Saturday, May 19, 2007

basescu referendum


Is he listening?
May 19th 2007 | BUCHAREST

Romania's troubled president, Traian Basescu, should win a referendum on his impeachment. But then what?

EX-COMMUNIST politics is often explained as a tussle between the crooks, the spooks and the idiots. That may be a touch insulting. But it is a fair account of the wrangling that has led to Romania’s referendum this weekend on the impeachment of the president, Traian Basescu.

Even Mr Basescu’s closest supporters find it hard to praise the former sea-captain’s tactics. He has dumped seasoned advisers and picked unwinnable fights. He runs an oddly independent foreign policy, and depends too closely on Romania’s powerful and only half-reformed security and intelligence services. On the other hand, he has championed the crucial cause of anti-corruption. His opponents in Romania’s government, by contrast, approach the subject with a level of doublespeak worthy of the communist era.


“We will continue and accelerate the fight against corruption,” promised the new justice minister, Tudor Chiuariu, when he took office a month ago. But his first move was to request the dismissal of a top anti-corruption prosecutor who was investigating senior members and supporters of the ruling coalition. The reasoning was that these probes were proving fruitless. “A prosecutor should be evaluated by the number of cases he has won. Until now, there have been no verdicts, which mean the cases are not solid enough,” the minister argued. He did not mention the reason for the delays: procedural wrangling by those being investigated.

But the recent reforms to the justice system that paved the way for Romania’s accession to the European Union have taken sturdy root. The reactions among the prosecutors were so strong that the minister backed down. Dismissals will come only with the say-so of an independent judicial body, the High Council of Magistrates.

Romania’s lawmakers have also ended a two-year wrangle by passing a bill setting up an agency to investigate politicians’ assets and conflicts of interest. That was a condition for EU membership; failure to get it going would have triggered sanctions from Brussels. But the newborn “Integrity Agency” has a serious weakness: it is not independent, but subordinated to the parliament that it is supposed to investigate.

Yet the prime minister, Calin Popescu Tariceanu, hailed the new outfit as a great success, proving that his justice minister’s negotiating skills trumped the uncompromising style of his predecessor, Monica Macovei. She was widely admired abroad, but loathed by much of Romania’s chummy political class.

Loss of zeal on the fight against corruption is worrying. America has firmly signalled to the government not to fire the prosecutor-general, Daniel Morar. Since Ms Macovei’s departure, he is the strongest champion of the anti-corruption cause. The EU will issue a report in June on Romania’s progress since accession. It will pay particularly close attention to any failings at the new anti-corruption agency.

But outsiders’ influence has its limits. Romania will need to clear up its political mess itself. It is hard to see how. Polls show Mr Basescu winning around 70% of the vote in this weekend’s referendum, though he also needs 50% of the electorate on his side to stymie the impeachment attempt completely. If Mr Basescu does poorly, the government, which was supported by 70% of the parliament in the impeachment resolution, may try to change the constitution to weaken the president’s position. No strong alternative government is in sight. The most likely outcome is that the political shenanigans will continue until the scheduled parliamentary elections in the autumn of 2008. That will do nothing to help Romania reform and modernise. Outsiders just hope it won’t slip back.

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