Romanian president cleared to return to office

Traian B?sescu and Victor Ponta

 
Romania's parliament ended a dramatic session yesterday (27 August) by accepting a Constitutional Court ruling to return the country's embattled president to office. With the publication of the decision in the country’s official journal, Traian B?sescu can now return to office after a 52-day suspension.

 

B?sescu, who was suspended by the centre-left Social Liberal Union (USL) majority led by Prime Minister Victor Ponta, is expected to return today to his office in the presidential palace Cotroceni.

The Romanian press quoted B?sescu as saying that all confidential documents left there had been locked and sealed, and that Crin Antonescu, the leader of the liberal PNL party and the number two in the USL coalition who acted as interim president, had no access to them.

A dramatic sitting

Under Romanian law, the Parliament had to validate the decision of the Constitutional Court, which last week ruled that the referendum held on 29 July to remove the president from office was invalid because fewer than half of registered voters went to the polls.

As parliament began to assembly in the early afternoon, members of the PNL group set out to boycott the session to prevent a quorum – at least 217 members. Antonescu announced that he was not going to participate, and headed for a holiday in Italy.

The Social Democrats, whose leader is Ponta, received SMS messages around 16:30 requesting them to attend the sitting. In the meantime, MPs from B?sescu’s own Democratic Liberals (PDL) argued that there was no need of a quorum for the reading of the Constitutional Court decision.

At 17:10 the quorum was met, with 238 MPs present, 21 more than the required. At this time, it was reported that Ponta phoned Antonescu in Italy and required him to send his group to parliament as well.

Minutes later, MP Ioan Ghi?e (PNL) sought to postpone the session for two days, a request that was rejected, clearing the way for the reading of the court decision.

In the embattled atmosphere, MP C?lin Popescu-T?riceanu (PNL), a former prime minister, argued that the court’s ruling disregarded the opinion of the majority of Romanians, whom he said want B?sescu to be ousted from office. But Parliament ultimately recognised the ruling and by 18:10, with parliamentary speaker Valeriu Zgonea later telling journalists that the legislature could not interfere with a court decision, Reuters reported.

The president was restored to office effective with the publication of the decision shortly after 21:00.

What next?

B?sescu’s return to office will allow him to delay legislation and appoint the prime minister after the next election. That could put him in a powerful position if Ponta's USL coalition fails to win an outright parliamentary majority in elections due before the end of the year.

Analysts said the political battle reflected a broader struggle for power and control of the judicial system in a country where corruption is rampant and 19 members of parliament from Ponta's alliance are under investigation. The leu currency has recovered some ground from all-time lows hit during the failed impeachment process, but is still weaker than its regional peers. The widespread international criticism also raised doubts over Romania's €5 billion  International Monetary Fund-led aid deal.

The president of the European People’s Party (EPP) Wilfried Martens and the chairman of the EPP Group in the European Parliament, Joseph Daul, welcomed the implementation of the decision of the Constitutional Court and the return to office of President Traian B?sescu.

"We salute the responsible decision of each member of the Romanian Parliament who was present at the session of Parliament, irrespective of the political party that he/she represents. The primary duty of members of Parliament is to enable the proper functioning of Parliament. In any real democracy, conflicting opinions must be expressed in the Parliament and in accordance with the legal framework, without abusing the powers of the Parliament. We truly hope that from now on, all political forces will refrain from attacks on the justice system, including on the Constitutional Court, and will contribute to the independence and well-functioning of the judiciary in Romania," Martens and Daul said in a joint statement.

The European Commission expressed concern about the ongoing political infighting in Romania in its most recent progress report on judicial reform and the fight against corruption in Romania.

The 18 July report questions the country’s ability to comply with the EU's fundamental principles and the sustainability and irreversibility of reform.

Commission President José Manuel Barroso said that recent events in Romania had "shaken EU's trust" in the country.

Barroso had met with Prime Minister Victor Ponta the previous week and presented him with a 11-point to-do list aimed at restoring the status quo following what critics said was an attempted coup d'état and an assault on democratic values.

Ponta reportedly committed to following Brussels' advice.

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