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Romania’s Institutional Confrontation: When politics become a game of chess

The political struggle in Romania between President Traian Băsescu and Prime Minister Victor Ponta came to a critical juncture when, the Constitutional Court invalidated the July referendum to impeach the president, on August 21st. Despite this decision, the political institutional battles are far from over.

August 23, 2012 - Horia-Victor Lefter - Articles and Commentary



The Hungarian saga has turned its prime minister, Viktor Orbán, into a pariah of Europe. Not long after, European politicians and journalists switched their attention to Victor Ponta, Romania’s prime-minister, turning him into a black knight, opposed by President Traian Băsescu, and giving Băsescu a tabula rasa to past events that have led to the Ponta’s current discreditation.

Thus, a political struggle between two not so well-defined political forces has turned into a fight between good/white and evil/black: the Democratic Liberal Party (PDL), commonly associated with Băsescu and a member of the European People’s Party (EPP), on one side and the Social Liberal Union (USL) made up of the Social Democratic Party (PSD) and the Centre Right Alliance, currently representing the parliamentary majority and government, on the other. However, as the German daily Die Welt has pointed out, “reality is not so clear cut”, thus, setting up the chess pieces has become an imperative.

The game began in 2007 when President Băsescu, elected in 2004, was the target of a failed impeachment procedure. Re-elected for a second term in 2009, Băsescu had to change several prime-ministers following the unprecedented protests that shook Romania because of the harsh austerity measures. It was not until the end of spring 2012 that President Băsescu appointed Victor Ponta from the USL coalition as head of the government opposing him, with 60 per cent of the population favouring USL. The problems arose with the refusal of both men to work together, in a typically French cohabitation dilemma.

I don’t intend to recycle this dual model and accuse one side or the other, as neither is right in its actions. But I would rather prefer to deliver a different reading of the events, one voiced by those Romanians who voted against the president and which was unfortunately so much ignored. This reading, in which unfortunately all the reasons cannot be assessed, can be summed up by saying that the end justifies the means. And to prove this, leaving out of the premise that the critics against Ponta were broadly expressed and published, the president’s image is firstly to be questioned. Secondly, the referendum’s implications and lessons should be discussed in order to conclude by listing the issues concerning Romania’s future that were raised by the current events.

Romania’s President: The bishop taken for a king

By focusing their criticism on the current government, western actors (and actually much of the national press, which is believed to be subjected to the president) have fuelled the the megalomania of the president, who considers himself the author and guarantor of Romania’s democracy. Every time a prime-minister dared to stand up to Băsescu, there was conflict (as was the case with former prime-minister Călin Popescu-Tăriceanu and recently with Ponta who went to an European Union meeting in Brussels instead of Băsescu despite the decision of the Constitutional Court). Surprisingly, those who usually had a condescending attitude towards Băsescu, now turn a blind eye to national accusations, and no one has bothered to inquire into international scandals such as the tulips war with the Netherlands.

This situation leads us to the first parallel that can be drawn with former President Nicolae Ceauşes’scu who won the West’s favour after opposing Moscow following the Prague coup in 1968. Similar questions can be raised now as to the purpose pursued by Băsescu through agreeing to host a US anti-ballistic missile defence site.

Moreover, regretting the past was never felt as strong as it is today. By exhuming the corpses of the Nicolae Ceauşescu and his wife in July 2010, not only was the latent memory of Romania’s communist past revived, but it also gave many in these times of austerity a reason to draw a parallel between the former dictator and the present autocrat. (According to a 2010 opinion poll, 41 per cent of those asked would vote for Ceauşescu again).

This phenomenon is not so much caused by the ideology that socialist Romania was once based upon, but rather for economic considerations. Under Ceauşescu, making a sacrifice by the people at least served the purpose of paying back the international debts he had contracted. As for Băsescu, whom is widely believed to be responsible for the population’s current low standard of living, the money he secured from international lenders has only made it as far as the authorities’ pockets (times of financial crisis are seen to be favourable to a decline in democracy).

In a May 2010 statement, the IMF Mission chief for Romania declared: “The mission presented a number of options in this regard, most of them relying on significant revenue increases.” But, the authorities, mainly Băsescu, mocked the population and “decided, however, to focus primarily on cutting expenditures,” such as: “reducing public wages by 25 per cent, and pensions and social assistance by 15 per cent; streamlining and refocusing social assistance programmes on the truly needy; broadening the tax base and attacking tax evasion.” Despite this contrast, However, Ceauşescu and Băsescu seem to have a lot in common.

Romania’s institutional division of power takes the shape of a semi-presidential one, since the president is directly elected by the people in a universal suffrage. So, taking advantage of this, Băsescu, instead of behaving like a king with limited powers, being able to only move one square defined in a squared pattern, prefers to be a “player-president”, acting thus as a bishop (in both French and Romanian, the piece is called the madman). He does everything freely the wrong way, just as it suits him (in French the expression faire quelque chose de travers, translated “to do something the wrong way” has its origin in the Latin word transversus, which means crosswise or diagonally, just like the bishop moves according to the rules of chess).

