who turned against him in 2012 (7.4 million) far exceeded the number that supported his presidential bid in 2009 (5.2 million in the second round), it exceeded support levels gathered by all Romanian post-communist presidents after 1990. Ironically, this year Basescu brought Romanians together against him in record numbers, something he has tried to avoid since first assuming the presidential office in 2004. Fourth, calls for non-participation in the referendum allowed for his return, but are bound to have long-lasting effects in a country affected by low voter turnout, rampant political apathy, and chronic distrust of politicians. Political parties will likely have a hard time to convince Romanians to participate in future election polls.

The referendum proved how sharply isolated the president remains on the political scene. Basescu has won international support for his commitment to budgetary discipline and rapprochement with the United States, but has been criticized by Romanians for an allegedly cronyish leadership style, protection of corrupt Democrat Liberal ministers (Monica Iacob-Ridzi and Elena Udrea, among many), close cooperation with undemocratic state institutions (the armed forces and the intelligence services), and willingness to use state and party resources to advance the political career of his daughter, currently a European Parliament member. Basescu has taken pride in being a “man of the people,” but he won the presidency in 2004 and 2009 only in the second round, with a small advantage over the other candidates (245,000 and 70,000 votes, respectively, both far smaller than what Ion Iliescu obtained in 1992 and 2000 and Emil Constantinescu got in 1996). Basescu’s aggressive leadership style (which sought to turn semi-presidential Romania into a fully presidential republic by strengthening the powers of the executive at the expense of the legislative), and Machiavellian politics (designed to benefit his Democrat Liberal collaborators in all circumstances, even by forging allies with his political rivals, proposing the unconstitutional extension of the mandates of elected public officials, and reneging on his electoral commitments) have sharply reduced his support base. Today, he can count only on the support of the Democrat Liberal Party, the Group for Social Dialogue, the New Republic Party, the Christian Democrat Foundation, and the Center-Rights Civic Initiative.

These parties and civic groups represent insignificant electoral segments. The eclectic and elitist Group for Social Dialogue, sympathetic to the philosopher-king model, gathers mainly intellectuals and has little echo outside Bucharest. The newly-formed New Republic Party is devoid of a real support base, lacks a coherent socioeconomic platform, and is led by a young theologian who publicly voiced sympathy for the inter-war fascist organization, the Iron Guard[5]. This formation might win the votes of the conservative, right-wing youth, but it is likely to never grow into a strong pro-democratic actor. The Christian Democrat Foundation is led by theologian Teodor Baconschi, the Minister of Foreign Affairs who was removed by Democrat Liberal Prime Minister Emil Boc in January 2012 for his comments derogatory toward anti-government protesters. The Foundation, which takes inspiration from conservative pro-life evangelicals and the late Orthodox Metropolitan of Transylvania Valeriu Anania, draws support from the conservative Inter group, which is critical of everyone who questions the political views of the Orthodox Church. The Civic Initiative is a new vehicle promoting the presidential ambitions of former Prime Minister Mihai-Razvan Ungureanu (February-April 2012). Groomed as Basescu’s potential successor, Ungureanu is seen by some Romanians as an unlikely presidential candidate, given his elitism, slight arrogance, and stint as head of the External Information Service, heir to the foreign espionage branch of the communist political police, the notorious Securitate. His prime ministerial mandate was marked by a series of faux pas that served as ammunition to his political rivals. The New Republic, the Foundation, and the Civic Initiative have been funded by the Democrat Liberals, eager to revamp their public image before the upcoming parliamentary elections[6].

Of course, none of these small groups would matter much if the Democrat Liberals were in better shape. But they are not, as shown by the massive losses they sustained in June. After the Democrat Liberals joined the opposition in April, their most unpopular leaders have kept out of public sight. The party supported Basescu’s referendum campaign, but the leaders closest to the president did not accompany him in his meetings with the electorate. Instead, Vasile Blaga, Monica Macovei, Cristian Preda, and Cristian Boureanu became the party voice, briefing journalists and participating in talk shows. Blaga, a seasoned politician who occupied several top state positions after 1989, wrested the party leadership in June from Basescu’s most loyal collaborators, Udrea included. While young and energetic, Boureanu is a traseist who started his political career under Liberal colors and the subject of a 2008 criminal investigation for signing a contract detrimental to Loteria Romana[7]. European Parliament members Macovei and Preda are known for calling the party to support clean candidates, and being completely ignored by the pro-Basescu party leaders, who supported controversial candidates in the local elections[8]. It is unlikely that Macovei and Preda will carry much weight if the Democrat Liberals return to their former glory and form the government again. While the Social Liberals take comfort in knowing that Basescu is isolated, the president also draws support from Romanians who do not like him much, but are disgusted by the reckless politics the government pursued over this summer.

