This blog admits to sharing the general cynicism about the political process. All the more important therefore to recognise when positive efforts show results. Last week’s astounding victory (by a 10% margin) in the Romanian Presidential elections of a quiet outsider took everyone by surprise – he was down by the same margin after the first leg of the elections - but what happened in the subsequent two weeks has given the country its first real opportunity in 25 years to change an utterly venal system.
Something seemed to snap this month for many Romanian citizens. They are used to smugness, arrogance, lying and deceit from their politicians – although the past two years have seen an increasing number of those politicians being actually tried, convicted and locked up. The Prime Minister (and Presidential candidate) Ponta epitomised their breed – having been groomed by a previous Prime Minister Adrian Nastase (2000-2004) who became in 2010 or so one of the first politicians to be fingered by a judiciary which was given its head by the terms of Romania’s entry to the EU in 2007 – and specifically by the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism.
At its heart is the National Anti-Corruption Agency (DNA) whose officials bring the prosecutions which (tenured) judges at last are happy to uphold. (Not that this stops the Romanian Parliament from trying to give its deputies special immunity!)
But blatant attempts at vote-rigging in the last few weeks proved too much for voters - and seem to have been the spur for an astonishing jump of 2 million additional people voting in the second round – more than enough to wipe out the 1.5 million lead which Ponta had in the first round.
Stunning as this victory of decency seems to have been, we need to understand that it has come about only as a result of long, hard and patient work not only of a few Romanian heroes and heroines but of a group whose reputation has become a bit more tarnished these days - namely European technocrats who - as long ago as 2004 - set in place measures to make the Romanian judicial system work. It has been a long struggle which came to a head in 2012.
Ponta had been Prime Minister for only a few weeks when, in summer 2012, he sparked off a major constitutional crisis which I covered on the blog during July of that year and summarised in this post. Tom Gallagher (who has given us a couple of books about post 1989 Romania - one of which is significantly called "Theft of a Nation") gave the best overview then
A 22-page report from the European commission says the new government, led by Ponta, has flouted the constitution, threatened judges, illegally removed officials in an arbitrary manner, and tampered with the democratic system of checks and balances in order to try to secure the impeachment of President Traian Basescu……....The crisis erupted because of the massive over-reaction by the new government of Victor Ponta to court decisions sentencing political figures, previously thought to be beyond the reach of the law, to prison terms. Romania had joined the EU (in 2007) on terms that largely suited a restricted post-communist elite that benefited from discretionary privatisations of the economy while pulling the strings in many of the key institutions of state.
A once lively independent media was mainly captured by the new power magnates. Parliament devised rules for itself that made challenges from new social forces very hard and protected its members from prosecution.
Aware that there was a real danger of Romania becoming a festering political slum within the EU, Brussels officials showed firmness in one key area, the justice sector. The Romanian elite agreed, in 2004, to Brussels having oversight of the justice system even after entry in 2007.The EU has shown consistency by insisting on a proper separation of powers and the gradual creation of a justice system not impeded from going after top politicians, businessmen, civil servants and judges who face credible charges of corruption.
For the last eight years there has been a messy power struggle between the old guard, determined to hold the line against encroachments on their power, and a small group of reformers in the justice system and the party of Democratic Liberalism that held office until April. They have mainly been sustained by President Traian Basescu, a rough-hewn and unconventional former ship captain in the Romanian merchant navy.
Basescu is hated by much of the elite because he defected from their ranks and decided to try and make his legacy the cleaning up of one of the most venal political systems in Europe. In the process, leading figures in his own party have not been spared. This led to a string of defections that explain why his most implacable enemies in the Social Liberal Union were able to return to government this spring (2012).Their original intentions had been to wait until parliamentary elections in the autumn before removing Basescu. They were predicted to produce a big win for them due to the unpopularity of tough austerity measures that Basescu had championed in 2010-11.
But panic set in with the prison sentence for Nastase. Prudence was ditched entirely when the British journal Nature published an investigation revealing that 85 pages of the new Prime Minister’s thesis had simply been copy-pasted from other sources.It was decided that Basescu would have to be eliminated from the political game straight away. But that could only be accomplished by neutralising bodies like the Constitutional Court and the Ombudsman, seizing control of the official gazette so that the government could publish or suppress whatever laws and rulings it pleased, and removing the heads of the bicameral parliament in contravention of the rules for this.
President Basescu was unpopular – being associated with austerity measures and being a hyperactive loudmouth. More than 80% of those who voted in the 2012 referendum called to impeach him therefore wanted him out (although the President had called for a boycott) but it failed since only 46% of voters turned out. After this, things quietened down. A report earlier this year from The Sustainable Government Indicators project gives a detailed analysis of events since 2012.In a few days he will stand down – and could well then face prosecution himself by virtue of his role (as Minister of Transport) in the privatisation of Romania’s shipping fleet for what some people allege to have been too low a figure. As far as I am aware noone suggests that Basescu benefitted....For Romania's sake, I hope this issue does not become another scandal.....
It has taken all of 2 years for Ponta to get the "come-uppance" he so richly deserves.
And for the EC to begin to deserve the Nobel prize it won a couple of years ago