Analysis: Romania's President Traian Basescu Returns to Power, Political Crisis Finds No Solution

Posted in Europe | 27-May-07 | Author: Nikolai Yotov

Romania's President Traian Basescu gestures after first exit polls during an impeachment referendum in Bucharest May 19, 2007.

BUCHAREST (Romania) - The impeachment referendum conducted on Saturday in Romania, which re-established the suspended President Traian Basescu as head of state, showed low electoral activity across the EU newcomer, leaving open many questions and re-fueling the ongoing political crisis.

Some 74.4% or 6.04 million people out of 8.12 million who voted in the referendum day expressed their will to bring Basescu back to Cotroceni (Romania's presidential palace), according to final results from the Central Electoral Bureau (BEC) on Wednesday. Turnout was less than 45% rather than over 77% as previously suggested by polls.

Basescu is considered by many to be the only political leader defending ordinary people's interests against the widespread corruption and laxity among the political elite. Called populist and reformist by foreign media, praised to oppose the current political status quo, Traian Basescu is often derided by local journalists and hated by former allies.

Romania's political crisis deepened in April when Basescu was suspended by the parliament in a 322-108 vote, after the largest opposition group – the Social Democratic Party (PSD) addressed allegations towards him of repeatedly infringing the constitution, causing and sustaining a political crisis in the country.

The results of the vote on Saturday show that Basescu's popularity is growing, as he won some one million votes more than in the 2004 presidential election.

Well aware of that, Basescu is most likely to lobby for putting ministers back in the government who were previously removed by the Liberal Prime Minister Calin Popescu Tariceanu, such as the Justice Minister Monica Macovei. She was largely praised and defended by the EU as extremely effective in the fight against corruption and for implementing reforms in the judiciary system.

Tariceanu reshuffled his two-year-old cabinet in April, ousting the ministers of its former coalition partner, the Democratic Party (PD), in a bid to end the political bickering that has stalled reforms since the country joined the EU. Basescu is PD's informal leader.

The new government only has a 20% parliament support. It was backed, however, by the PSD in the parliament in the April vote.

Basescu and Tariceanu started the conflict almost a year after coming to power at the same time at the end of2004, when the parliamentary and presidential elections were held.

Romania, which can be described as a semi-presidential republic, does not clearly stipulate rights and responsibilities of the prime minister and head of state, which led to accusations from both sides of abuse of power.

Exit polls after the referendum showed that some liberal electorate has supported Basescu which could lead the PSD to withdraw its support for Tariceanu, leaving him with no power to continue the reforms Romania has to do, which it committed to after joining the EU in January 2007.

Basescu returned to his office after the Constitutional Court validated the results of the vote.

Immediately after the closing of the voting sections, Basescu said he would promote reform of Romania's judicial system and the national security strategy to address global threats like terrorism and drug trafficking more efficiently.

"Probably the most important significance of the vote, so powerfully in my favour, refers to the consolidation of the judicial system's independence. Romanians want justice," he said.

Last month, the European Commission urged Romania to continue judicial reform and the fight against corruption despite the current political crisis in the country. The European Commission is expected to issue its report on the country's development in June.

The Romanian president also said he would support the acceleration of reforms in the healthcare sector, back steps for improving the absorption of the EU funding for the agricultural sector and the development of small and medium-sized enterprises in order to raise the standard of living in rural areas.

He added that the support he had got in the referendum indicated that Romanians agreed to his proposals to decentralise the country's education system and allocate 6% of GDP for its financing.

If Romania does not take immediate measures to continue reforms requested from Brussels, the European Commission's report might consist of warnings towards the new member.

"I want to congratulate President Basescu for the result in the referendum yesterday. I hope that this outcome will contribute to allow Romania, as a full member of the European Union, to move forward with the reforms that are needed, especially in the areas of judicial reform and the fight against corruption", the Commission's President, Jose Manuel Barroso said in a statement on Sunday.

Romania and its southern neighbour, Bulgaria, were accepted into the EU with the so-called "safeguard clause", which enables the activation of various measures against the two countries if reforms are considered slow.

Snap general elections in Romania are less likely, as not much time is left until the regular ones in 2008 and the EU newcomer has yet to hold elections for members of the European Parliament, which have been postponed in March to anuncertain date, due to the political instability in the country.

Prime Minister Tariceanu also announced on Monday that his National Liberal Party will remainin power.

"In 2004 we obtained the power and in two and a half years we proved we can respect our commitments, [...] we move forward, we will continue to govern", he said.

Political talks continue as no settlement between parties seems to have been found and the conflict between the president and prime minister will remain as long as both hold their positions.

Nikolai Yotov is Editor Bulgaria of the World Security Network Foundation.