The Never Ending Referendum Friday, Aug 10 2012 

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.

Notes:
[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.

Hate during times of cholera – a brief recap of recent events in Romania Tuesday, Jul 31 2012 

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.

Hot Politics in Hot Bucharest Saturday, Jul 7 2012 

July 6, evening. I literally crawled to my hotel in Piata Rossetti after a hot day in dusty Baragan, and met face to face with three groups, each representing one of the main political options in today’s Romania. In front of Spitalul Coltea a small but dedicated group was playing opera to the delight of an enthusiastic but sweaty audience. Across the street, in front of Teatrul National and Universitatea Bucuresti, groups of retired and tired people, December 1989 “revolutionaries” and young women in skimpy skirts accompanied by young men spatting sunflower seeds were shouting, fist in the air, against President Traian Basescu. Nasty remarks were also made against my husband’s cousin, talk-show host Robert Turcescu, denounced as an uncritical servant of Basescu. This counter-demonstration was meant to intimidate a third group, gathered in Piata Victoriei, who showed support for the president and his embattled political allies, the Democrat-Liberals, with arguments ranging from vampire-repealing garlic garlands to complex explanations of the importance of rule of law in democracies.

As I slowly made my way through the crowd, I told myself that I was lucky to be able to meet, in my very short stay in Romania, the three main political groups dividing the country during this torrid July: those who were oblivious and indifferent to politics and who preferred to dedicate their time and effort to more worthy endeavours like listening to a high-pitched, poorly shaved Figaro; those who supported the political “right” represented by Traian Basescu and his Democrat-Liberals (PD-L), who had ruled the country from 2004 to April 2012 in increased isolation from the general public and the other political formations; and those who supported Basescu’s enemies, the “leftist” Social Liberal Union (USL) and the newly appointed government of Victor Ponta, an upstart politician young in looks but old in outlook.

During the time I spent in downtown Bucharest watching these groups and listening to them, I also saw how skin-deep their positions were, how they manipulated well-known symbols, and how little genuine dialogue they promoted. The opera show quickly degenerated into a heated vocal confrontation between the large-bellied, nervous Figaro and a blonde woman who constantly challenged him. Her interjections, which could not be heard by the audience, increasingly vexed the singer, who became irritated and abusive. As a result, he engaged in a long monologue that completely ignored the captive audience. Surely, opera does not necessarily make one more tolerant or wiser.

At Universitatea, the USL supporters had shamelessly confiscated the symbols of the December 1989 revolution, although the prime minister they supported represented the Social Democrats, heirs to the once hegemonic Romanian Communist Party, which tried to quash the revolution and at whose orders so many revolutionaries had been killed and wounded. Of course, I had to remind myself that the true revolutionaries of December 1989 were long dead and forgotten, and the “revolutionaries” of 2012 included former nomenklatura member Ion Iliescu as their chief representative. Through lies and deception, the former victimizer had claimed and obtained victim status, sidelining in the process other, more worthy anticommunist dissidents. What struck me when looking at the pro-USL crowd was the remarkable convergence of positions across generations – young and old people alike were supporting a mega-state that would give them handouts even in times of financial crisis.

At Piata Victoriei, we were told by a handful of young intellectuals that Basescu and his Democrat-Liberals had sacrificed themselves to save the country from Greece’s fate and had strengthened the rule of law against the ubiquitous Social Democrat oligarchy. While daring and vocal, none of these voices had any following within the party’s rank and file. Only weeks earlier, when some of today’s speakers had asked the Democrat-Liberals not to nominate tainted candidates for the 2012 local elections, the party’s real leaders, who today are nowhere to be seen, had slammed the proposal and supported the candidature for the Bucharest mayor’s office of Silviu Prigoana. To my mind, Prigoana easily qualified as an oligarch, as did other Democrat-Liberals like Elena Udrea and Adrian Videanu. Udrea, a vice-president of the Democrat-Liberal Party and a darling of the mass-media, was hiding and keeping silent. I was sure, however, that neither of today’s speakers would be listened to in the party, if the tide turned.

What none of these three groups proposed were concrete plans to move the country ahead. The opera lovers had no solutions because they saw no problem to begin with and believed they could continue to live their lives in times of political cholera. The PD-L had abandoned the political game in April, when they refused to nominate an alternate to the ephemeral Mihai-Razvan Ungureanu, the second Romanian post-communist prime minister ever to lose seat as a result of a no-confidence motion. And the USL were too preoccupied with sharing the spoils of their interim government and infringing every constitutional principle in the book to notice that the country was in need of concrete solutions to its social and economic problems.