International observers hoped that Romania’s December 9, 2012 parliamentary elections would end the standoff between Prime Minister Ponta and President Basescu, whose disagreements climaxed last summer when Ponta tried to have Basescu impeached
Both Basescu and Ponta have been widely accused of power abuses and ignoring the nation’s needs while focusing on their conflict with each other
Victor Ponta’s alliance of liberals and social democrats won the election by an even larger margin than expected – nonetheless Basescu was vocal about his disinclination to appoint Ponta as Prime Minister – perhaps encouraged by the high abstention rate that signaled public unhappiness with both sides
Eventually, Basescu reappointed Ponta as Prime Minister but it is not at all clear that this will end the internal conflict and turmoil in Romania
Romania held Parliamentary elections on December 9, 2012. As expected, Prime Minister Victor Ponta’s coalition of liberals and social democrats won 60.1% of the total vote and the center-right alliance led by President Basescu took only 16.7% of the vote – but with only 41.7% voter turnout, a clear victory, but one that also indicated a high level of political disillusionment in the country. These elections were considered a turning point in Romanian politics, as the results help determine the composure and cooperation with which the opposing politicians and political parties will collaborate and negotiate during the upcoming years.
Politics in Romania over the last year have been characterized by domestic conflict and allegations of abuse of power. Prime Minister Viktor Ponta and President Basescu accuse each other of overreaching the legitimate limits on their power and of bypassing checks and balances. In late November the two leaders announced a truce, indicating that they would cooperate in order to get the nation back on track financially. Nonetheless, their sincerity in these claims was widely doubted and their promises to cooperate have not done much to encourage the public. Since the truce, Basescu has called Ponta a “compulsive liar” and an “ogre” – clearly indicating that their political war is far from over.
Mr. Ponta’s government has, in fact, ordered a huge number of “emergency decrees” in order to bypass Parliamentary scrutiny. Furthermore, Ponta has replaced the official in charge of challenging emergency decrees. This seems like a clear example of abuse of power and of disregard of check and balances. In July, Ponta attempted to and nearly succeeded in impeaching Basescu, but the vote was deemed invalid because there was only a 46% voter turnout. Clearly, however, public opinion regarding Basescu is consistently negative. After barely surviving an impeachment referendum during his first term, Basescu won the Presidential elections in 2009 by an extremely slim margin, and an overwhelming majority of participating voters voted to impeach him in the summer of 2012.
Sentiment towards government is becoming increasingly negative in Romania. Voters are disheartened and feel that the domestic conflict between Ponta and Basescu is overshadowing actual policymaking in the country. The New York Times writes that, “For two decades, politicians in Romania have walked a tightrope between public priorities and the vested economic interests. Many businesses seek lucrative government contracts, and too many politicians are interested only in the spoils — a practice that perverts the political process. Boycotted elections, won or lost by a small number of votes, and suspicion of fraud have been trademarks of the past decade”.
For a short time after the election, it was unclear whether Basescu would reappoint Ponta as Prime Minister. Not appointing Ponta would have been antagonistic and irresponsible as it would likely lead to another attempt at Basescu’s impeachment and continued war within parliament. Appointing Ponta, however, would further expose the President’s lack of political capital within the nation as he has previously compared the task of appointing Ponta as Premier to ‘swallowing a pig’. As the New York Times wrote after the election, “the question now is whether Mr. Basescu will hold his nose and do it.”
On December 17th, 2012, Basescu did reappoint Ponta to the position of Prime Minister. Basescu has not commented extensively on his decision, but Ponta has claimed that due to his reappointment Romania has entered a period of ‘normalization’ and that he intends to focus his efforts on new IMF deals and on ending the economic crisis in Romania. Nonetheless, many Romanians and other observers believe that the political conflict is far from over, and even that Ponta may again attempt to impeach Basescu.
This kind of instability is the most prominent characteristic of politics in Romania, and in recent months has led to an increasingly negative worldwide perception of the Romanian government. Because of the nation’s extensive social and economic problems, other EU member states are apprehensive about increasing integration with Romania and especially the opening of EU labor markets to Romania in 2014. Ponta is working hard to rehabilitate Romania’s image and move away from its reputation as a “mafia-state”, yet the results of his “hard work” remain to be seen.
Confidence in Romania is low both from the perspective of Romanians and from the perspective of the international community. The conflict between Ponta and Basescu over the summer led many Romanians to doubt the strength and dependability of law, democracy and justice in the country. Romania’s turbulent economy and political composure in Romania now largely depend on the relationship between Basescu and Ponta.