Romania has stoked fears about the independence of the judiciary

A growing political crisis in Romania has stoked fears about the independence of the judiciary, with president Traian Basescu's demise linked by some to a backlash against an anti-corruption drive. Romania's Prime Minister Victor Ponta will meet Jose Manuel Barroso, the head of the European Commission in Brussels on Thursday, as he seeks to assauge fears that the top-level feuding represents a threat to the young democracy.

It is barely two decades since the brutal rule of Nicolae Ceausescu came to an end with his execution by firing squad and a mere five years since Romania joined the European Union. Bucharest was criticised for years for not tackling corruption. But the judiciary turned the tide and has drawn praise for its efforts to tackle endemic graft, most notably after former premier Adrian Nastase was handed a two-year prison sentence for siphoning off campaign funds.

But now Ponta, who took over two months ago as head of a centre-left coalition, is having to defend himself against accusations from the likes of Germany that he has been undermining the independence of the judiciary. A push to impeach his centre-right rival Basescu, who has already been suspended, was only made possible after Ponta's cabinet approved a decree barring the Constitutional Court from ruling on parliamentary decisions. The court has not bothered to hide its frustration, snapping at what it has called "virulent attacks" on it by the Ponta government. And it again tried to assert its independence on Tuesday by imposing a 50 percent voter turnout in order to validate a referendum on whether Basescu's impeachment should be approved.

Ponta promptly called for a special session of parliament to debate the ruling. The EU has also weighed in with a warning that "the rule of law, the democratic checks and balances and the independence of the judiciary are cornerstones of the European democracy".
Mircea Toma, director of the Romanian rights organisation Active Watch, said the judiciary's willingness to flex its muscles in high-level graft cases had unnerved the ruling coalition. "The fact that a political official of the rank of Nastase had been sentenced to a prison term was an alarm bell for the entire political class," he told AFP, referring to ex-premier Adrian Nastase, jailed for corruption last month.

According to Toma, the fact that the judiciary has been dealing increasingly swiftly and severely with top level corruption cases "explains the haste with which the Social Liberal Union acted" to impeach Basescu. "This haste, which seems to damage their image, can only be explained by others interests than political ones. They want to turn off the taps." The suspended president has alleged the real goal of his opponents in the Social Liberal Union (USL) coalition is to bring the judiciary under its control. In turn, Basescu has also faced counter accusations that he has tried to dominate the judiciary since he took over in 2004 as well as over-reach his powers.

The bitterness between the two sides was further underlined when Ponta said allegations that he plagiarised an academic thesis were part of a plot against him by the president's allies. Jean-Michel De Waele, a specialist in Eastern Europe at the Free University of Brussels, said Romania was not alone in experiencing friction between the political class and a judiciary looking to assert its independence.

Like other countries, it was also having to increasingly decide in disputes between political rivals, he said. "All across Europe, the judiciary plays a role that is more and more political due to a crisis in the democratic system," De Waele told AFP. "In these post-communist countries like Romania, the trend is as strong as the political elites are illegitimate so there is a need for mediation, for someone who can say what is right or not."

Reflecting initial scepticism, Romania's judiciary and prosecution system have been closely monitored by Brussels since its EU entry.
Until the latest turn of events, it had drawn praise for its efforts with Brussels a "convincing track record".

Justice Minister Titus Corlatean insists the coalition is not trying to scare off judges or investigators. "There is absolutely no blocking of cases," he told AFP. "The judiciary follows its course regardless of who is in power." But Waele said it was no coincidence the judiciary had come under pressure after the conclusion of several long-running investigations against officials. "As long as the judiciary was making progress but not putting anyone in prison, that did not matter," said Waele. "Now that it is putting people in prison it has become embarrassing for both camps."

Source: AFP