Friday

24th Feb 2017

Romanians prepare for divisive referendum

  • Banner urging Romanians to oust President Traian Basescu from office because he 'stole' their wages (Photo: Valentina Pop)

The Romanian government's political campaign ahead of a referendum on Sunday (29 July) on removing the president from office resembles a personal vendetta, amid EU worries about democracy eroding rapidly in the country.

Romanians are being asked whether they agree that President Traian Basescu overstepped his powers - as the Parliament voted earlier this month.

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But billboards asking Romanians to vote in favour of Basescu being ousted have nothing to do with the constitutional debate. Pictures of old people saying "He stole my pension," a young mother with a baby behind bars claiming "He destroyed my health", a teacher deploring his wage being cut, litter the countryside.

The centre-right government led by Emil Boc, Basescu's close ally, resigned in February after weeks of protests sparked by the resignation of a respected health care official who publicly disagreed with Basescu and his planned health care reform. The official was re-hired and the reform put on hold, but public anger at other austerity measures, persistent corruption and Basescu's own abrasive style spilled over.

"Romanians, let's go to the referendum. Basescu, good bye" banners are seen in most villages and towns. The ruling Social-Liberal Union in June won close to 50 percent of the vote and made Basescu's removal their top priority - he would normally have two more years in office.

The Constitutional Court gave a non-binding opinion saying there were no serious grounds to impeach him. The parliament, with its newly formed Social-Liberal majority amid mass defections from the Democratic-Liberal Party supporting Basescu, voted for the impeachment anyway.

"Basescu is on his knees, let's give him the lethal blow," Daniel Constantin, leader of a minor party within the Social-Liberal alliance said earlier this week.

Prime Minister Victor Ponta - who has admitted not having time for anything else until the referendum is over - invited journalists for a tour of a state-owned villa he claims Basescu was refurbishing for himself for live in from 2014. Basescu called him a "liar."

On Sunday, despite a ban on campaigning, the villa will be open for public from 10.00-20.00 local time.

Basescu's strategy is to ask people not to go vote, as at least half of registered voters need to turn up in order for the referendum to be valid.

The centre-right PDL party also is campaigning on the boycott idea and claims that Ponta's government will rig the vote after it initially issued a decree abolishing the minimum turnout, despite a constitutional court ruling.

After unprecedented warnings from EU leaders and the European Commission, Ponta changed course and the Parliament last week restored the minimum turnout. But it also extended the voting time by four hours and reserved its right to "decide on the steps to follow" in case the referendum is invalid.

The EU commission earlier this week again warned the Ponta government that it expects an 11-point to do list to be implemented and that it will look at "facts", not promises.

But an agreement signed by Ponta with a trade union of fired military officials agrees "in principle" with the "dismantling of Stalinist political police structures" such as the Constitutional Court, the integrity agency, the anti-corruption directorate and a body revealing if public officials had collaborated with the Securitate, the former Communist secret police.

The interim president, Liberal leader Crin Antonescu, said Friday he was part of the talks that led to this agreement, but said there was room for negotiation and no institution would be dismantled.

The political turmoil means that no matter what the result of Sunday's referendum is, infighting is likely to continue until general elections in November.

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EU justice commissioner Viviane Reding on Wednesday said she remains "very much worried" about the state of democracy in Romania. Meanwhile, there is intense political infighting in Romania ahead of Sunday's impeachment referendum.

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Romania’s parliament passed a law on Wednesday limiting the jurisdiction of its constitutional court in an apparent contradiction to promises made to the European Commission by Romania’s prime minister.

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Contract killings in Bulgaria and a direct affront to the rule of law in Romania are some of the major concerns underlined by the European Commission in its progress reports adopted on Wednesday.

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European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso has condemned the Romanian government for undermining trust in the rule of law but there is little Brussels can do.

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Something is rotten in the state of Romania

The view of ruling politicians that public institutions - be they cultural institutes, media, or, more worryingly, the judiciary - need to obey the ruling party has never been completely eradicated since Communism fell.

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