Romanian President Traian Basescu is close to being impeached after the Parliament suspended him Friday. The political crisis, however, distracts from citizens’ calls for a more responsive political class and a halt to declining standards of living.
Traian Basescu, originating from the centre-right Democratic Liberal Party (PDL), has been president since 2004 and is currently serving his second five-year mandate. He survived an earlier impeachment attempt in 2007: after the parliament suspended him, a referendum that went in his favour helped him keep power. But popular support for Basescu has dramatically decreased since.
Apart from the usual erosion of support for any politician in power, Basescu has lost sympathy on account of being the main proponent of austerity measures during the economic crisis, which in Romania were some of the harshest in Europe. State salaries were cut by 25 percent, most social benefits were slashed, and taxes increased to keep within budget deficit requirements associated with an IMF-EU loan of 20 billion euros contracted in 2009.
In January this year, Bucharest and other major cities saw unprecedented protests attended daily by thousands calling primarily for better political representation for citizens, and protesting declining standards of living. While the entire Romanian political class was a target of the January protesters, Basescu was particularly criticised for his perceived “authoritarianism”: the PDL government he appointed and kept a close grip on sought to pass important measures without parliamentary debate, including the healthcare privatisation law that sparked the January protests.
Basescu’s alleged authoritarianism and overstepping of his constitutional attributions has been invoked by the parliament as the reason for his impeachment both now and five years ago. This year, Romanians are expected to vote in a referendum on the impeachment by the end of the month. Preparing for this vote, the new Romanian anti-Basescu government has modified the referendum law through executive decree to make turnout irrelevant for the validity of the vote.
The current government is formed by an alliance (the Social Liberal Union, USL) made up of the centre-left Social Democratic Party of now Prime Minister Victor Ponta and the centre-right Liberal Party of current Senate President Crin Antonescu. USL took control of the executive two months back after the balance of power in the parliament shifted in their favour when a number of MPs changed their political affiliation from PDL to USL.
Despite using authoritarianism as a main criticism against Basescu, USL has been accused of using similarly heavy-handed tactics over the past two months. It replaced the heads of numerous public institutions, including the two chambers of parliament, the national ombudsman and the national television with USL members or allies.
In view of the impeachment, it not only modified the referendum law, but also changed the law governing the Constitutional Court to prevent the body from blocking the parliament’s impeachment decision. It additionally took control over the publication of the Official Gazette where laws have to be published to become binding.
Many people argue that the USL measures are forcing the limits of the law, rather than illegal. Nevertheless, the European Commission issued a press statement Friday expressing its “concern” about “the current developments in Romania, especially regarding actions that appear to reduce the effective powers of independent institutions like the Constitutional Court.”
In a consultative take on the impeachment, the Constitutional Court concluded that Basescu’s behaviour was stretching the limits of constitutionality, but nevertheless did not give grounds for impeachment. The Parliament voted for suspension nevertheless.
Responding to the impeachment vote, Basescu said: “Your main objective (of USL) is to achieve total control of the justice system (…) to defend criminals in your ranks. Your actions for the past two weeks are meant to deeply shake the rule of law and put it at the disposal of USL, with very negative consequences on the country.”
Both sides pitted against each other in the Romanian political crisis today stand accused of stretching legal limits. This is one of the main criticisms that the January protesters had against the Romanian political class.
“People on the streets in January were asking for Basescu’s resignation because of his authoritarian streak, the protests were targeting abuses of the rule of law,” sociologist Mircea Kivu told IPS.
In the days preceding the impeachment vote, hundreds of Romanians took to the streets of Bucharest and other cities again, with Bucharest clearly divided in three camps each located in a different square: pro-Basescu, anti-Basescu, and for the rule of law.
Kivu says protesters this week seemed more confused and less focused than those from January. “And this confusion will probably accentuate by the day,” he said, “there will be increasing divisions between the pro- and anti- Basescu camps as the referendum approaches even though this should not be the main concern, the main concern of people should be to distance themselves from abuses of power no matter their source.”
“January was for the first time when in Romania we heard protests against privatisations, against large corporations like Chevron (exploring for shale gas in Romania) or Rosia Montana Gold Corporation, against a deal with IMF that is absolutely destructive for the most vulnerable sectors of our society,” comments Costi Rogozanu from leftist platform Critic Atac.
“Now we have forgotten these issues,” Rogozanu told IPS. “While the Social-Democrats were raising some concerns about the IMF austerity requirements when in opposition, now they forgot about it and are rallying behind the predominant rightist discourse.
“The most serious threat to democracy we are seeing today in Romania is not the stretching of constitutional limits but the erosion of all social protection for our citizens,” Rogozanu added.