A fierce political war is raging in Romania after Prime Minister Victor Ponta, leader of the left-wing Social Democratic Party (PSD), used his parliamentary majority to force the suspension of President Traian Basescu, who is close to the centre-right opposition Democratic Liberal Party (PDL), over alleged abuse of power.
Basescu now faces a referendum on 29 July to decide whether his suspension should be permanent, which, say observers, he is likely to lose. That would consolidate the hold on power of the ruling Social Liberal Union (USL), which is dominated by Ponta's Socialists and already controls the two houses of parliament as well as most of the municipalities.
Ironically, it was Basescu who appointed Ponta as prime minister, pending elections in November, after the centre-right lost its majority in parliament. Since then relations have deteriorated to outright enmity. First, Ponta found himself accused of plagiarising large sections of his 2003 doctoral thesis, claims which he insisted were politically motivated, pointing the finger of blame at Basescu. Then Ponta's academic and political mentor, former prime minister Adrian Nastase, was jailed for two years on 20 June on corruption charges.
The conflict intensified when a dispute between Ponta and Basescu over who should represent Romania at the European Council on 28-29 June went to the constitutional court, which ruled in the president's favour. (Ponta turned up anyway.)
Once back in Bucharest, Ponta obtained his revenge with the vote by the pro-government majority in parliament last Friday (6 July) to suspend Ba?sescu from office and initiate the referendum, meanwhile lowering the threshold for a successful impeachment to 50% of actual rather than eligible voters. Basescu was replaced by an acting president – Crin Antonescu, leader of the PSD's coalition partner, the National Liberal Party (PNL), and Senate president since 3 July.
The USL also replaced the speakers of both houses of parliament and the country's ombudsman, voted to curb the constitutional court's powers to overrule parliamentary decisions, and is now threatening to sack judges who oppose its decisions.
The government also increased its power to legislate through emergency decrees by taking control of the Official Journal, where laws must be published to be valid.
But with the attacks on the president and on the constitutional court, Ponta and his allies crossed a threshold and triggered a hostile reaction internationally, and specifically in the European Union. The European Commission, Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel and the US ambassador to Romania have stepped in to issue warnings that the separation of powers is a cornerstone of democracy. Ponta has been summoned to Brussels today (12 July) by Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso to discuss his government's actions.
But neither side is blameless in this conflict. Basescu has anything but a clean slate – his re-election to a second term as president in December 2009 was marred by accusations, internally and from international observers, of fraud, abuse of executive power and media bias. The constitutional court rejected the opposition's appeal for a rerun of the vote, which the PSD believed had been won by Mircea Geoana, its leader at the time.
Loss of support
Popular dissatisfaction with Basescu, who became president in 2004 on an anti-corruption platform, reached a peak in January this year. A majority of Romanians were prepared to tolerate his autocratic rule when times were good and the country was growing at 7% a year. But austerity measures following the economic crisis ushered in uncertainty and turmoil, leaving the PDL deeply damaged.
It is too early to write off Romania as yet another failed democracy in post-communist Europe. The country remains susceptible to outside pressure. MEPs from the centre-right European People's Party (of which the PDL is a member, even though Basescu started his career as a leftist) called on the EU to use Article 7 of the Lisbon treaty and suspend the country's voting rights in the EU's Council of Ministers.
Romania is already bracing itself for a negative report under the Co-operation and Verification Mechanism (CVM), the EU's post-accession monitoring of reforms in the judiciary and the fight against corruption. Romania also remains critically dependent on the International Monetary Fund under a stand-by agreement concluded in 2009.
Neighbouring Bulgaria, which joined the EU at the same time as Romania, recently found favour with the markets with an oversubscribed bond auction at 4.8% interest rates. Romanians would like to earn a similar level of trust from international lenders, and external factors may constrain Ponta's room for maneouvre.
What happens in Romania matters a great deal to the EU. Interventions from Brussels could yet act as a corrective to internal political excesses. But while many might take heart from the EU's capacity, even in times of profound crisis, to rescue fragile democracies from themselves, such missions (we have seen one already in Hungary) might produce only Pyrrhic victories.
The whole point of the democratic transitions supported by the EU was to build sustainable systems capable of managing social and political conflicts and guaranteeing the rule of law. Events in Romania demonstrate its democratic transition is incomplete. Can the EU provide a long-term solution or just a temporary fix?
Dimitar Bechev is a senior policy fellow of the European Council on Foreign Relations and head of its Sofia office.