By Daniel Stroe – Bucharest
The closing year stood out as a period of increased political confrontations between the two rival camps of President Traian Basescu and PM Victor Ponta, setting the tone for what many expect a genuine political war in 2014 when Romania, other than holding Euro-elections, votes for a new president who, according to the current Constitution, has strong prerogatives and thus is a major player in the country’s politics.
2013 debuted with a cohabitation pact signed by the two arch rivals amid an increased public hostility shown to each other, reflected in tough language public statements. The pact called on the two leaders to abstain from attacks against the state institutions and use a polite language when addressing the other “always in the second plural person”.
Despite a period of political respite between the two, the insults kept flying in the political space. “A liar”, “I am a better prime-minister than he is”, “Victor Ponta is a profoundly corrupt prime-minister” Basescu said over the year. In his turn, Ponta said that “Basescu has reached a superior level of irresponsibility and he lacks discernment” or “he has a Securitate mentality” (Securitate – the former communist regime’s repressive apparatus) or “the president has made scandals for nine years, I am busy running the country”.
In October, after months of frictions, Basescu denounced the cohabitation pact following a controversial removal of a leading prosecutor with the National Anti-corruption Department (DNA), Lucian Papici. Papici was the one coordinating the investigation against Ponta’s deputy, Liviu Dragnea, an influential figure in the social-democratic party (PSD). Dragna was indicted for abuse of office for is accused of setting up a nation-wide network meant to bring people to the polling stations to make sure Basescu’s impeachment referendum in July 2012 reaches the legal limit of turn-out so the president could be removed. “Ponta has trampled the justice” Basescu accused the PM then.
The rhetoric toughened towards the end of the year as the ruling coalition USL (social-liberal union) sought to pass a series of controversial measures meant to subdue the anti-corruption efforts, already dealt a severe blow with Papici’s removal in October. Lawmakers secretly passed a series of amendments which exempts them from corruption offenses, drawing the ire of the civil society and the West. A draft law on amnesty has also been widely seen as a means to secure the release of some politicians already in prison or in an advanced stage of criminal investigation. Basescu vowed to reject the laws. He also outdid PM Ponta when he managed to remove a 7 Euro-cents fuel excise from next year’s budget, scoring an image victory at the end of the turbulent year.
The tough language between the two protagonists of the Romanian politics paves the way for a year of severe confrontation centered on the major stake of presidency. Though the fragmented opposition has no runner yet for the top job, Basescu is likely to throw his political might behind a candidate and seek to disrupt a united front of the current ruling coalition and scatter the chances to succeed him.
2013 also marked renewed tensions in the ruling coalition which left the public the impression USL is about to break. Tensions which were sparked among debates on the new general-prosecutor and the administrative reform culminated a few weeks ago when social-democrat lawmakers left the plenum on the Parliament in defiance of the liberals, the governing partners, depriving the latter of the necessary votes to ensure the installation of their candidate at the helm of the state television. Through their gesture, the social-democrats wanted to sanction statements made by the liberal’s leader, Crin Antonescu, who sought to keep his part away from the scandal sparked by the controversial amendments brought to the Criminal Code, putting all the blame on the social-democrats.
Antonescu and Ponta also wrangled over the Rosia Montana gold mining project. As the tension in the streets rose amid wide protests against the cyanide based mining projects, Antonescu backed down again and said the project has to be rejected by the Parliament, leaving Ponta uncovered again. Another source of divergence inside USL was the social-democrats’ quest for their candidate in November presidential elections. The coalition agreement says Antonescu will represent USL in the elections, but it is unlikely USL will last until then.
2013 also brought major failures for USL which, despite a 70 per cent majority in the Romanian Parliament, failed to pass landmark legislation, such as the law on the administrative reform and decentralization and a new Constitution. The new fundamental law was meant to transfer more prerogatives from the president to the prime-minister, but since the debate lingered many are convinced Ponta no longer wants this swap of prerogatives since he himself eyes the first job in the state.
Despite political intervention, this year was also a successful one for the anti-corruption fight. A large number of politicians, mayors, judges, prosecutors and influential businessmen were sent to prison for corruption related offences. The most resounding case was Gigi Becali, owner of FC Steaua Bucharest, was sentenced to three years and a half of imprisonment in a land swap affair with a former minister of Defense, himself convicted as well. Two former minister, Decebal Traian Remes and Ioan Muresan, were also sent to prison for three years for peddling of influence. Former senator Catalin Voicu, one of the most influential social-democrats, was also jailed for seven years for the same charges. Las, but not least, former democrat-liberal lawmaker Dan Pasat received a three years sentence for corruption. Other 28 lawmakers and 100 elected local officials are also under criminal investigation for corruption, most of them for conflict of interests, which explains the MPs’ eagerness to amend the Criminal Code and shield themselves from corruption charges.
2013 also concludes with a major failure on the Romanian foreign affairs agenda, the Schengen accession. Though Bucharest nurtured hopes for a staged accession to get the green light this December, it looks like Romania and Bulgaria will not receive good news pretty soon. With 2014 set to be a crucial year for the Romanian politics, with stakes so high they could legit all means of political pressure, many in the West will probably be tempted to see the results of the presidential elections late next year before making a choice concerning the Schengen accession efforts. Next year’s report on CVM – the instrument through which the European Commission monitors progress in the field of justice in Romania and Bulgaria – will set the tone for this debate. But with justice being trampled in Bucharest for internal scopes, disregarding the country’s foreign agenda, the Schengen objective may be put on hold for longer than expected.