Friday, April 27, 2007


Romanian politics

A captain faces the storm
Apr 26th 2007 | BUCHAREST
From The Economist print edition

Can an ex-communist country reform after joining the European Union?

AGAINST the darkening background of ex-communist politics, President Traian Basescu of Romania was something of a star. He identified bad government and corruption as the biggest obstacles to his country's accession to the European Union, and he forcefully—his foes say ruthlessly—pushed reforms of the justice system and the public services.

Foreigners liked the former sea captain's personal style: a mixture of mischievous humour and straight talk. Romanians liked him too, though his popularity rating has fallen to 41%, down from 49% in March and 57% last November. But most Romanian politicians detest Mr Basescu, finding him confrontational, devious and—perhaps most important—threatening. Last month the coalition that took the country into the EU on January 1st fell apart. Almost the first act of the incoming government was to push through a vote to suspend the president from office. Romanians will vote in a referendum on May 19th on whether to impeach him.

Romania's political theatre has turned positively operatic.

The electoral law is badly drafted. It says that a majority of the electorate must vote for impeachment for the poll to be valid. That is a high bar, so parliament has just changed the rules. Now it will decide what happens if the impeachment fails. Mr Basescu will be lucky to return to his hill-top palace soon.

Mr Basescu has played a strong hand badly. He has been too dependent on the country's powerful security and intelligence services. Too often he has chosen cronies and nonentities as advisers; they have tended to quit after a few months, exhausted and exasperated by his short attention span and frequent changes of mind. His colourful private life has created grist for Romania's active rumour mill.

He has also picked his fights poorly. He quarrelled at once with the new government, obstinately refusing to accept its nominee as foreign minister, Adrian Cioroianu. The parliamentary vote for his impeachment was a striking 322 to 108. Rather than seek compromise, Mr Basescu tends to take to the airwaves. “I will not negotiate,” he said before last week's vote. “I am not that interested in my political comfort. I will not stop talking either.”

Yet for all Mr Basescu's own shortcomings, his adversaries seem a lot worse. The acting president is the speaker of the Senate, Nicolae Vacaroiu. He led the authoritarian ex-communist government that ruled the country, badly, from 1992 to 1996. The new minority government of Liberals and ethnic Hungarians is stuffed with youthful party hacks. It also epitomises everything that has held Romania back. According to the Romanian Academic Society, the country's leading clean-government campaign, seven ministers breach the terms of the “Coalition for a Clean Parliament”, an anti-corruption pact agreed with all main Romanian parties in 2004. Some have dodgy ties to powerful businesses. Another received a colossal book advance from a mysterious source.

Outsiders are nervous about the second-biggest new EU member. The EU is pressing for a new ethics watchdog to be set up. The American secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, refused to meet Mr Cioroianu this week. A NATO summit planned next year has been shifted, probably to Portugal. Boosted by EU membership, Romania's economy is booming. But its political stock is falling fast.

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