Romania’s senior ruling Social Democratic Party (PSD) has drafted a bill setting out simpler rules for modifying the constitution by public referenda. PSD head Liviu Dragnea hinted his party plans to hold a referendum to reduce the institutional role of the presidency as soon as the bill is enacted.
Dragnea implied that the simplified procedure could be used by the PSD in its ongoing political conflict with President Klaus Iohannis. It could also be used to create loopholes in the constitution that would then allow legislation aimed at reducing the power of the anti-corruption institutions (mainly the National Anticorruption Directorate, DNA) to be smoothly endorsed.
The government was recently forced to revoke an emergency decree aimed at partly decriminalising abuse of office, following mass protests. However, if the government succeeds in its latest initiative, it would not be possible for institutions other than the parliament and government (i.e. the presidency or the Constitutional Court) to block future attempts to undermine the DNA. Such a strategy is possible under existing laws; making it simpler under current political circumstances poses significant risks to the anti-corruption fight in Romania.
The PSD would most likely be able win a referendum without much effort. Under the current law on referenda, enacted after the PSD’s failed referendum against former President Traian Basescu in 2012, the required turnout necessary for declaring a referendum valid is only 30%.
One of the changes under the bill drafted by the PSD is that a referendum should be organised within 30 days of the initiative being approved by lawmakers.
In addition, actions defined as infractions and misdemeanours related to referendum procedures will be restricted. Specifically, under the bill that Dragnea’s actions during the 2012 referendum - for which he received a suspended sentence for abuse of power - would no longer be illegal. This provision does not affect Dragnea since laws do not apply retroactively, but paves the way for others to try to influence referendum results by similar means in future.
The PSD submitted two similar bills with roughly the same aim last year, but they have not been discussed by lawmakers. The PSD senators who drafted the bill explained that it is necessary “in order to ensure transparent procedures applicable to any initiative of constitutional revision”.
They mentioned the current initiative, supported by some PSD members, to collect signatures for a referendum on amending the constitution to define the family in a more traditional and restrictive way - a referendum that would effectively decide whether to outlaw same-sex marriage.
The bill is not the only legal initiative being considered by PSD after it (predictably) failed to endorse emergency ordinance 13. Dragnea has also mentioned that the power of elected heads of the local administration should be strengthened, although he has not elaborated the concept.