On the Eve of the December 2012 Parliamentary Elections
NT: Parliamentary elections will take place in Romania on 9 December. What is at stake?
ChM: At stake is a power struggle between President Băsescu and the new Parliamentary majority. The latter is mainly the result of the collapse of the former ruling coalition constructed by Băsescu around his party (PDL),which happened because dozens of MPs (deputies and senators) crossed the floor. The alliance between the Social Democratic Party (PSD) and the Liberal Party (PNL) needs to get the legitimacy conferred by the ballot box. Above all it needs to get an absolute majority – its main raison d’être – because it fears that, separately and on past experience, neither of its leaders will be entrusted by the President with forming a government.
NT: How do you explain the relative popularity of Victor Ponta’s Social Liberal Union (USL) government, when it came to power in the spring? How much of a mess had the previous governments of Emil Boc and Mihai Răzvan Ungureanu made of their task?
ChM: This is to a large extent popularity by default. The Liberal Democratic Party (PDL) came to power not so much as an expression of the popular will. It did not secure an absolute majority in the 2008 election. But by hook or by crook it attracted a number of defectors from other parties, it brought into government the Hungarian Democratic Union (UDMR) on a recipe used by their predecessors and, likewise, it relied on the representatives of other small minorities acting as a Parliamentary group devoid of any ideological identiy. For a brief period the PDL also governed in alliance with the PSD.
The PDL’s popularity was mainly associated with the popularity of the President, who had survived in 2007 a clumsy attempt to remove him from power by a referendum (having first been suspended by Parliament) and who was re-elected by a whisker in 2009. By then Romania with its rather unreformed economy was experiencing the after-taste of a period of growth excessively centred on domestic consumption. It had to turn for support to the IMF and its European partners. The government agreed to impose tough austerity measures, cutting by 25% the salaries of state employees, freezing recruitment in public services andintroducing national insurance contributions for pensioners earning over 200 euros. Both President Băsescu who made it his business to announce the bad news and the government which had to implement the measures saw their popularity eroded. Operating on a tight majority, Prime Minister Emil Boc resorted to curtailing parliamentary debate, using instead a guillotine procedure to introduce important legislation. Besides this, although the PDL embraced Băsescu’s anti- corruption mantra, there was growing evidence of misuse or misappropriation of public funds, nepotism and heavy-handedness.
In the circumstances, it is the widespread outcry and quest for change which explains the relative popularity of USL, or rather its initial surge.
NT: The USL is made up not only of the leftist Social Democrats (PSD) but also of Crin Antonescu’s National Liberals, a centre-right grouping, the Conservative Party of Dan Voiculescu and others. Is it fair to characterise the alliance as “leftist”? Are the terms “left” and “right” still useful labels in Romanian politics today?
ChM: Ideological labels are to a great extent irrelevant in Romania. The PDL, from 1996 to 2005 a member of the Socialist International Movement, claims to represent the centre-right in Romania. So do the National Liberals who, in their fight with Băsescu, joined forces with the Social Democrats. The latter are the indirect successor of the Communist Party. Although supposed to be a centre-left party the PSD supports the single taxation rate of 16% introduced by the other two parties, and this at a time of growing polarisation of wealth in Romania.If anything populism trumps ideology. All parties share to various degrees a temptation to play the populist card.
NT: The USL government has had a stormy half year in power, ahead of the elections. That has been marked in particular by a head-on collision with President Traian Băsescu and the major institutions of state. To what extent was the state in the hands of Băsescu loyalists? Did Ponta have to replace them, or could he have chosen another approach?
ChM: Băsescu and his government did not shy away from placing their followers in keypositions, sometimes in defiance of competency criteria. Appointments to various state bodies, including the Constitutional Court, were made without consultation with the opposition. The President nominated, replaced or moved around hundreds of prosecutors and judges. He has control of the secret services, has tolerated their use in monitoring political adversaries and has occasionally relied on the Supreme Council for the Defence of the Country (CSAT) to by-pass a hostile or inefficient parliament.
When Băsescu finally entrusted Victor Ponta with forming a government in May 2012 (having repeatedly said he would never call on Ponta), the Prime Minister and the Liberal leader Crin Antonescu, who is supposed to be the USL’s presidential candidate, set out to change personnel in various institutions or reduce the prerogatives of the Constitutional Court without much concern for legal niceties. What raised the alarm in Brussels was the haste with which the two proceeded in doing this and their impetuous attempt to suspend Băsescu and have him removed from office through a referendum. The feeling in Brussels was that there had been no evident major breach of the Constitution to justify this action. Băsescu seemed rather like a soccer player who had often kicked his opponents, pulled their shirt or swore at them, who over time acquired a bad name, and who was finally red- carded not for a major offence, but simply because of his reputation as a baddie. This raised serious alarms concerning the state of Romania’s democracy and rule of law in Brussels, Berlin and Washington. Under pressure, the two USL leaders accepted that the President’s dismissal could only be valid if at least half of the voters took part in the referendum. Nearly 80% of those who voted wanted Băsescu dismissed, but only 46% bothered to turn out on polling day (the PDL had urged its supporters to stay away). So the President survived, rather chastened, but the struggle continues.
NT: The European Commission and individual EU states led by Germany have expressed alarm over political developments in Romania since Victor Ponta came to power. What impact have those interventions from Brussels had, if any?
