By now you have undoubtedly heard about last week’s landmark high court decision that promises to have major political consequences.

I’m referring, of course, to the ruling by Romania’s Constitutional Court that President Traian Basescu, and not Prime Minister Victor Ponta, should represent the country at an EU summit.

The two political foes had been arguing over who would be the face of Romania abroad when the court weighed in for the president. Then Ponta declared the ruling political, criticized the judges, and showed up at the summit. Basescu stayed home in order to spare the foreigners in Brussels the embarrassment of having to choose which of them to deal with.

Embarrassment is a key word here. Romania’s politicians, never much loved by those they profess to serve, are expert at making a spectacle of themselves. But many thoughtful people who have watched the Bucharest sideshow for years are seriously worried these days.

Among other actions the new prime minister has taken since coming to power in May have been to transfer control of the respected Romanian Cultural Institute from the president’s office to parliament, to stack the supervisory board of public television with members of the ruling coalition – ignoring a law that requires it to reflect the makeup of parliament – to fire the respected director of the national archives, and to ignore the ruling of a national council on degrees that Ponta plagiarized his doctoral thesis. He had promised to resign if the council ruled as such, but instead he added 25 new members to the council’s existing 20 and called the ruling illegal.

As you might expect, the phrase “rule of law” is becoming a staple of commentaries in the Romanian press.

On the issue of the trip to Brussels, Cristian Ghinea, director of the Romanian Center for European Policies, told me in an email, “We have such a stupid constitution that each of them had his own arguments in the constitutional text. But once the court made a decision I expected it to be obeyed.”

Ghinea said that, yes, the court is a political institution – but it has been so since it was established in 1991 and every party has had to live with judges appointed by its predecessor in power. “But that’s the game and the court is the final referee for constitutional conflicts. This is why I consider Ponta’s statement and decision to go to Brussels a dangerous precedent.”

“This sort of populism – I represent the nation, no matter what the legal institutions are saying – it’s particularly worrying in a country with a weak tradition in check and balances,” he wrote.

It was Ponta’s decision to wrest control of the cultural institute from Basescu that got the most press outside the country, thanks to protests by leading artistic lights at home and abroad. The prime minister said the move was done to make the organization’s spending more transparent. But Ghinea notes that parliament does a poor job of overseeing the institutions under its purview. For public television, lawmakers did not even discuss the annual reports for 2009 and 2010. “They only discussed the 2011 report after the change of government in order to get rid of the former board and appoint their people. Considering minimal accountability standards, this is not a proper control. So our precedents with the parliament enforcing good governance are … zero,” Ghinea wrote.

“What worries me the most is the new government’s mentality, they seem not to care about minimal standards of check and balances.”

Deutsche Welle recently called Ponta’s overreach the “orbanization of Romania,” a reference to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s locking down of power for his Fidesz party by a rewrite of the constitution, bringing to heel the press and the judiciary.

Ponta has not gone that far, but then he has not had as much time.

Alina Mungiu-Pippidi, a political scientist and commentator, called the comparison with Hungary absurd in a recent column in Romania Libera. She argued that the former right-wing ruling party had politicized many institutions and that the current government needed to do some “repair work.” But even she, who had had her differences with the ousted director of the cultural institute, Horia-Roman Patapievici, wrote, “[I]t should be clear for everyone that Patapievici is an honest, well-meaning person, who has done his best and has been much more impartial than his predecessors.”

As a result, she said, no painters or musicians who support the ruling Social Democrats complained of being frozen out of funding while the party was in opposition.

“The political stances of the ICR [Romanian Cultural Institute] leaders were real … but they have not led to politicization of the activity of this institution,” Mungiu-Pippidi wrote.

What then, she wondered, is she to say to foreign journalists who ask her if Ponta is Romania’s Orban or Yanukovych? “I need guarantees if I am to reject such speculation when the foreign media call me. Otherwise, I will join the opposite camp, as I did in the case of the ICR.”

For his part, Ghinea is worried about institutions more fundamental to the country’s future.

“I worked a lot in anticorruption policies and we managed to build with EU assistance some remarkable institutions, I would [cite] the Anti-corruption Directorate (DNA) and National Integrity Agency (ANI). They managed to send to jail for corruption a former prime minister, ministers, mayors of major cities, head of national agencies, high level magistrates and officers. Such a track record (acknowledged by the European Commission) was without precedent for Romania and I dare to say for [all of] Eastern Europe. The parties of the new majority were openly hostile to these institutions and I fear brutal interventions against them. I expect EU to intervene. I know from people in embassies here and from the Commission DNA and ANI would constitute the red line for them, but I urge them to send some signals earlier; later it may be too late.”

Photo of Victor Ponta from the website of the Romanian government.

Barbara Frye

Barbara Frye is Transitions Online’s managing editor. Email: barbara.frye@tol.org

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