Thursday, 12 July 2012 12:30

Despite the people, against the people – Romania’s political breakdown

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UPDATE: This story reflects the situation in Romania on Friday, 6th July 2012. President Basescu has now been suspended by Parliament and will face a referendum on the 29th of July. PNL party leader Crin Antonescu is now the president of Romania, at least temporararily. European and American leaders have expressed clear concerns about the political situation in Romania, all of which have been firmly, even rudely, dismissed by prime minister Victor Ponta. Traian Basescu started his election campaign with the theme "Threats to the justice system" and turned to the people, whom he "never lied to" (ahem..), not even when the goin' got tough. Yeah, we're still a weird country...

It may not come as a big surprise that Romania is a pretty weird country. We have more stray dogs and cats than illegal taxis, we don't like to invest in tourism despite its huge potential, and it takes about ten years to complete a highway which then needs repairs after four months. However, after recent political turmoil, Romania may become famous for something much deeper than any of this - the savagery and stupidity of its political class, the trashing of its own Constitution, and, as much of the international media has already noticed, the breach of every democratic principle out there.

In the last two months we have witnessed the impossible becoming possible. Romanians have always believed their country was a place of all possibilities, but Victor Ponta's government and the centre-left wing ruling coalition (along with every other party and politician) took this belief to the next level.

Romania may become famous for something much deeper - the savagery and stupidity of its political class

Mr Ponta, the leader of the Social Democratic Party (PSD), was bound not to get along smoothly with President Traian Basescu, who is supported by the Democratic Liberal Party (PDL). President Traian Băsescu had designated Ponta as Prime Minister after the previous incumbant had fallen to a motion of no confidence, but the members of the PSD were hungry - they hadn't been in power since 2004 and President Basescu has done nothing but criticise their wrongdoings, while the justice system (allegedly under orders from the president) has taken many of them to court for corruption. Political vendettas, they say. On the other hand, anyone who remembers the pre-2004 period, when the PSD was in power, refers to it as the "golden age" of corruption, of threats to the freedom of the press, of total control over the justice system. This is why it's almost impossible to visualise a healthy collaboration between the two parties and this is why Romanians can't choose sides today.

The first signs of conflict between the president and the prime minister arose when Victor Ponta named his Cabinet. Traian Basescu's constant involvement in all political and administrative spheres is well-known and has gained him the reputation of a dictatorial figure. But Mr Ponta and the members of the coalition he formed with the National Liberal Party - the Social-Liberal Union (USL) -, were not about to take orders. The next reason to quarrel was the irrevocable decision of Romania's Supreme Court to sentence former PSD prime minister, Adrian Nastase, to two years in jail for corruption, followed by his failed suicide attempt. The story made the international newspapers as the first conviction in a high corruption case in Romania since 1989 - everyone perceived it as a proof of a functional justice system. Victor Ponta's reaction while visiting Adrian Nastase - his former law school teacher and political mentor - in hospital? "I hope President Basescu is happy."

Photo: Flickr: EPP Group in the European Parliament (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Traian Basescu, now suspended from Parliament, speaks to the EPP.

Then there was the issue of who gets to represent Romania in Brussels, at the European Council. President Basescu has always fulfilled the role, but Victor Ponta wouldn't allow it this time. Breaching a Constitutional Court decision which enabled the president to attend the Council, the prime minister hopped on a plane and went to Brussels anyway. And then all hell broke loose. What started out as a predictable cat and mouse relationship between the two leaders quickly turned into a hysterical series of attacks, disregarding the law and, most importantly, the people.

Mr Ponta's minister of Justice, Titus Corlatean, launched an unprecedented attack on the Court, warning that some of the judges might end up getting fired. On Tuesday, the Parliament - namely the USL - voted and approved the dismissal of the ombudsman. On the same day, the USL managed to fire the presidents of the two chambers of Parliament, Vasile Blaga and Roberta Anastase, coming three steps close to their goal: suspending the president. The new USL president for one of the chambers, Valeriu Zgonea, made it clear how he felt about the Constitutional Court's worries that this was looking more and more like a political take-over: "Blaga and Anastase can notify the Constitutional Court's mother as well."

On Wednesday, the government changed the law of the referendum, making it much easier for the president to get fired. Next, USL members wrote and submitted the document asking for the suspension of the president. Traian Basescu addressed the Parliament on the same day, asking its MPs to respect the rule of law and the will of the people.

That's the thing, you see. All these aggressive and close-to-illegal things are happening in the political system, but no one is looking where they should: at the people. The population didn't ask for any of this, so there's no other justification for this madness except revenge. At this moment in time, all our political leaders - including the President, the Prime Minister and the MPs - are doing nothing but solving their party issues and manifesting their grudges at the cost of the country. And this country has had enough. It's had corruption and shameless stealing, weak and unintelligent leaders whom the international partners couldn't even take seriously, stalling of key reforms, an ineffective justice system, and countless lies.

Both sides have damaged this country and gained the hatred of Romanians.
Photo: Flickr: EPP Group in the European Parliament (CC BY-ND 2.0)

The problems are increasing hour by hour.

This is something new, though. This is a problem that divided the population like nothing else in its recent history. Three different protests were taking place on Thursday evening in Bucharest: one pro-Basescu, one anti-Basescu and one anti-both Basescu and anti-USL. No one can agree on anything and this is mainly because, as reminded earlier, you can’t take sides. This is not a battle between good and evil, there is no good here. Both sides have damaged this country and gained the hatred of Romanians. And yet these three parties – the PDL, PSD and PNL - are ruling the country and other choices don’t seem obvious in these turbulent moments. You can’t take a side, but you need to take a side and fast. The population is already invisible, ignored and, more than anything, tired. One of the worst things that could happen now is for it to also be divided, to have a weak and insecure voice, since none of its elected representatives are speaking or acting for the people. The other worst thing that could happen, given Romania’s history and its political DNA, is choosing any radical party that steps up during these hard times. This is how the legionary movement arose and, of course, the communists. Sure, times are different now and that type of politics is no longer an option, especially in the EU. But neither is breaking the Constitution and threatening the independence of justice.

As if things weren’t bad enough, we've given our international partners a serious migraine. The European Commission, the European Parliament, the US Embassy, the Germans, and the French have all expressed their "worries" that Romania is moving further away from democracy. The foreign media is calling Romania the newest country to worry those who still care about constitutionalism. Deutsche Welle compared the situation in Romania to Nazi Germany. Far from reaching such extreme heights, this is extra-proof that our leaders are not only willing to ignore the people, but also the country's obligations as a member of the EU and as partner to dozens of democratic states. "Apart from the political crisis and the conflict between the president and the Parliament, we are a stable country," is what Victor Ponta said in response to foreign concerns. It's just a little internal bloodbath, nothing serious. You'll get used to it.

It's Friday afternoon and the television screen is almost entirely yellow - the colour of breaking news. The Constitutional Court just approved the suspension of the president, after hours of stalling. Less than two hours left until the suspension is voted in Parliament. They've gathered all the weapons they could possibly think of, both sides are completely absorbed with destroying the enemy - it's going to be a full-on slaughter.

In the meanwhile, it's 35 degrees Celsius in Bucharest (in the shade, of course), the national currency is reaching a historic low every hour, foreign investors are probably calling their therapists, and I wish I knew what Romanians are thinking right now, but I don't. Whatever it is, it's not good.

Last modified on Thursday, 12 July 2012 13:25

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