ChM: The sharp and public interventions by Romania’s western partners have tempered the grab for power of the ruling alliance. Unfortunately for many Romanians exasperated with austerity and Băsescu’s behaviour, they also left a bitter taste. At the best, legal niceties were seen a shaving triumphed over the popular will. At the worst, part of the Romanian press claimed Mrs Merkel and Mr Barroso saved Băsescu because his party is a member of their political grouping, the EPP. The overwhelming enthusiasm Romanians showed for joining the EU was for the first time put to the test.
NT: The European People’s Party (EPP) planned a summit in Bucharest, then moved it to Brussels, then held it in Bucharest after all. How solid is the EPP support behind President Băsescu, and can it actually help him any more?
ChM: During the EPP summit, the USL organised a big electoral rally in the national stadium. It was meant to show that while the European leaders are close to Băsescu and the PDL, the Romanian people are drawn to the USL.
There is little the EPP can do to further support President Băsescu unless the USL tries again to suspend him after the December election. For the time being the President is more restrained in his public pronouncements which is not what can be said about his opponents.
NT: One of the main areas of EU pressure on Romania has always been reform of the judiciary, and increased efficiency in tackling corruption. Former Prime Minister Adrian Nastase is now in prison. Special prosecutor Daniel Morar will soon end his time in office. Should he be satisfied with his work? How independent or still open to pressure, is the Romanian judiciary today? Is it even possible to know?
ChM: The judiciary has been slow to reform. And there are not enough judges and court clerks to cope with the great number of court cases. Money, if not politics can influence some judges. Morar, although highly rated in Brussels, is seen by many Romanians as having unleashed his office mainly against Băsescu’s political opponents. Yet the list of Romanian politicians prosecuted during his term does not back this view. However, relatively few prosecutions have resulted in sentencing. Hence the suggestion that Nastase was given a two years prison sentence (for his involvement in a scheme meant to raise campaign funds) in order to show Brussels that the Romanian judiciary is finally producing results.
NT: Can we expect corruption trials to end in Romania if the USL wins the elections?
ChM: It would be difficult, not to mention foolish to attempt to curb corruption trials. All eyes will be on Morar’s successor and on the government to be formed after the December elections, most probably a USL government. Romanians would want to see those perceived as having robbed the public purse brought to justice. Above all they would expect greater fairness and efficiency from the judiciary and the state bureaucracy.
NT: The Hungarian minority in Romania enjoyed a relatively happy period for five years, after Romania joined the EU in 2007. When the USL came to power, the Hungarians fell out of the coalition and relations between the minority and the Romanian majority appear to have deteriorated, at an institutional level at least. Is “the Hungarian card” a factor again in Romanian politics, and if so, who is playing it, and to what effect?
ChM: In the past 16 years, the Hungarian Democratic Union (UDMR), the biggest party representing the Hungarian minority in Romania, has been part of government for more than 10 years. It spent only one year in opposition. Between December 2009 and April 2012 it was part of the PDL led administration (the Boc and Ungureanu governments).
In order to retain the UDMR’s support, the Ungureanu government authorised the setting up of courses in Hungarian at the University of Medicine and Pharmacy in Târgu Mureş (Marosvásárhely). The USL sided with the University’s Senate and opposed the authorisation. It was, indeed, one of the arguments it raised in the vote of no confidence which toppled the short-lived Ungureanu government. The UDMR was dismayed by the inflammatory statements made by the USL leaders Antonescu and Ponta at the time.
Relations between the USL and the UDMR further cooled after the referendum for the dismissal of the President was invalidated on the grounds that less than 50% of the registered voters turned up. The counties where there is a substantial Hungarian population registered the lowest attendance. The UDMR had not advised its supporters to vote either way on the grounds that this was a dispute between Romanian parties. But on a private visit to Romania, on the eve of the referendum, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who is closer to László Tőkés’ Popular Party of the Hungarians in Transylvania (PPMT), – one of two more radical parties rivalling the UDMR – suggested voters could chose to stay away. Commentators in Bucharest fumed at what they perceived as an unwelcome interference in Băsescu’s favour.
With the election in mind, Prime Minister Ponta is moving towards solving the conflict in Târgu Mureş. He will need the UDMR’s support in the next Parliament especially if he wants to rely on a solid majority allowing him to amend the Constitution. The aim is to clarify relations between the President, elected directly by the voters, and Parliament. Or rather to curtail the powers of the President.
NT: Whatever the outcome of the election, what will be the main challenges facing the next Romanian government?
ChM: The government will have to dampen somehow the expectations of the voters by maintaining a prudent fiscal and monetary policy and at the same time proceeding with structural reforms and the privatisation of unprofitable state- owned companies. It needs to urgently tackle the ongoing difficulties in absorbing EU structural funds. At the same time it will have to reduce the outstanding arrears accumulated over time both at central and at local government level.
In the longer term, it will have to address the forthcoming crisis in the pension system. An ageing population depends on a narrow base of contributors. A similar problem is afflicting the underfunded health-care system. Finally if the Romanian economy is to increase its competitiveness the government should allocate more funds to schools and pursue further reforms in education.
Assuming the USL will form the next government it will have to find a way of cohabiting with the President (whose mandate expires at the end of 2014) in order to restore investor confidence in the Romanian economy.