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.
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.
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."
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."