In a blow to hopes in Brussels and beyond that Romania might turn off the deeply destabilising path it's on, the country's constitutional court on Monday, July 9 cleared the way for a national referendum on whether to remove the president from office, media reported.
The court ruled that the July 6 parliamentary vote to suspend President Traian Basescu should stand. Parliament, led by the current coalition of the centre-left Social Democrats and the centre-right National Liberals that took over in April, voted 256 to 114 to suspend Basescu, accusing him of violating the country's constitution and overstepping his authority, setting the stage for an impeachment referendum on July 29. If he is impeached, presidential elections will follow.
Before that, though, the court will rule on another crucial matter that could have a huge bearing on the outcome of the referendum. On Tuesday, July 10, the court will decide on the rules governing the presidential recall vote. The judges must decide whether new legislation lowering the bar for removing the president to a simple majority of votes cast is legal. Before, a majority of registered voters was required, a higher hurdle that was instituted in 2010 after a previous bid to impeach Basescu.
Looking at the latest polls, this ruling will be crucial. According to a poll by IMAS taken July 5-7, some 80% of Romanians eligible to vote said they intend to vote. Of that, 64.3% of Romanians said they will vote to impeach President Basescu, 27.4% of those said they will vote against such a move, and 8.3% did not know or would not want answer. "Given the fairly clear picture painted by this snapshot, the outcome of the referendum will depend on the voting system," notes Vlad Muscalu, senior economist at ING Bank Romania.
The referendum will be the culmination of months of political instability in this poor and economically weak EU country. The current prime minister, Victor Ponta, is the third PM this year, after protests against austerity and corruption toppled the previous ones. Since Ponta ousted the previous Democratic Liberal Party (PDL) government of Mihai Razvan Ungureanu (which was backed by President Basescu), his coalition of the centre-left Social Democrats and the centre-right National Liberals have tightened their grip on power in some dubious moves, including firing the state's independent ombudsman.
This has prompted criticism of PM Ponta at home and abroad. German government spokesman Steffen Seibert on Monday called the impeachment process "unacceptable", while the European Commission said it was worried that Ponta's actions "appear to reduce the effective powers of independent institutions like the Constitutional Court" and urged Romania to respect European "principles and values," media reported.
Ponta retorted that the court's "decisions definitely prove that all democratic and constitutional rules have been respected," and it would be the Romanian people, not German Chancellor Angela Merkel or other EU leaders, that would decide whether Basescu should stay or go.
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