by Tabby Urban, a second year German student reading BA International Relations at the War Studies Department of King’s College London. Editor of the MENA Section at IRT, who interned for the Konrad-Adenauer-Foundation in Bucharest.
Towards the end of June, the Romanian Prime Minister, Victor Ponta, injured his knee following a game of basketball. To have his knee treated in Turkey, Ponta abandoned the Romanian political scene for several weeks – without letting the President, Klaus Iohannis, know in advance.
The relationship between the president and his PM has been severely strained for some time, especially since the National Anti-Corruption Agency (DNA) initiated investigations against Ponta in June 2015. The accusations include assisted tax evasion, money laundering and the forging of documents during his time as a lawyer in Bucharest. These are heavy accusations against an acting PM, even in the corrupt Romanian political environment, and resulted in Ponta’s resignation as the leader of the Social Democratic Party (PSD).
Filling his place in this role “until my innocence is proven,” as Ponta claims, is fellow party member Liviu Dragnea. This situation comes with its own range of problems, however: Dragnea is the former general secretary of the PSD and was convicted for election fraud earlier this year. In addition, Dragnea was involved in a fierce power-struggle over the interim leadership of the PSD with current Labour Minister, Rovina Plumb. She is known to be a close friend of Ponta and was initially meant to be the interim leader of the PSD.
The investigations against Ponta have lead to demands by the opposition, the National Liberal Party (PNL), and president Iohannis, (also PNL) that Ponta should also resign as PM. However, Ponta systematically rejects these demands; he is set to cling to power until the new elections for parliament in fall of 2016.
Through his ever-repeating absences, whether it’s for a routine knee operation in Turkey or the UEFA Supercup in Georgia, Ponta manages to avoid his investigation by the DNA in Bucharest. Also, he still has the majority of the parliament backing him, and the accusations against him don’t seem to render this – PSD spokesmen have reiterated that they will continue to support Ponta, and are even trying to get the charges against their PM dropped. As if this isn’t enough, they’re also aiming to stop the fight against corruption within Romania’s political elite. Here the local media are referring to an “Insurgency of Thieves” since many politicians, from all political parties, are facing investigations against them regarding corrupt behaviour.
Critics in this regard have also come from President Iohannis himself. Recently, he pointed out that Ponta is the only PM in the EU who is being investigated against. This underlines the conflict that defines the relationship between Iohannis and Ponta. Furthermore, it enhances the frictions between rule of law and the corrupt reality that rules Romanian politics. This makes Iohannis’ mission as president considerably more difficult, since he wants to restore Romania’s reputation and its role as a trustworthy equal within the EU.
Despite all of these rumblings, Ponta still seems to have the support of not only his party, but also that of his voters. According to a survey by the opinion research institute “Avangarde” in March 2015, 40% of Romanians still trust Ponta as a politician. This is 5% more than in 2012, and is surprising given the charges against him. These survey results could be due to promises that Ponta made to his voters, which include the raising of the minimum wage and unrealistic tax reductions. Most of all, the planned reduction of the VAT, from 24% to 20% starting 2016, has caused alarm from sides of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. This is because they fear that this VAT cut could result in the contraction of the Romanian economy, which grew by a promising 3,8% in the first quarter and by 3,7 % in the second quarter of 2015. In addition, it would result in the break of agreements that Romania has made with the EU regarding its fiscal stability and consolidation. The risk is also immense in that this would result in the breaching of the deficit boundary that Romania has agreed upon with the EU, which lies by 3%. However, Ponta is set to bring this VAT cut through the extra-parliamentary hearing – even if this has to happen through an emergency decree. In practice, this means that he would oppose the majority vote of the parliament if necessary.
Encouraging this discussion about the VAT cut has been Ponta’s proclamation that a cut to 20% is non-debatable. In this endeavour, he seems to have the support of several other political parties, including the Democratic Union of Hungarians in Romania (UDMR), who are a member of the European People’s Party (EPP). The PNL and the majority of the EPP continue to reject the VAT reduction. However, members of the National Union for the Progress of Romania (UNPR) have made it clear that they are open to discussion on this issue.
Examining the internal structures of the Romanian political parties, it has to be noted that the PNL is struggling with its own issues, which include reasonable debt. Just at the beginning of August, the PNL had to give up their headquarters on Bulevardul Kisselef in Bucharest, as they were no longer able to pay the letting fees. Rough estimates show PNL’s debt to be at least 7 million Euros. These debts were, amongst other things, accumulated during the election campaigns in 2009 and 2014. Hence, the PNL has decided to give the re-payment of these debts a greater priority than the keeping of the party’s headquarters on Bulevardul Kisselef. To ease its financial burdens, the PNL has also decided to raise its monthly membership fees.
In contrast, things are looking a lot brighter for the UNPR. The UNPR is a party that is most easily to be catergorised into the centre-left of the political spectrum and is currently led by Vice-PM Gabriel Oprea. The party was founded in 2010 by ex-president Traian Basescu’s loyal deserters of the PNL and PSD, and continues to be the winner of political migration. Although the party only won 15 seats in parliament in 2012, it now has 55 MPs. Many of these were taken on from the so-called people’s party PPDD, which was recently dissolved and merged with the UNPR.
In hindsight, the majority of Romanians had the hope that things would change for the better when they elected Klaus Iohannis as President at the end of last year, and not Ponta. This occurred despite Ponta’s elaborate efforts to hinder the voting process of the Romanian diaspora, and Iohannis was voted into Cotroceni Palace with an overwhelming majority. After the vote, Iohannis’ opinion poles rose even further, with over 70% of Romanians having trust in his abilities as Romanian President. However, now Iohannis is under immense pressure to fulfil these hopes, “Step by Step,” as the title of his autobiography reads. According to recent Inscop opinion polls, 60% of Romanians still have faith in his abilities, but the tendency is decreasing.
In order to strengthen Iohannis as President and in order to fulfil his ambitions, a strong PNL is essential. In an attempt to reinforce the rule of law in Romania, the PNL has recently called for the resignation of Tiberiu Nitu, the prosecutor that is leading the investigations against Ponta. Nitu is being accused to have hindered and prolonged the investigations against the PM. This shows how the PNL is attempting to take a stronger stance against the corrupt behaviour that is put forth by the PSDand its PM.
Although Iohannis wants to change the political situation in Romania for the better, it has to be remembered that as President, his hands are constitutionally and politically tied. Despite Ponta’s regular absences, as PM he officially remains to be the most powerful politician in the country. Unofficially, however, his legitimacy is severely flawed, due to the recent events.
From the current perspective, the conflicts between the two coalition parties, PNL and PSD, don’t seem to be resolved any time soon. It looks like Ponta will be successful in lowering the VAT starting in January 2016, and that the majority of the PSD will continue to have his back in parliament. It is uncertain still if the investigations against Ponta will eventually lead to his conviction, as well as which MPs will also face corruption charges. This will definitely have an effect on which politicians will be running in the parliamentary elections in fall of 2016 and thus is an issue to be followed closely until then.