Romania’s Ponta takes legal action against opponents

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The governing leftist coalition of Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta has taken additional steps to further tighten its grip on power, despite warnings from the European Commission that the ongoing political infighting cannot justify overriding democratic principles.

Romania's ruling coalition yesterday (19 July) filed a legal complaint with the prosecutor’s office, accusing 15 opposition leaders of "undermining the national economy" and "spreading false information", according to information published on the online news aggregator Ziare.com.

The 15 leaders include President Traian B?sescu, who has been suspended from office pending a nationwide referendum for his impeachment to be held on 29 July. The others include former Prime Minister Mihai R?zvan Ungureanu, his predecessor Emil Boc and MEP Monica Macovei.

The impression that the coalition is tightening its grip on power and keeping its political foes under pressure was heightened by legislation passed on Wednesday (18 July) that curtails the powers of the Constitutional Court.

Under the new law, decisions by Parliament cannot be challenged by the Constitutional Court. Parliament has recently changed the leaders of both its houses and replaced the country’s ombudsman. Despite reports that Ponta had promised the EU to restore reverse some of its policies, the new legislation appears defy that promise.

The European Commission has expressed concern about the government’s efforts to weaken the independence of the Constitutional Court.

Referendum tweaks

Ponta's bid to further tighten his grip on power since he took office in May doesn't stop there and extends also to the details of the organisation of the 29 July referendum, which he organised in an effort to impeach his arch rival B?sescu.

In a bid to secure the voting threshold of 50% plus one of the registered voters, the government decided to double the number of foreign polling stations, from 150 to 301.

The Reuters news agency reported that census data show nearly 1 million of the country’s 21.4 million citizens live abroad, though some estimates suggest the number could be as high as 3 million.

Under EU pressure, Ponta agreed last week to respect the turnout threshold, reversing a previous decision which would have lifted this requirement.

Opinion polls show that a majority of Romanians are expected to vote to remove B?sescu from office. The president had been Romania’s most popular politician for a decade, but lost support recently over the reform of the health system and the austerity measures introduced under his watch.

It is far from certain, however, that the 50%+1 turnout threshold will be met, as turnout in Romanian elections usually hovers around 50%. In 2007, B?sescu won an impeachment referendum despite the participation of less than 40% of eligible Romanians, as there was no turnout requirement at that time.

In the meantime, Ponta was cleared of accusations of plagiarism by a commission set up under his government’s authority. The panel ruled that Ponta’s 2003 doctoral thesis respected the academic requirements for that time.

The European Commission expressed deep worries about the ongoing political infighting in Romania in its 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”.

Barroso had met with 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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