Fixing Romania’s Broken Carousel

Le Premier ministre roumain, Victor Ponta, a obtenu la destitution du président Traian Băsescu, provoquant une crise politique qui inquiète l’Union européenne.

Romanian politics are like a merry-go-round — it can be amusing for a while, but it never really changes. Ever since 1990, the general atmosphere in Romania has been dominated by tension, confusion, anger, and frustration. Outside observers are also saying much the same thing they said 22 years ago, concern and condemnation on the same evergreen topics : the rule of law, constitutionality, electoral fairness, and decent politics. Having to constantly choose the lesser evil, but never being given the option of choosing the good, Romanian voters feel trapped on this carousel.

The latest turn is the suspension of center-right Romanian President Traian Băsescu by the left-controlled parliament, a move led by Prime Minister Victor Ponta on charges that Băsescu has abused the power of his position. A referendum on Băsescu’s full removal is scheduled for July 29. Remember the carousel ? Băsescu survived a Socialist-led referendum in 2007.

The current crisis, as polarizing and severe as it is, resembles 1990 only in atmosphere. The fundamentals of today’s Romania — its political and security options and arrangements — are not questioned or threatened by any of the political sides. Romania’s international security, economic, and financial commitments remain on the agenda of both the current government and the suspended president. The country’s economic performance, by no means great but also not terrible, is not yet threatened by the European financial crisis, although borrowing costs are rising and prolonging the situation could make things worse in a hurry. Even the country’s deficit, an important indicator in today’s Europe and bravely set at 2.25 percent of GDP for 2012, remains under control, and none of the political camps challenge this financial goal. 
The real threat is to Romania’s democracy and its international standing. Parliament’s recent hasty moves look both undemocratic and unconstitutional. They send alarming signals to international partners and upset the population. Allegations of corruption abound, new names are added to the list of the corrupt each day, and unclean connections between business and politics are revealed by the hour. While outsiders may treat this as worrisome, this is not news to the Romanian people. Political games carrying risks for the country’s fragile democracy have been played frequently in the last 22 years, and they have been flagged promptly by international partners each time. Corruption has become a general phenomenon, and high-level corruption has been a constant.

The current political crisis carries many risks : further alienating the population, disappointing international partners, and scaring investors, among others. Yet it allows for three wonderful opportunities.

First, the late sentences against and vigorous investigations of high-level officials and business people accused of corruption, influence-peddling, or money embezzlement set great precedents for a real fight against corruption. They sent shock waves through both politicians and business people, and laid the groundwork for seriously addressing the problem. It took a political crisis to get these rolling earnestly, but once that momentum has been created, it should be maintained by ensuring the independence of institutions involved in the fight against corruption. The recent events could be a breakthrough in this fight, or not. Only politicians, of either and both political camps, can make this choice. 

Second, the gap between politicians and the populace has grown ever-bigger in the last 12 years. The latter’s distrust of the former has reached levels of concern (only 21 percent of Romanians trust the parliament). Recent weeks brought a much-needed change in tone and attitude on the part of politicians, and they expressed a serious desire to connect to the population in a way that goes beyond the usual campaign rhetoric. This crisis offers a great opportunity to reconnect with the population and treat it as one would a serious partner, and to instill a sense of decency and professionalism in Romanian politics.

Third, this crisis offers a superb opportunity to reassure international partners of Romania’s standing and of its seriousness toward its security and economic arrangements and commitments. The fact that Romania remains a stable country, a reliable partner, and a serious interlocutor despite political turmoil is the major gain of the last 22 years. 

The short-term political configuration remains unclear, and no perfect scenario seems possible immediately. Each new day of crisis increases the risks and waters down opportunities. Romanian politicians may feel they face the same dilemma as the voters do — having to choose the lesser evil for their parties and for themselves. But politicians especially have the power to choose new, good options, and they should use this crisis to choose them.