The World from Berlin: Romania Joins Greece as an Acute Problem for EU

Newly re-elected Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta has vowed to lower taxes and push through constitutional changes. The first is bad news for the economy and the second could be disastrous for democracy, say German commentators. The vote could have implications for Europe and NATO.

Election results were projected onto the Palace of Parliament in Bucharest on Monday. Zoom
AP

Election results were projected onto the Palace of Parliament in Bucharest on Monday.

There is a simple way to determine whether a country has truly internalized the values of democracy, it seems. All one has to do is listen closely to the winning candidate once the votes have been counted. Should a desire to implement constitutional changes take priority over addressing real problems affecting the nation, doubts are warranted.

This seems to be the case with Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta, whose Social Liberal Union (USL) received 58.6 percent of the vote in general elections on Sunday. But instead of turning his attention to his country's struggling economy and weak currency, he immediately began negotiations with the tiny Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania (UDMR) party to form a coalition to achieve a two-thirds majority -- the minimum necessary to make changes to his country's constitution.

Ponta is intent on winning his power struggle with Romanian President Traian Basescu once and for all. And he has said that he wants to review constitutional provisions relating to the president's role in foreign and military policy. He also wants to grant parliament the power to override Constitutional Court rulings.

His priorities are hardly a surprise. Last summer, Ponta incurred the wrath of European Union leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, both for ignoring a Constitutional Court ruling which found that Basescu was the country's true representative abroad and for pressuring the judiciary. Ponta also led an attempt to impeach Basescu, a move that only failed because turnout in the decisive nationwide referendum did not surpass the 50 percent minimum.

Wrangling, Bickering and Power Mongering

Still, the referendum revealed a widespread dislike of Basescu in the country, one of the main reasons for Ponta's overwhelming victory on Sunday. Basescu's center-right party received but 16 percent of the vote, though he himself was not up for election, partly due to the deep austerity measures pushed through on its watch. Basescu, for his part, has been unable to read the writing on the wall and has shown no signs of backing down in his ongoing battle with Ponta. He has vowed to appoint someone other than Ponta to form a government, though such a move would almost certainly result in his suspension by parliament.

The result of the wrangling, bickering and power mongering is an ailing economy not getting the urgent attention it needs. Ponta has vowed to roll back austerity measures, reverse pay cuts and lower taxes. But a €5 billion deal with the International Monetary Fund and the European Union expires in March and a new pact must be negotiated quickly. In 2009, the country received a €20 billion bailout and the situation has not improved dramatically since then.

It is, however, the country's looming democratic deficits that have attracted most attention since the elections. German commentators take a closer look on Tuesday.

Center-right daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"All it takes is a comparison between Ponta's statements made at home and those he makes abroad to see that his political career is founded on deceit and treachery. The constitutional reform that the prime minister pledged before the election would subjugate the Constitutional Court to parliament and weaken the last bastion of the rule of law. All advances made in the last eight years would be reversed in a single blow. And Romania would be back where it was in the early 1990s, when the communist controlled National Salvation isolated the country internationally and paved the way to power and wealth for a new class of criminal oligarchs."

"The change in Romania isn't just limited to infringements on the rule of law. It has geo-political consequences that, like almost always, have been seen more clearly in Washington than in sight-impaired Brussels. In comments to the Ministerial Council of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe last week, United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton mentioned NATO-ally Romania in the same breath with Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. The USL's victory, within which pro-Russian, anti-European and anti-Western voices dominate, is a serious risk to a region that is already faced with the growing influence of Moscow. Following Greece, Romania is now the second acute problem for NATO and the EU in the Balkans. The trans-Atlantic alliance is fraying on its southeastern edge."

Center-left daily Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"Basescu is extremely divisive and he shares a large portion of blame for the fact that his country is split into two hate-filled camps. As such, he has been a failure as president. In the office of president, he should be an example of statesmanlike foresight and discretion and set the standard for democratic reform. Instead, Basescu prefers blustering, deception and trickery. Nepotism is also among his weaknesses."

"His opponents Ponta and (Ponta ally Crin) Antonescu, on the other hand, embody the old, rotten transitional system that still is not willing to reform. Their parliamentary offensive in the spring, an attempt to gain control of all influential offices, left behind the impression that the pair has a pre-democratic understanding of governance."

"Romania is a country of minimal democratic quality and has many steps to take on the path toward societal maturity. Ponta and co. should be aware that the rest of the European Union will be watching closely. And Basescu should be aware that his escapades will no longer find apologists outside or Romania's borders."

The left-leaning daily Die Tageszeitung writes:

"The bitter setback for supporters of President Traian Basescu in parliamentary elections confirms once again how unhappy the Romanians are with the current head of state. It was already true over the summer, when the majority of voters wanted to send Basescu into the desert before the impeachment referendum failed due to low voter turnout."

"The governing Social Democrats have seen the greatest profit from the rejection of Basescu. But their leader, Victor Ponta, should not celebrate too soon. His overwhelming victory means only that the voters opted for the lesser evil for lack of legitimate alternatives."

"A bitter realization has matured among Romanian voters, of whom fewer than 43 percent went to the polls: Neither opposing camp is better than the other in matters of corruption, cronyism and efforts to secure their own survival. The rigid austerity program, which has ruined many since its beginning in 2010, goes one step further in alienating the voters from the political class."

"It remains to be seen what the incoming government will look like and who will lead it. But one thing is clear: The fight for power in the executive will continue. That means stagnation for the country in place of desperately needed reforms."

In a piece that seems to counter what most economic experts are saying, financial daily Handelsblatt writes:

"Europe's East is fading into obscurity these days. The rest of the continent is all too often fixated on debt problems in Greece and elsewhere. There really has to be a political splash for an EU country like Hungary or Romania to make it into the news at all."

"Our eastern neighbors are themselves partially responsible for their shadowy existence -- too rarely do they produce good news. But exactly that -- good news -- appears to be coming from parliamentary elections in Romania. The voters have declared an end to the power struggle that has paralyzed the country for months. With nearly 60 percent of the votes, they have declared the camp of Prime Minister Victor Ponta to be victorious. His rival, President Traian Basecu, was punished."

"What Romania has lacked until now is a government that is more interested in the country's future than securing its own well-being. Whether Ponta will fill this gap is by no means certain. He showed little respect for the rule of law in his fight against Basescu. But there still is a new opportunity. And Europe could really use a boom in its Southeast."

-- Charles Hawley

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