Protecting Romanian Democracy

The Current Political Crisis Is Not About a Return to Tyranny

John Podesta and Matt Browne explain the machinations of a beleaguered president trying to avoid impeachment.

Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta gestures before a parliament session in Bucharest, Romania.
<br /> (AP/Vadim Ghirda)
Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta gestures before a parliament session in Bucharest, Romania.
(AP/Vadim Ghirda)

The Washington Post and other international commentators, among them The Economist, have been quick to blame Romania’s new Prime Minister Victor Ponta for the country’s current political crisis, which led to the impeachment of Romanian President Traian Basescu. Yet claims that Prime Minister Ponta has undermined democracy and threatened the nation’s economic stability are not simply mistaken, they are also willfully misleading. A closer analysis of the impeached president’s past record and recent actions, as well as recent Constitutional Court rulings on the affair, suggest that the prime minister is defending democracy, not subverting it.

Just more than two weeks ago, the Romanian parliament impeached the sitting president, Traian Basescu, a former sea captain who worked with the Romanian Securitate (secret police) before the revolution in 1989, which ended the 22-year reign of communist strongman Nicolae Ceauşescu. Basescu has faced continual allegations of corruption, voter fraud, and impropriety since becoming president in 2004 and was first impeached five years ago following allegations that his then-Justice Minister Monica Macovei was pursuing politically motivated criminal prosecutions.

Basescu is now squared off against Prime Minister Ponta. The new prime minister, who is not yet 40 years old, made his name as a general prosecutor and reformer within the Social Democratic Party, which recently formed a coalition government with Liberal Party under the banner of the Social Liberal Union. When he became prime minister in April this year, he was the third person in less than six months to be appointed to the post.

Meanwhile, the hugely unpopular President Basescu, desperate to resurrect his political fortunes, has continuously sought to shuffle the political deck in his favor. Having been hit by a series of harsh austerity measures, the Romanian people had lost faith in President Basescu, whose popularity was already on the wane thanks to a series of controversial constitutional breaches, including changing the voting majority required to impeach him.

Once in office, Prime Minister Ponta quickly sought to focus on policy rather than politics. His priority was to implement a series of social and economic reforms designed to shift the government’s focus to jobs and growth. While pledging to maintain commitments made to the International Monetary Fund and World Bank by the previous government, he sought to promote growth by improving the country’s capacity to absorb European funding.

In parallel, the new prime minister pledged to improve pay for public servants such as teachers and nurses and to return illegally confiscated money to Romania’s pensioners. The hope was to bolster investment and domestic demand and to help those who had been hardest hit by President Basescu’s austerity politics.

The new government’s policies proved popular with the Romanian electorate, delivering a landslide victory for the Social Liberal Union in the regional elections in early June. In response, President Basescu started what can best be described as a vicious personal and political attack on Prime Minister Ponta. He sought to halt the government’s reform agenda, appealing beyond his powers to the constitutional court to block reforms. He also initiated a series of vicious personal attacks on the prime minister he’d appointed just two months earlier.

As tensions worsened, the Social Liberal Union moved to replace the leadership of the lower house of parliament and the senate and to impeach the president. In the days following the parliament’s decision to impeach President Basescu, the Constitutional Court upheld the decision, as well as the governing coalition’s right to change the leadership of the house and senate. Despite the majority of the court’s judges having been previously appointed by President Basescu himself, the Court ruled that the president had sought to diminish and usurp the role and powers of the parliament and prime minister, and that the president had also failed in his duty to mediate between the powers of the state.

A referendum will now be held this Sunday, during which the Romanian people will have an opportunity to cast their own vote on the president’s future. Public opinion polls show that 80 percent of the people oppose President Basescu. Yet in its opinion on the impeachment, the Court threw him a lifeline. Parliament had hoped to revise one of President Basescu’s laws, which mandated that in popular referendums an absolute majority of eligible voters must support the impeachment for it to be valid. Instead, parliament argued, a simple majority of those voting should suffice. Here, the Court ruled against the parliament. President Basescu’s future will now be determined by the size of voter turnout.

Once the Court issued its consultative opinion, Prime Minster Ponta immediately wrote to the leaders of the both parliamentary chambers insisting that its opinion be respected in the referendum—hardly the reaction of a power-hungry and undemocratic tyrant. Indeed, as the crisis has mounted, to his credit the prime minister has continued to engage with the international community and to act as a voice of reason and defend the Court.

Had President Basescu shown the same respect for the government’s social and economic reform agenda and the Romanian Constitution, then the nation’s economic fortunes would be brighter and its democracy far healthier, too. We hope and suspect that the will and interests of the Romanian people will triumph. In the short term, this is a matter of voter turnout; in the long run, it’s more a matter of time.

John D. Podesta is Chair and Matt Browne is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.

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Matt Browne

Former Senior Fellow