Romanian President Traian Basescu can return to his duties. That is the verdict of a Romanian Supreme Court ruling handed down on Tuesday which found that turnout in the national referendum held at the end of August on whether to impeach the beleaguered president did not exceed the required 50 percent threshold. Prime Minister Victor Ponta has vowed that he will respect the ruling.
The premier's assurance was not a foregone conclusion. Tuesday's ruling puts an end to a campaign by Ponta's leftist government to oust Basescu from his position, but it is not likely to immediately heal the wounds opened up by the months of political battling that have led many to question the state of democracy in the country.
Indeed, acting President Crin Antonescu, installed as the president of the country's Senate by Ponta earlier this year, hinted that the relationship between the government and the president remains tense. "We do respect the court decision and Traian Basescu will again become a president," he said. "But he returns as an illegitimate president."
The July 29 referendum was called after Ponta's parliamentary majority voted in early July to suspend Basescu from office for allegedly overstepping his powers. Some 88 percent of those who cast their votes in the referendum supported the president's impeachment. But turnout was only 46 percent, partially as a result of Basescu asking his supporters to boycott the vote.
'I Will Keep My Word'
Ponta, however, seemed disinclined to immediately accept the results of the referendum, despite a pledge he made in an interview with SPIEGEL on the eve of the vote. When asked if he would honor the referendum should it indicate a clear majority against Basescu but fail to clear the 50 percent hurdle, he said: "That would then be his decision if he remains in office or not. ... But once again: I will keep my word even in such a situation."
Instead, however, Ponta allegedly launched an attempt to re-examine the number of eligible voters in the country, claiming that the number used to determine turnout -- 18.3 million -- was too high. Furthermore, there are indications that his government embarked on a large-scale campaign of fraud to slash the number of voters. On Aug. 10, prosecutors at the Supreme Court released the transcripts of phone calls allegedly showing that the government planned to declare tens of thousands of people dead so as to strike them from the lists. In addition, a memorandum from Ponta's cabinet was leaked on Aug. 7 showing that his government planned to subtract 2 million Romanians living abroad from the voting lists. Ponta's interior minister, Ioan Rus, resigned in early August as a result of the effort, citing "unacceptable" levels of "criticism and pressure" over his handling of the referendum.
Rus, it emerged a short time later, wasn't the only target of such pressure. Earlier this month, Romanian Supreme Court President Augustin Zegrean wrote letters to both the European Commission and the Council of Europe, the European human rights body, complaining of "shocking" pressure ahead of its ruling on the referendum. One judge, Zegrean wrote, had been the target of threats and was afraid to rule on the case. European Commission Vice President Viviane Reding responded that the Commission was "following the situation very closely."
"In this crisis, the real political structures are being revealed," respected political scientist Alina Mungiu-Pippidi says. Mungiu-Pippidi also works as an anti-corruption consultant for the European Commission. "Competitive clientelism rules in Romania, different cliques are engaged in a life-or-death battle to conquer the state in order to plunder it. Political parties in our young democracy are like medieval armies, whose recruits are not paid and live only from plunder. That explains the intensity of political battles, like the one we are now experiencing."
'Blitzkrieg against State Institutions'
Ponta's assault on the legitimacy of Basescu -- and on the Supreme Court -- began well before the referendum at the end of July. He had already been censured by the European Commission once for having ignored high court rulings and for pursuing plans to stock the court with political allies. He has also been accused of having plagiarized his doctoral thesis.
"This blitzkrieg against state institutions shows how fragile the Romanian state is," says philosopher Horia-Roman Patapievici, who recently resigned as head of the Institute of Romanian Culture out of protest against Ponta's culture policies. He says he is "extremely pessimistic" and believes that the political crisis will continue for months. "Unfortunately, most Romanian politicians are ignorant of principles such as respect for the law."
Should Patapievici be right, that is bad news for Romania. The country's economy is in the doldrums and it is dependent on a €5 billion emergency aid agreement with the International Monetary Fund. In order to meet the conditions of that aid, Bucharest must push through tough austerity measures. But with parliamentary elections looming in November, it seems unlikely that either Ponta or Basescu will back down.
With reporting by Keno Verseck