“Get out, you miserable dog!” For Romanian President Traian Basescu, this has been the recurrent chorus of the people publicly protesting against him. In January this year, Romania saw a minor resurgence of the revolutionary spirit of 1989. The riots of Bucharest were a surprising endeavor in a country often tagged as a place for resignation, acceptance and intrinsic idleness. For many, this was a response to austerity measures. But more importantly, this was a response to the further enrichment of the rich and the increased poverty of the poor. It was a response to an over-centralization of power and wealth, heavily exposed within the circles of the president. In this context, the last nine months represented a period of socio-political turmoil.
Since January 2012, Basescu's party, the Democratic Liberal Party (PDL) has slipped to less than 15 percent support in polls. Emil Boc's government stepped down in the aftermath of the January protests. The next government led by Mihai Razvan Ungureanu fell on 27 April, after losing a parliamentary vote of confidence. The current government, a result of political opposition to Traian Basescu, is led by Victor Ponta, head of the Social Democratic Party, part of the odd alliance between social-democrats and liberals, the Social-Liberal Union (USL). For many, this is an exceptionally negative vote towards PDL in a country where politicians are widely seen as corrupt individuals, driven by self-interest and with no coherent ideologies or policies. Political scientist Alina Mungiu Pippidi notes that "competitive clientelism rules in Romania, different cliques are engaged in a life-or-death battle to conquer the state in order to plunder it. Political parties in our young democracy are like medieval armies, whose recruits are not paid and live only from plunder. That explains the intensity of political battles, like the one we are now experiencing."
The growing bickering between Basescu and Ponta reached boiling point when the Prime Minister used his parliamentary majority to suspend the President. The grounds may seem weak, as the Constitution dictates that the head of state can be impeached only for grave illegal acts, but nothing in particular has been cited. In this context, the Constitutional Court ruled the referendum vote would be valid only with the participation of over 50 percent of the population. The European Commission, as well as US Ambassador in Bucharest Mark Gitenstein, and Phillip Gordon, Deputy to Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, have voiced concerns over a number of decisions of the government: Ponta replaced the Ombudsman, seized control of the Monitorul Oficial (the official promulgator of laws and decrees), took over the national cultural institute and threatened the independence of the judges of the Constitutional Court. On the other hand, Ponta claims that he has freed the institutions from Basescu's corrupt influence. Even more so, throughout his suspension, Basescu repeatedly threatened to jail those who participated in this "coup d’etat,” and encouraged boycotts and non-participation at the referendum, an approach that his critics depicted as non democratic and authoritarian.
The referendum on impeachment took place on 29 July, with the official participation figures remaining around 46 percent. Approximately 88 percent of those who cast their votes supported the President's impeachment. The USL claimed that the number of 18.3 million voters was too high, while the National Institute for Statistics circulated documents that proved the number of voters was in fact approximately 16 million. Delayed decisions from the Constitutional Court, and more accusations of fraud from both sides, did nothing to legitimize either party in this conflict of interests. On 20 August, the Constitutional Court struck down the nationwide referendum and ignored the USL’s calls for revision of the electoral lists. The result was accepted by the USL, however, with acting President and leader of the liberals, Crin Antonescu, declaring: "we do respect the court decision and Traian Basescu will again become a president." At the same time, he emphasized that Basescu returns as an illegitimate president, clearly hinting at prolonged tensions. In the end, neither party involved accepted defeat.
The Quiet Audience
Throughout this tense period, Romanians have watched quietly the development of a tragic comedy. Despite his return, Basescu is fundamentally weak, non-credible and non-representative for approximately 8 million people. This is in a context in which he was re-elected with approximately 5 million votes in 2008, a much lower number than the group that voted for his impeachment. For many, Basescu sounds more and more incoherent in speeches, often threatening those who might go against him and his position. On the other hand, USL members seem puzzled, and often too lost to understand what to do. As seen in the electoral lists case, their preparation for the referendum was superficial, and Ponta’s political positions seem to change every day, undermining his credibility both at the domestic and foreign level. If once he promised “to never again speak to this man [Basescu] who will ram a knife into your back as soon as you turn around," in a recent interview for The Guardian he declared that he would be willing to cohabitate. Moreover, he admitted to mis-communicating with EU officials, opening doors for his critics in terms of perceived diplomatic shortcomings. At the moment, Romania is waiting for general elections in November. Basescu's conservatives are likely to officially lose their majority and the USL gain even greater power.
Even if the political tension can diffuse somewhat, this year's events have revealed massive cracks not only in the political system, but also in the social and civic systems. Romanian civil society is weak; for many, it is non-existent. Influential NGOs and think tanks are scarce. Outside an official or formal platform, the interest of citizens is fundamentally low. More importantly, the interest of the younger generation (18-24 years old) in understanding their civil rights, and how and what to vote for, is undeveloped – a result of a unilateral approach in a decaying education system. In essence, Romanian citizens do not exist in the public sphere. They are anonymous and voiceless. Communities are artificial and lack any significance. Romanians have accepted electoral fraud, weak political stances, and manifestations of corruption without protesting or pressuring their leaders. Undoubtedly, Romanians have become a quiet audience. The tragic comedy that the Romanian political scene has become in the last 20 years indeed has an audience, albeit bored and disgusted. Disappointed in the product, but rarely willing to express itself. Many people have withdrawn into their quiet corners, leaving their leaders to play the same roles over and over again. In January something snapped. But the voice of the people is still worryingly quiet.
(Photo © DR)
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