A constitutional coup

 

IN FRANCE it’s called cohabitation – the often uncomfortable management of politics and public administration when a president and parliament are from rival parties. They struggle on. In the US it’s a reality most of the time, contributing to the country’s permanent legislative gridlock. In Romania, however, cohabitation has moved well beyond gridlock. Parliamentarians have abandoned any attempt at live-and-let-live for a radical divorce – the impeachment, they hope, of the president by voters this weekend.

Conservative president Traian Basescu, who was suspended earlier this month by MPs for overstepping his powers and specifically for allegedly interfering with the judiciary, has described Sunday’s impeachment referendum pushed through parliament by prime minister Victor Ponta’s left wing Social Liberal Union (USL) as a “coup d’etat”.

The move to make his suspension permanent has deeply disquieted the EU which finds itself once again – Hungary was in the firing line last year – embroiled in policing the internal politics of a member state to defend basic democratic values. Brussels says that a series of measures, including the referendum, has seriously undermined the rule of law in Romania. Ponta replaced the official ombudsman, tried to sack constitutional judges and curb the powers of the constitutional court, and quashed the power of an academic panel which found he plagiarised large parts of his doctoral thesis.

The row is damaging the country’s international reputation and democratic credentials, and has severely dented confidence in Brussels in the pledge to stamp out corruption that Romania was required to make as a condition of its 2007 accession to EU membership . In its latest report on Romania’s progress the European Commission warned that “reform is not yet sustainable and irreversible”.

Basescu supporters hope to defeat the referendum, which requires a 50 per cent turnout from Romania’s 18.3 million voters to pass, by calling for a boycott and depressing the overall vote sufficiently. It is a dangerous, if perhaps necessary, strategy. Even if he survives Basescu’s authority will be severely damaged by the majority that will certainly vote against him. Opinion polls show most Romanians support permanently removing him from office because of his association with IMF-linked austerity measures and a perception of corruption among his political allies. He survived a similar vote five years ago but his popularity is now at a low ebb.

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