Fatal fire response latest in long list of grievances against Romania’s Ponta

Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta resigned on November 4 following large protests against the authorities’ response in the aftermath of the fatal fire in a Bucharest nightclub at the weekend, but that was just the latest in a series of grievances against Ponta’s cabinet and far from the sole reason for the government’s downfall.

What a difference a year can make – at this time in 2014, Ponta was the favourite to win the presidential elections, facing a fractured opposition and backed by the well-oiled party machine of his social-democrats. He had already survived the furore generated by claims that he plagiarised his doctoral thesis and the loss of the main partner in the ruling coalition, while corruption investigations thinned the ranks of potential rivals within the party.

But the government’s mishandling in the organisation of presidential elections abroad saw large queues outside diplomatic missions serving as polling stations, as thousands of people spent hours waiting to vote and some never got the chance.

Despite intense criticism and public protests, it would be only a week later that the foreign minister at the time resigned, but that made no difference in the run-off, which saw even longer queues at polling stations abroad. The public outrage sparked a higher turnout inside the country as well, with Ponta soundly defeated by Sibiu mayor Klaus Iohannis.

And yet, despite all that outrage and promises to change electoral rules to allow voting by mail, it was only last week that the law was passed – and even then, in a curtailed version, applying only to parliamentary elections, but not presidential or European Parliament elections.

Meanwhile, prosecutors continued bringing court actions against senior politicians, many of them from Ponta’s social-democrat party (although the opposition liberals have not been spared either) – including one against his father-in-law, senator Ilie Sarbu. Despite being under investigation on charges of corruption in a case where damages were estimated at 300 million euro, Sarbu was appointed by Parliament vice president of the national audit office in September.

Corruption is seen as endemic in Romania, but the recent years have rekindled some hope after successful prosecutions against a number of former and sitting cabinet members, as well as MPs, mayors and judges. The specialised anti-corruption prosecution DNA enjoys high public approval ratings, while confidence in parliament is at a nadir.

Not least, that is due to the fact that Romania’s parliament has a consistent track record of delaying investigations and denying prosecutors’ requests to lift MPs’ immunity, as it did in June when prosecutors wanted to indict Ponta on charges of conflict of interest. Although that request was denied, Ponta does not have complete immunity and has been indicted on charges of document fraud and money-laundering in September.

Despite repeated calls to step down, Ponta has always refused to resign as prime minister – while he did relinquish leadership of the party in a surprising move, some local observers said it was only done to stave off a palace coup. The social-democrats have little incentive to trigger early elections, given the party’s falling ratings, so Ponta and new social-democrat leader Liviu Dragnea settled into an awkward co-habitation.

In the end, the public outrage caused by the nightclub fire proved too much for Dragnea, who suggested that Ponta step down. Dragnea said that the social-democrats wanted to form the new government and that snap elections would only cause instability in the coming months – but that may be out of his hands, with new protest marches gathering in Bucharest and other major cities on the evening of November 4.

(Victor Ponta in parliament. Photo: gov.ro)



Alex Bivol

Alex Bivol is the Deputy Editor-in-Chief of The Sofia Globe.