Political stability is nowhere in sight, as there is seemingly little willingness on the part of the president and the government to cohabitate. Immediately after the Court decision was made public, interim President Crin Antonescu, one of the Social Democrat Union co-leaders, suggested that Basescu could be impeached again[9]. The government of Prime Minister Victor Ponta has demonstrated willingness to ignore the country’s problems and focus resources exclusively on undermining the president, even at the risk of damaging the country’s international standing and weakening the Romanian currency. There are no guarantees that after the December 2 parliamentary elections Basescu will accept a government formed by the Social Liberals, if they do not win a clear majority of seats. In 2008 and 2009 he rejected government formulas that did not include his Democrat Liberals, although the constitution does not specifically allow the president to choose among possible cabinet slates and calls on the president to represent all Romanians, not only the party that supported his presidential bid. More alarmingly, the unprecedented rhetorical war now separates not only Basescu from the government but also their many supporters – journalists, television talk show hosts, bloggers, and anonymous contributors of comments to newspaper articles, all aligned to one camp or the other. Close to 25 years after the collapse of the communist regime, Romanians seem more divided than ever along what amount to personality, not policy, lines.

[1] Andi Manciu, “Decizia CCR privind referendumul – comunicatul oficial al Curţii Constituţionale,” ZF Politica, 21 August 2012, available at: http://www.zf.ro/politica/decizia-ccr-privind-referendumul-comunicatul-oficial-al-curtii-constitutionale-9966636. The decision is available at: http://www.adevarul.ro/actualitate/politica/%20http://www.adevarul.ro/Motivarea_CC_de_invalidarea_a_referendumului_pentru_demiterea_lui_Traian_Basescu_ADVFIL20120822_0001.pdf.
[2] Lavinia Stan and Razvan Zaharia, “Romania,” European Journal of Political Research, vol. 47 (2008), pp. 1115–1126. Voter turnout was 44.46% in 2007. Some 6,059,315 Romanians voted for Basescu’s return that year.
[3] For 1992 and 2002 figures, see Principalii indicatori ai recensamintelor populatiei si locuintelor din anii 1992 si 2002, July 2003, available at: http://www.insse.ro/cms/files/rpl2002rezgen1/1.pdf. For the 2012 figure, see Comunicat de presa 2 februarie 2012 privind rezultatele provizorii ale Recensământului Populaţiei şi Locuinţelor – 2011, 2 February 2012, available at: http://www.insse.ro/cms/files%5Cstatistici%5Ccomunicate%5Calte%5C2012%5CComunicat%20DATE%20PROVIZORII%20RPL%202011.pdf.
[4] The 1992 data is available at: http://ro.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alegeri_preziden%C8%9Biale_%C3%AEn_Rom%C3%A2nia,_1992.
[5] Mihail Neamtu, Zeitgeist: tipare culturale si conflicte ideologice (Bucharest: Curtea Veche, 2010), pp. 120-126 tries to explain away those sympathies as a youthful mistake, and Andreea Ciobanu, “Mihail Neamțu: Am fost prins de suflul romantic din jurul Mișcării Legionare, în adolescență,” Adevarul, 31 August 2012, http://www.adevarul.ro/actualitate/Mihail_Neamtu-_Am_fost_prins_de_suflul_romantic_din_jurul_Miscarii_Legionare-in_adolescenta_0_765523446.html. His supporters consider Neamtu’s Iron Guard sympathies as a harmless youthful inclination.
[6] According to the Romanian press, as early as 2011 the Democrat Liberals decided that the only way to win the 2012 elections was under the banner of a new center-right electoral alliance that would also include the Christian Democrats and a number of new political formations.
[7] “Cristian Boureanu audiat la DNA in Dosarul Loteria,” Romania Libera, 6 May 2008, available at: http://www.romanialibera.ro/actualitate/eveniment/cristian-boureanu-audiat-la-dna-in-dosarul-loteria-video-123901.html.
[8] Cristina Campeanu, “Udrea declanşează prigoana intelectualilor în PDL,” Romania Libera, 3 April 2012, available at: http://www.romanialibera.ro/actualitate/politica/udrea-declanseaza-prigoana-intelectualilor-in-pdl-259440.html.
[9] “Antonescu, despre o nouă suspendare a lui Băsescu: “Fără doar şi poate”,” Antena 3, 21 August 2012, available at: http://www.antena3.ro/politica/antonescu-despre-o-noua-suspendare-a-lui-basescu-fara-doar-si-poate-180975.html. Antena 3 is an anti-Basescu television station.