Romania's leaders at loggerheads again

By bne IntelliNews June 13, 2013

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The marriage from hell that's the cohabitation between Prime Minister Viktor Ponta's leftish government and the centre-right presidency of Traian Basescu looks set to descend into acrimony once again.

Just a year since an almighty fallout between the two ended up in an impeachment vote against the president, who lost the vote but managed to stay in power by dint of the fact that the turnout was too low, Ponta and Basescu are once again at loggerheads, this time over how the parliament should be reorganised.

Ponta on Wednesday, June 12 slammed the move by Basescu the previous day to start procedures to organize a referendum on the introduction of a single-chamber parliament and cut the number of MPs to a maximum of 300. The president has previously tried to push these reforms through, holding a referendum in 2009 that around 70% of the electorate answered positively on, on the grounds that they believed political decisions would be made faster and public spending would be reduced.

Basescu's move is in opposition to the ruling USL coalition's own plans for reform of the constitution, under which parliament would have two chambers, with 300 MPs in the Chamber of Deputies and another 100 in the upper house, the Senate. "In my opinion, this attitude of the majority from the USL, which rejects applying the 2009 referendum, has nothing to do with democracy and with the people on behalf of which the Parliament says it works," Basescu was quoted as saying.

The proposals for the parliament are part of plans by Romania to modify its constitution by the end of this year. A commission is working on this project, among which the main changes envisaged are revising the role of the president and the mechanism by which the president nominates the PM.

Parliament is to start discussing the president's request for the organization of the referendum on Monday, June 17. And many observers worry that the stage is now set for a repeat of the kind of standoff that has punctuated Romania's political scene in the past few years, which have paralysed government and hurt the fragile economic recovery.

The last bout was last year and only ended after the nine-member Constitutional Court on August 21, 2012, ruled that a July 29 referendum, called after Ponta and his USL managed to get parliament to suspend Basescu, was invalid because the turnout fell short of the required 50% of the 18.3m electorate. In the referendum, 88% of those who voted wanted Basescu out. However, the turnout was only 46%, in no small part because Basescu had called for a boycott of the vote.

That should have been an end to it, but this is Romania, where political standoffs drag on until all possibilities other than peace have been exhausted.

The USL government then claimed that the size of the total electorate was lower in reality than on paper, and that the turnout threshold had therefore been met. It then set about trying to push the Constitutional Court to agree, which resulted in complaints from the court to a judicial commission of the Council of Europe "about continuing pressure and threats against individual judges."

This got the EU involved, which accused Ponta and his government of trampling over democracy and undermining judges - massively counterproductive in a country where corruption is so rife and entrenched. The EU continues to keep a wary eye on Romanian politics.

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