24th Oct 2016

Centre-right leaders in Romania for political showdown

  • Angela Merkel and other centre-right leaders will meet in the Parliament building (Photo: European People's Party)

Angela Merkel is joining other centre-right leaders in Bucharest on Wednesday (17 October) for a party congress, even though local politicians seem nowhere near to burying the hatchet on recent infighting.

Compared to last week's protests in Greece, the dozen-or-so people chanting "Merkel, Romania is not yours" on Tuesday evening in the old part of the city looked peaceful and harmless.

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Some of them were pensioners who had already taken part in bigger anti-austerity rallies earlier this year which led to the resignation of the centre-right government.

After centre-left Prime Minister Victor Ponta's failed attempt to impeach and oust centre-right President Traian Basescu from office this summer, the local political scene has remained as divided and bitter as ever.

The sharp pro-Basescu or anti-Basescu feeling is also a feature of Romanian society.

"Our coalition welcomes anyone who wants to support us in getting rid of Traian Basescu. We have assumed it as a strategy not to start asking people who are with us in this fight 'why don't you first go to school, why don't you wash your hands'," Ponta said on Monday during a TV show.

He was defending his coalition's choice in accepting as a member George Becali, an MEP and the owner of a football club, whose poor education has not prevented him from rising to prominence, despite racist and sexist comments.

On Wednesday, the centre-left coalition (USL) now in government is staging a parallel event - the launch of their candidates for general elections on 9 December.

But media focus is on the European People's Party (EPP) congress, where 1,200 guests are expected along with leaders such as Germany's Angela Merkel, Spain's Mariano Rajoy, Poland's Donald Tusk and eurozone chief Jean-Claude Juncker, as well as the heads of the EU commission and council, Jose Manuel Barroso and Herman Van Rompuy.

The EPP event - a regular gathering ahead of EU summits - is this time taking place in the gigantic Romanian parliament building, a reminder of Communist times when Romania's dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu levelled a large part of the centre to erect the "House of the People," still the world's second-largest building after the Pentagon.

The EPP event is being seen a sign of support for Basescu, after a similar party congress of the European Socialists due to take place in Bucharest last month was moved to Brussels.

The snub for Ponta came after his failed attempt to oust Basescu, which involved ignoring verdicts by the constitutional court and which caused outrage in the EU capital.

Overt backing of Basescu is not welcomed in all corners of EU politics, however.

For his part, Guy Verhofstadt, the leader of the Liberal group in the European Parliament tweeted: "Why is Barroso attending a Basescu rally in Bucharest when the EU commission has to be impartial in evaluating Romania?"

Romania, as well as Bulgaria, are the only EU members to still be under pre-membership-style monitoring of their judicial systems amid concerns about corruption and the failure by highly-politicised courts to tackle it properly.

Abuses of power - more subtle during Basescu's government and more blatant since Ponta came to power in May - have raised red flags in the EU as to the state of democracy and rule of law in the country.

But the problems have also shown the limitations of EU powers when it comes to a member of the club. And meanwhile, the political infighting in Romania goes on.

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