Romania power struggle drags on


Prime Minister Victor Ponta has rattled the EU.


John Thys

BRUSSELS — More than 85 percent of Romanians who took part in a referendum aimed at removing their president earlier this month voted against him. Nevertheless, Traian Basescu remains in office because less than the required minimum of 50 percent of the electorate turned out.

Although the constitutional court must still rule on the referendum’s validity, the salty former ship captain claimed Romanians had averted a “coup.” Despite his unpopularity, he wasn’t entirely exaggerating: The referendum was engineered by his bitter rival Victor Ponta, the country’s prime minister.

His moves to oust Basescu and other rivals, which appear to have ridden roughshod over the country's laws, have outraged European politicians.

With most attention focused on the struggle to survive the euro crisis, the European Union is now faced with new evidence the financial trouble is helping further fray the democratic fabric along its eastern edges.

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Romania's power struggle broke out soon after Ponta came to power in parliamentary elections last May. The Social Democrat claims the conservative Basescu used the secret services against political rivals and otherwise abused his office — accusations with which some of his critics at EU headquarters in Brussels may agree. The president has faced allegations of electoral fraud, nepotism and racism against Romania's gypsy minority.

But Ponta’s critics say he has done far more to undermine democracy by illegally dismissing the speakers of parliament’s two chambers and replacing the country’s ombudsman, who has the power to challenge emergency legislation before the constitutional court that would scrap the minimum required turnout for the referendum. The ruling coalition has also threatened to remove the court’s judges.

The government’s moves prompted scathing criticism in Brussels for undermining the rule of law. "Events in Romania have shaken our trust," European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said in a statement last month.

Leaders of the European Parliament's main center-right faction said in a statement that the ongoing struggle was damaging the country's international credibility. "The government now needs to return to responsible actions as a matter of utmost priority."

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Romania’s brouhaha follows a confrontation with Hungary earlier this year, when Brussels accused the right-wing Prime Minister Viktor Orban of violating democratic values in a power grab.

The government backed down over at least some of its plans to restrict the independence of the judiciary and central bank following the enactment of a new constitution after other EU members threatened unprecedented sanctions. But Orban remains a prickly partner.

In a speech earlier this month, he mocked the EU's leadership for being more concerned with animal welfare than people suffering from the economic crisis.

"Brussels spends precious days and weeks setting the size of hen cages,” he said. “They prescribe that pigs should be given toys to play with, and the mood of geese is an important European issue. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands are losing their jobs, our currency is collapsing and every day we find it harder and harder to make ends meet."

Some of Ponta’s critics in Europe point to his maneuverings as the latest proof the EU moved too quickly to bring in new members from the former Soviet Bloc. Romania and its neighbor Bulgaria joined in 2007, three years after Hungary and seven other countries from Central and Eastern Europe.

Corina Stratulat of the European Policy Center in Brussels says despite the new members’ pledges to abide by the EU’s rules and values, “all the skepticism about whether Romania can overcome the problems it has had in the past with the judiciary and corruption have come back."

Although the EU has no rules for expelling countries, its members do have leverage for exerting pressure. They can suspend states' right to vote in key policy meetings and block aid designed to help poorer members. In the case of heavily indebted Romania and Hungary, the EU can withhold bailout funding agreed with the International Monetary Fund.

The euro crisis is pushing Romania, the EU’s poorest country, back toward a recession it escaped in 2009.

Romania can also expect its bid to join the EU's visa-free travel zone to be put on hold as long as its political standoff continues.

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Ponta’s coalition is currently arguing to the constitutional court that this month’s referendum should be validated because Basescu has overseen a population decline of almost 3 million, according to a census that has yet to be published.

However politics play out ahead of a general election in November — which Ponta is set to win — developments in Romania and Hungary already look set to make the EU more cautious about the entry of more members.

Croatia is set to become its 28th member next July. But its Balkan neighbors, including Serbia, Montenegro and Albania, face a long wait and tough scrutiny of their respect for the EU's core values.