Romanian court deepens impasse over presidential impeachment

Written by on July 11, 2012 in Europe, News - No comments

Romania’s constitutional court ruled on July 10 to raise the bar for the presidential impeachment referendum, but instead of clarifying the legal framework, it has only led to renewed clashes in the war of words that has paralysed effective policy-making.

The court ruled that the referendum would require a turnout of at least half the registered voters to be validated, but its ruling might not be taken into account when the vote is held on July 29.

The ruling was issued on the recently-amended election law that removed the turnout requirement – the law now has to go back to parliament to be reworked and voted anew. However, this process might not be concluded by the date of the referendum – which cannot be postponed.

In the meantime, there is a government legislative decree in place that accomplishes the same goal – removing the turnout requirement for the impeachment referendum.

The country’s interior ministry said that it would begin preparations to hold the referendum using the government decree as the legal framework, but it remains unclear whether the constitutional court will validate the vote’s results in this case.

The issue of turnout is crucial for suspended president Traian Basescu, who has seen his public approval rating tumble over the past three years, during which he and his allies in the government of the time have overseen the implementation of tough austerity measures imposed by the terms of the $25 billion bailout from the International Monetary Fund and the European Union.

Basescu’s best chance of surviving the impeachment referendum, according to local analysts and opinion polls, is only if the plebiscite fails because of insufficient turnover.

The ruling coalition, made of the centre-left Social-Democrats and centre-right National-Liberal party, won big gains at the local elections held last month, but even there turnout was only 56 per cent. At the peak of the summer vacation season, the coalition could fail to muster sufficient support for its impeachment motion, local observers said.

Basescu previously survived one impeachment referendum, in 2007, focusing his campaign on rooting out corruption among the political elites. Five years and numerous corruption controversies involving his own party, the Democrat-Liberals, he can hardly pursue the same strategy.

Instead, he is expected to focus his campaign on the issue of rule of law and argue that the alacrity with which his opponents moved to impeach him was proof of a concerted assault on democratic institutions.

In this strategy, he will be able to capitalise on the growing unease with which the European Union and Western European capitals have watched the events unfolding in Bucharest – in the space of one week, the cabinet and parliamentary majority have pushed through a series of measures all geared towards swiftly impeaching Basescu, including the government decree on referendum, replacing the speakers of the two houses of parliament and the ombudsman, curtailing the constitutional court’s ability to review parliament decisions and, finally, the vote to suspend Basescu on July 6.

The recent developments could be included in the annual progress report on the Co-operation and Verification Mechanism, which tracks Romania’s progress in the area of judiciary reform and fight against corruption, and could further damage the country’s prospects of joining the Schengen visa-free travel area, European Union officials have hinted.

To ease the concerns, prime minister Victor Ponta, the Social-Democrat leader, is set to begin a two-day visit to Brussels on July 11, during which he will meet European Parliament president Martin Schulz, European Council president Herman van Rompuy and European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso. He will also meet Party of European Socialists interim president Sergei Stanishev, but was refused a request to meet with the leader of the European People’s Party group in the European Parliament, Joseph Daul.

Basescu has made no public statements after turning over the presidency to interim president Crin Antonescu, the National-Liberal party leader, on July 10. He has repeatedly denied the charges brought against him that he had overstepped his constitutional prerogatives by interfering in the cabinet’s work.

(Photo: European Council/flickr.com)

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Alex Bivol is the news editor of The Sofia Globe.