Romanian impeachment referendum 2012

A referendum on the impeachment of the President of Romania, Traian Băsescu, was held in Romania on July 29. This referendum was required to ratify the decision of the Romanian Parliament, on July 6, to impeach President Băsescu who has been in office since 2004. The constitution allows for the President to be impeached only for grave misdeeds, but this clause has been abused by Băsescu’s political enemies who had already tried to impeach him (unsuccessfully) in 2007.

Since January, Romania has been rocked by major political instability. The country’s politics have been bitter and sulfurous since at least 2009, and at the root of it all is Băsescu himself. The President quickly alienated most of his former political allies after being elected to the presidency on a centre-right, anti-corruption platform in 2004. Băsescu has a very hot temper and is well known for his erratic and off-the-cuff style, which sometimes degenerates into foul-mouthed tirades against his opponents. He has not lived up to expectations on the matter of corruption, and he has been criticized for his authoritarian penchants.

Băsescu survived a first attempt by the opposition to impeach him on fairly flimsy grounds in 2007, when three-quarters of the 44% who turned out voted against removing him from office (even if the referendum had been valid – it had a 50% turnout threshold – Băsescu would not have been removed from office). Relations between Băsescu’s centre-right Democratic Liberal Party (PDL) and the opposition – both the Social Democrats (PSD) and the National Liberals (PNL) worsened following Băsescu’s narrow reelection in 2009 with only 50.3% of the votes in a disputed runoff election.

Romania is a semi-presidential republic, with the President holding responsibility over foreign affairs as well as the power to appoint judges or to delay legislation. Between 2008 and 2012, his Prime Minister was Emil Boc, a member of the PDL. Boc governed in coalition with the PSD until 2009, when his first government was taken down by a no-confidence motion backed by the PSD, the PNL and the Hungarian minority party (UDMR). Following Băsescu’s reelection, he renominated Boc instead of nominating a candidate backed by the three parties which had voted the no-confidence motion. However, Boc managed to obtain Parliament’s confidence in December 2009, thanks to the support of the UDMR and dissidents from the PSD.

In office, Boc wrestled with the economic crisis. Romania fell into recession in 2009 and again in 2010, and since then the country’s economic recovery has been slow. While Romania remains the second poorest country in the EU, its economic situation – in a comparative perspective – is not all that bad. However, in 2009 Romania received a $27 billion bailout from the IMF, which came with strings attached. The Boc government implemented and became extremely unpopular for austerity measures, including budget cuts, wage cuts in the public sector and a sales tax hike. The government is committed to reducing the country’s budgetary deficit from 4.4% of the GDP in 2011 to 1.9% this year.

The austerity measures associated with the PDL and Băsescu were extremely unpopular. Voters in the EU’s second poorest country were tired of tax hikes, wage cuts and decling public services; all with the backdrop of politicians and political parties which are widely seen as lining their pockets. Maybe austerity would have been better received if voters did not feel that their representatives were stealing their money. Several PDL politicians, including Băsescu himself, are suspected of corruption; but the opposition hardly has a better reputation. The PNL’s ranks include a corrupt oil magnate/billionaire, while the ex-communist PSD is seen as the epitome of the old corrupt clique – a coalition of old communist party bosses and security employees.

There were major protests earlier this year, which ultimately forced Boc to resign on February 6. A few days later, he was replaced by a cabinet led by Mihai Răzvan Ungureanu, a former boss of the foreign intelligence services. However, on April 27, his government was voted down by a motion of no-confidence backed by the opposition. In February 2011, the three main opposition parties (the ex-communist centre-left PSD, the liberal PNL and the small right-wing Conservative Party) formed an electoral coalition, the Social Liberal Union (USL).

Initially, in February, after Boc resigned, the leader of the PSD (and USL), 39-year old Victor Ponta, refused to become Prime Minister. However, after the Ungureanu cabinet fell, Băsescu was compelled to name Ponta, his top political rival, as Prime Minister. Romania was thus thrown into a French-like situation of cohabitation between an opposing President and government. However, unlike in France, Romanian politics – especially with a President like Băsescu who is known to be a prick – are far less consensual.

Since taking office, Ponta and Băsescu have been embroiled in a bloody schoolyard fight. Things got extremely ugly at the end of June, after the courts – which Ponta claims are stacked with Băsescu’s allies – found Ponta’s political mentor and former PSD Prime Minister Adrian Năstase guilty in a corruption and fraud case. It was after this incident that the Parliament voted to impeach the President, accusing him of using the secret services against political enemies, refusing to appoint cabinet ministers, trying to influence prosecutors in criminal cases and engaging in illegal phone tapping. Băsescu has flatly denied these allegations, and regardless of their veracity, the case for his impeachment is constitutionally flimsy and is definitely politically motivated. In this schoolyard brawl, Ponta’s allies claims that Băsescu struck back by leaking a plagiarism scandal in which Victor Ponta is accused of plagiarizing his doctoral thesis. Ponta had the commission in charge of academic integrity dissolved and has said that he will not resign regardless of what happens in this case.

After a fight with the courts and Băsescu over who from Ponta and Băsescu should have represented the country at a European summit, Ponta made his most controversial moves. He threatened to fire constitution court judges (he claims that they are Băsescu loyalists), fired and replaced the ombudsman with a party loyalist, seized control of the official journal and replaced the heads of both chambers of Parliament. These measures, which opponents claim are clear moves to weaken the country’s independent institutions, sent a chill down the spine of the European Commission and most EU grandees. The EU has struggled in the past year with the issue of Hungary – which presents a similar case of a European elected government disrespecting the rule of law and liberal democratic values. In Budapest, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán made controversial changes to the Hungarian constitution which has limited media freedoms and judicial freedom.