First of all, both leaders used elections as a means of establishing their power. They identify themselves with the state, thanks to their own men as well as the support from the working class and intellectuals suffering from post-communist socialist phobia (on the occasion of the referendum Băsescu stated “I do not defend a chair. I have to defend a European Romania,” and that he is “stronger more than ever”). Thus, albeit committing commonly known electoral fraud, Băsescu remained in office for a second term winning only 50.3 per cent of the cast votes and pursued his corruption crusade, especially against the opposition and those he didn’t need anymore. Since then, he has constantly uttered threats on TV just like a parent would warn his child: “I am the one who made you; I am the one who can take your life back.” Moreover, he has boosted, amongst others, his daughter to the European parliament, as well as the former minister of Transportation, Elena Udrea.

Secondly, if Ceauşescu used the Securitate (Department of State Security) to strengthen his power, Băsescu, as king, has the habit of making a castling move with the Constitutional Court; the latter, despite theoretically being a rook moving thus in a straight line upon the rules and making sure they are correctly applied. In reality, however, the Constitutional Court reacts differently according to the situation. The move succeeded for the 2007 consultative request on the impeachment as well as for the 2009 presidential election, as the Constitutional Court found no clear evidence to sustain accusations against the president in the first case and dismissed the complaints of electoral fraud in the latter.

The king then changed his tactics and counted on the prosecutors to play the rooks in the castling move while the Court was under attack by the government, in the end accepting to look into the electoral lists used for the July 2012 referendum. All of a sudden, the prosecutors have now begun to carry out investigations. They are not only looking for acts of fraud supposedly committed during the July referendum by local authorities, but are questioning simple individuals in order to know why they went to vote (press titles such as “You voted, you are inquired.” could be seen).

Finally, the president has been accused of “substituting the authority” of the government on several occasions, including the judicial system and parliament (with abuse of urgent orders), as well as manipulating public opinion against these institutions. Both impeachment procedures in 2007 and 2012 were justified by these reasons and neither of them led to the destitution of the head of state. While in 2007, only 40 per cent of the population voted, out of which 25 per cent were in favour of impeachment; in 2012 the referendum was not valid since less than 50 per cent of the eligible population came out to vote. As the rules were changed in 2009, at the indirect initiative of Băsescu, impeachment referendums now require more than 50 per cent to be valid.

Avoiding checkmate

The knight, Ponta that is, is having a hard time playing by these rules. Moreover, he can leap over other pieces, a move which gives him the possibility of initiating an impeachment with or without the help of the Constitutional Court (previously established as the rook), in order to attack the president. Nevertheless, with the crisis still going on, in order to make sure that the knight will stick to his “L-shaped” pattern movement accordingly to the law, people should once and for all seize their fundamental right to vote and make more responsible use out of it in next autumn’s parliamentary elections. Meanwhile, the IMF comforts that things are on track.

However, people didn’t seem to have learned the lesson in the July 29th referendum, when only 46.24 per cent of the population cast their votes making it impossible, according to the new rules, for the vote to be validated. And while the boycott of the referendum in such great numbers teaches us about the level of control the president has on the population, other lessons should also be drawn from this experience.

First of all, by asking 1.5 million Hungarians from Romania not to go to the referendum can only be understood as an agreement between Orbán and Băsescu, who have both been supported by the European People’s Party. On the one hand, Orbán’s instruction can be interpreted as an act of interference in Romania’s internal affairs, while on the other, it comes in contradiction with the violent reaction of the Transylvanian minorities, mainly Hungarians and Germans, to the president’s speech, which was full of contempt and in which he recalled the constitutional article related to Romania’s territorial unity.

Secondly, the Romanian Diaspora is three million strong, out of which only 73,016 took part in the vote mainly because there were only 603 voting bureaus abroad. Questions are still to be raised whether the Romanian Diaspora should be given the possibility to vote in an impeachment referendum. Many of them are not even taken into account in the national census. One of the reasons the vote wasn’t validated was the result of the large abstention of the Diaspora, which wasn’t justified by the vote’s implications and which has become a pawn in Băsescu’s hands despite its intentions. Thus, if it wasn’t for the three million Romanians abroad, the referendum would have been validated and the 7,403,836 Romanians inside the national frontiers who voted in favour of impeachment would have had their voice heard.

According to another lesson, the EU and the United States should not have behaved as queens, combining the power of the rook and the bishop, and thus protecting the president. Organising a referendum of impeachment shouldn’t be seen as proof of instability but more as a step towards a political culture adequately responding to a political and economic situation. And for some time now, it has been publicly known that Băsescu’s popularity has sensibly dropped. They should rather continue with the mechanism of monitoring; the Romanian democracy has much to learn as it is ten times younger than western democracies. Even, earlier this month through the European Commission seems to have changed its approach by addressing a balanced message “to every political actor in Romania”. The pressure put on the Constitutional Court from both sides is the main reason for this turnaround.

Finally, as this attitude doesn’t facilitate finding an answer to the institutional crisis, other questions concerning territorial organisation, the monarchy issue, the parliamentarian structure with its unicameral legislature, as well as the president’s limitation of power, are on stand-by. With the upcoming parliamentary elections in the autumn, the political crisis is most probably going to continue as the high court finally declared the referendum invalid on August 21st, thus making the president’s checkmate official.

Even though many see the end of Ponta, with Băsescu back in office (the prime minister has promised to respect the court’s decision), the opposition will most likely continue to pursue its war against the one who, from now on, they see as “illegal”.

Horia-Victor Lefter is a freelance journalist and expert, writing about Central and Eastern Europe with a particular interest in Belarus, the Eastern Partnership, European identity and human rights. He regularly contributes to several French and English magazines such as The New Federalist, Regard sur l’Est and Eastbook. 

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