Victor Ponta has a taste for the political ambush. In 2010, he won the leadership of Romania's Social Democrats (PSD) within five days of announcing his candidacy. This summer, in the space of four days, he used his position as his country's stop-gap prime minister to suspend the president and remove the speakers of parliament and the national ombudsman.
Ponta is clearly a man who strikes fast and effectively. To have become a prime minister at 39 also suggests an astute, calculating brain. Yet within weeks of President Traian Basescu's suspension, the European Commission – and, crucially, Germany's Social Democrats – forced him to issue a mea culpa in the form of 11 promises of corrective action. Somehow, a man who has a decade of political contacts with the European Union, and whose wife is a member of the European Parliament, had misjudged the EU.
A polyglot who speaks English, French and Italian, Ponta comes from a modest family that had moved from southern Romania to Bucharest. Vladimir Tismaneanu, a professor at the University of Maryland, recalls Ponta as the leader of the PSD's youth wing as a “flamboyant leftist militant with an unabashed admiration for Che Guevera” and some admiration for Chinese communism. “I thought he was a relatively naïve east European leftist”, he says, though Ponta was already the head of the Government Audit Agency.
That post was a gift offered in 2001 to the young lawyer by Adrian Na?stase, the then prime minister. Ponta did not make his name as a corruption-fighter, though; rather the reverse. The WikiLeaks cache of US diplomatic cables contains one from 2010 that states that Ponta came to be seen as “a staunch opponent of actual judicial reform”. The European Commission did not realise that early enough: in 2002, the Commission's anti-fraud office (OLAF) made Ponta its main point of liaison with the government, a status that, according to the British academic Tom Gallagher, he used to dissuade OLAF from investigations.
Ponta also clashed with someone who was eager for actual judicial reform, Monica Macovei, who served as justice minister in 2004-07. In a leaked cable, a US diplomat talks of Ponta's “hatred” for Macovei being “notorious”. Macovei, who is now an MEP, says Ponta actively led the defence in parliament against prosecution of Nastase for corruption.
Gallagher recalls Ponta as being “unusually arrogant and non-rule-bound”, with “an incredible degree of self-belief and a really powerful ego”. Other accounts suggest Ponta is bruising, fickle and vain, with scant regard for the separation of powers and an ability, as one Romanian journalist has put it, to lie very sincerely (though Corina Cretu, an MEP from Ponta's party, says “honesty is his main quality”). Such traits did not harm him with Nastase. He would later also forge a working relationship with Nastase's successor as party leader, Mircea Geoana, though accounts of their closeness vary.
But, in 2010, Ponta and the party's powerbrokers removed Geoana, under whom the party had lost five electoral contests. On 15 February, Nastase said Geoana had rigged the rules of an upcoming party convention. The same day, Ponta said he would stand for party leader. On 16 February, a key supporter of Geoana, Ilie Sârbu, a former agriculture minister, moved into Ponta's camp – an unsurprising switch since Ponta, a divorced father, had married Sârbu's daughter Daciana in 2006 (in Beijing). On 17 February, Ion Iliescu, the country's president for ten years, attacked Geoana. By 20 February, Ponta was party leader.
The episode showed the importance of the right connections in Ponta's rise. Some suggest he is a front for others. Others argue that what makes Ponta a natural political fighter and survivor – ego, ambition, feistiness, and ideological mutability – keep him his own man.
Like Nastase and Geoana, Ponta has talked of modernising the PSD, highlighting in his 2010 ‘Fair Romania' agenda transparency in party funding, outreach to the young, the working class, and the world. Ponta has image-friendly interests – he plays basketball, supports Steaua Bucharest and has co-piloted racing cars – but it was not image, an election or his promise to create the most honest government in Romanian history that transformed him into a prime minister this May.
Rather, he became prime minister by default, following the collapse of the Emil Boc government. Having tried another interim prime minister, Basescu was forced to turn to Ponta, who by then had forged an alliance with the Liberals. On 10 June, the alliance won local elections. In the national parliament, deputies migrated to the new bloc – a trend that enabled Ponta to win the vote to suspend Basescu.
So was Ponta's attack on the institutions of state between 3-6 July spontaneous or long-planned? Views vary. But alongside the campaign to challenge Basescu on every front, the careful sequencing of legislative moves and the continuing pressure on prosecutors, there were also signs of improvisation and two unexpected – and psychologically crucial – moments.
One was the jailing of Nastase on 20 June on charges of corruption. Another was the accusation on 18 June that Ponta plagiarised vast tracts of his doctorate. Plagiarism charges had prompted Ponta's education minister to resign just eight days after Ponta became premier; Ponta's response when he himself was accused was, however, to go on the hyperactive offensive.
Such hyperactivity has produced almost comic scenes on the EU stage. In late June, having failed to win a court battle to represent Romania at EU summits, he raced Basescu to reach Brussels on the day of the European Council; Basescu withdrew. In September, after the constitutional court invalidated a referendum to impeach the president, Basescu went to Brussels to meet the leaders of EU institutions. Ponta followed him immediately.
The imbroglio might seem to augur badly for Ponta's chances in parliamentary elections on 9 December – after all, it has dashed Romanians' hopes of being able to travel without passports across Europe. But Ponta's ratings are holding up and the alliance continues to tap anti-Basescu sentiment relentlessly and, increasingly, anti-EU and anti-US sentiment.
Events may leach the potency of that rhetoric. Economic problems are mounting. Largesse is hard when there is no money. Successes are hard to identify. The cabinet has had a revolving door. Invective against cultural institutions is commonplace. Prosecutors are facing threats of investigation.
Already, the alliance's ratings have fallen. Still, the chances are that Ba?sescu will have to offer Ponta the premiership. If re-appointed, on the European stage he will have to live with – or shed – a reputation for callowness, recklessness, and authoritarian tendencies. And he will, as now, be acting largely alone. But, as Tismaneanu puts it, the day he decides to be a real European Social Democrat, perhaps his problems will start to resolve themselves.