The EC issued a stark warning to the Romanian government in early July, and Germany’s Angela Merkel minced no words in condemning Ponta’s actions. The EC has debated which sanctions, if any, should be adopted against Romania. A freeze in EU transfers was seriously considered, but the crisis has likely derailed or at least significantly delayed Romanian attempts to join the Schengen area. Unlike Orbán however, Ponta has not been defiant of  European institutions and moved to soothe fears that he was staging something akin to a coup d’état. Ponta claimed that there had been misunderstandings, and reassured that he would withdraw his controversial laws if they were to cause any trouble for Romania in the EU.

In 2007, the previous referendum on Băsescu’s impeachment was deemed invalid because turnout was below the 50% threshold required to validate it. Ponta tried to remove this quorum and allow for the referendum to be valid even if less than 50% of voters turned out. After protests by the courts and the EU, he was forced to reinstate the turnout requirement. Băsescu, denouncing a constitutional coup d’état and a grave threat to democracy, called on his supporters to boycott the referendum (with the hope that less than 50% of voters would turn out and invalidate whatever the verdict was). However, Băsescu was far more popular in 2007 than he is today. Local elections held in June saw his party, the PDL, win only 15% of the vote against 49.7% for the USL.

The high prospect of the referendum both passing the turnout requirement and a majority of votes in support of Băsescu’s impeachment worried Romania’s European partners a lot. The EU would be forced to deal with the consequences of legitimate, free and fair referendum which was, however, motivated by a political turf war between two cliques and enemies. Such a result would have boosted Ponta’s power at home – it will still be boosted in November when the USL is the big favourite to win the legislative elections – by allowing for the election of a close ally of Ponta, perhaps the PNL’s leader and caretaker president Crin Antonescu.

Turnout, however, ultimately fell just short of the 50% threshold. 46.53% of registered voters turned out to vote, but of these 46%, 87.5% voted in favour of removing Băsescu from office. If the law is to be followed, then the courts will not validate the results of this referendum and Băsescu will remain in office.

This result is a brief respite for Romania’s European neighbors and political partners, who feared the consequences of 50%+1 turnout in the referendum. However, the political instability and acrimonious political situation has not, for that matter, ended. Băsescu was triumphant on July 29, styling the results of the referendum as a victory for democracy against the constitutional coup d’état and democratic transgressions of Victor Ponta. While he said that he would work to mend the “enormous rift in society”, he has refused to resign and shows no sign of shying away from his confrontational attitude against Ponta’s government. Băsescu’s allies have been eager to attack the current government, recently leaking a secret deal between Ponta and a shady trade union of ex-military men which seeks to scrap institutions such as the Constitutional Court. On the other hand, Victor Ponta has been similarly defiant. He has claimed that Băsescu has lost all legitmacy and should resign, and originally indicated that he would refuse to work with an illegitimate president (and it is true, in part, with such a large number of voters voting to impeach him, that Băsescu’s legitimacy is minimal at this point). The USL would like for the courts to validate the referendum anyway, claiming that some registered voters on the rolls do not live in Romania and haven’t voted in years. Regardless of what happens, it is a certainty that Ponta backed by the legislature and President Băsescu will continue their bloody schoolyard fight in the foreseeable future, given that Băsescu’s term will only end in 2014.

Map of turnout by county (source: Wikipedia)

Given that the President’s remaining base of support is hardly more than 15%, he did not “win” the referendum only by motivating his supporters to boycott the referendum. Against all expectations, however, less than 50% of voters actually voted. There are a number of factors at play here. The EU’s threats (to suspend transfer payments, or keep the country’s judicial system under supervision or even the nuclear option) likely played a role in demotivating potential opponents of Băsescu. There is certainly an element of political apathy at play as well, boosted by the timing of the referendum (in the middle of summer on a hot Sunday) but also traditional disenchantment with politicians and politics. The USL is the favourite to win the next election, but – at least in Romanian academia – there is little enthusiasm for it. Romanians do not political parties as political movements which represent them or work for the national interest, but rather as a grubby bunch of frontmen and corrupt oligarchs and ex-communist stooges. Neither party has a crystal clean reputation. Ponta’s controversial tactics, mixed with the very personal and partisan nature of this referendum and the EU’s surprisingly vocal reaction to all this, like played a role as well.The geography of turnout shows that there is a clear partisan element at work, given that turnout was lowest (below 40%) in Transylvania, where Băsescu’s centre-right party is usually the strongest. However, the lowest turnout levels were in Harghita and Covasna counties, at barely 11.6% and 20.6% respectively. Both of these counties are heavily Hungarian (over 70% of the population). Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán made a controversial entrance in the referendum campaign by calling Hungarians in Romania to boycott the referendum as well. Orbán’s controversial intervention was strongly condemened by Ponta, who claimed that Orbán was intervening in Romania’s internal affairs.

This referendum was, from a certain perspective, a no-win scenario given that a victory would have caused nightmares for the EU and cemented Ponta’s power, while its defeat means that the power struggle between both men will continue unabated, condemning the country to months of a bloody power struggle between two enemies who occupy the top two political offices in the country.

Posted on July 31, 2012, in Referendums, Romania. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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