BALKAN BLOG: Ponta living on borrowed time

BALKAN BLOG: Ponta living on borrowed time
By Iulian Ernst in Bucharest, Kit Gillet in Bucharest July 16, 2015

Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta has looked to be living on borrowed time since his defeat in the presidential elections last November and that time is now fast running out.

Ponta’s shock defeat in the presidential election, amid opposition protests over the difficulties expatriate Romanians faced in voting abroad, was a serious blow to the morale of the Social Democratic Party, the country’s dominant party since the fall of Ceausescu. It also helped unite the fractured centre-right opposition behind the newly elected President Klaus Iohannis and has given it the momentum to push for early elections.

Ponta – who has already had to deny long-running allegations that he plagiarised his PhD, though he relinquished it late last year to try to limit the distraction – has clung on in the hope that the improving Romanian economy, together with more generous state handouts, could deliver him victory at the next polls, due in December 2016.

However, now that the increasingly active Romanian prosecutors have charged Ponta with corruption, in a case that pre-dates his ministerial career, he may not even outlast the year.

Prosecutors claim that Ponta forged documents to cover payments made to him between 2007 and 2008, a period before he became a government minister and when he was still working as a lawyer. The payments, amounting to some €40,000, were made by a law firm for services that were allegedly never delivered, related to a contract between the law firm and state-owned companies.

On June 5, Romania’s anticorruption agency announced that it was starting official investigations into Ponta, and on July 13 he became the first serving premier to be indicted. He is also accused of conflict of interest, which allegedly took place while he was prime minister, though the chamber has refused to remove his parliamentary immunity in this case.

After disappearing for a three-week trip to Turkey for knee surgery, Ponta stepped aside as the PSD leader on July 13 just before he was charged, but he has refused to resign as premier. “Because I do not want this situation to affect PSD, I am informing you I have decided not to hold any leadership position in the party until I prove my innocence on charges I am being brought,” he said in a statement posted on his Facebook page.

President Klaus Iohannis has called for Ponta to step down as premier too, saying that it was "an impossible situation for Romania that the prime minister be accused of criminal actions" and that the last thing Romania needed was a political crisis.

Unity crumbling

The scandal has given new impetus to opposition hopes of undermining the Social Democrat-led coalition, though it still lacks a charismatic leader.

The opposition is split between the parliamentary National Liberal Party (PNL) and several small, newly formed parties that have targeted voter dissatisfaction with the existing major parties but have so far had limited traction among the electorate. Some 34% of voters would support a new party, according to an IRES poll carried in June. Nonetheless, independent candidates performed disappointingly in November’s presidential elections.

Already there are signs that the ruling coalition’s unity is crumbling: the junior coalition party UNPR voted in favour of the appointment of Mihai-Razvan Ungureanu as head of the foreign intelligence services SIE on June 30, despite a boycott from the PSD, who claimed that Ungureanu was too close to the centre-right opposition.

The PNL is likely to need at least one other party to form a new majority. An INSCOP poll dating from May indicated that PNL would get 44.7% of the votes, compared to 39.1% for the PSD.

The formation of a new political majority would depend on the support of junior ruling parties such as the ethnic Hungarian UDMR and/or the UNPR. However, there is no immediate gain for either to switch sides and this has prevented a shift of power since November’s presidential elections. PNL has also failed so far to promote major public debates that would put PSD in a difficult situation, generate massive public protests and thus convince the junior ruling parties to defect.

By remaining prime minister, Ponta can maintain a strong grip on the senior ruling party until the internal elections at the next party congress, due next year, where he may seek a new term as party leader. The more likely it seems that Ponta will survive the prosecutors' accusations – and at this moment it doesn’t seem particularly likely – the more likely it is that party leadership will support him for a new term as party leader, and thus maintain him as premier.

The problem for the Social Democrats is that they currently have no credible alternative to Ponta. Interim party chief Rovana Plumb, the Minister of Labour, Family, Social Protection and Elderly, would be the most neutral and least controversial replacement, but she is only seen as a temporary solution.

Other names circulated by the media as long-term replacements for Ponta, should he go, include former Deputy Prime Minister Liviu Dragnea and local party leader Marian Oprisan, as well as Chamber of Deputies speaker Valeriu Zgonea. Neither has Ponta’s intellectual substance and they lack support among party members.

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