Thursday, July 12, 2012
Romanian PM defends bid to oust president
By Justyna Pawlak
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta will try on Thursday to fend off EU criticism of his campaign to oust President Traian Basescu, which Brussels says jeopardises democratic standards and could block Bucharest's full integration into Europe.
Ponta is due to meet European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and European Council President Herman Van Rompuy in Brussels and said in a statement he would leave EU officials "in no doubt as to my determination to uphold the Romanian constitution and European values."
Ponta has promised to address rapidly any issues raised by his EU partners, aware that any disapproval on their part could affect Romania's aid deal with the International Monetary Fund.
But he was defiant in his opposition to Basescu, saying the former sea captain was threatening the government's efforts to help the struggling Romanian economy by blocking its policies.
"I did my best to co-habit. He has acted against the government and against parliament," Ponta told reporters in Brussels. "I understand that on a ship there is only one captain, but Romania is not a ship."
Ponta, a leftist, has made sweeping changes to force out Basescu, his centre-right political rival. EU leaders say his actions risk reversing the ex-communist state's progress toward deeper integration with the bloc it joined in 2007.
Romania, like neighbouring Bulgaria, has had an embarrassing regime of special EU monitoring of its institutions and its corruption-fighting record, one of the factors that has kept it out of the EU's border-free Schengen zone.
EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding said Ponta's efforts to remove Basescu, and other political actions, threatened to undo progress made towards ending the monitoring. The European Commission is due to make a decision on the issue on July 18.
"I see a great danger in the recent developments in Romania," she told reporters. "If there are not very reliable reassurances and concrete actions by the Romanian government with regard to the re-establishment of the rule of law, the country might lose the years of progress."
JOSTLING FOR POWER
Romania's parliament - dominated by Ponta's Social Liberal Union (USL) which took power after a Basescu-allied government collapsed in May -- voted to suspend the president on July 6.
The government hopes to make Basescu's removal permanent in a July 29 referendum. It has taken other steps, including replacing the heads of both houses of parliament, and replacing an independent ombudsman, who can challenge emergency decrees, with a USL loyalist.
The rising political tension has pushed up Romania's borrowing costs, and four-year bond yields jumped to 6.41 percent at an auction on Thursday.
The International Monetary Fund said that Romania's 5 billion euro ($6.12 billion) standby deal remained in operation and the IMF was focusing on economic developments rather than politics. It is expected to begin a review in the coming weeks.
"We have a standby agreement. It's still in operation. The government has not implied otherwise, so it stands," IMF Deputy Managing Director Nemat Shafik told reporters on the sidelines of a conference in Vienna.
The head of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, who met Ponta on Wednesday, said his government's policies looked legal, but were "very dubious from a political point of view".
"A prime minister with a big majority can change the constitution of his country, but he cannot breach our rules and our values," Schulz told the French daily Le Monde.
LATEST POLITICAL CLASH
"The rapid replacements that have taken place at the head of several Romanian institutions are, to say the least, surprising. As is the apparently structured and planned attempt to impeach President Basescu," Schulz said.
The clash is the latest of many between Basescu's centre-right allies and the Socialists, reformed heirs of the Communist party once run by one of the Soviet bloc's most oppressive dictators, Nicolae Ceausescu.
Ponta's camp says Basescu has abused the constitutional powers of a mostly ceremonial post to favour his allies.
Basescu's backers say the USL is retaliating for the graft conviction earlier this year of former prime minister Adrian Nastase, Ponta's erstwhile mentor, who tried to kill himself before starting a jail sentence last month.
Basescu's position was helped on Tuesday when the constitutional court upheld the parliamentary vote suspending him - but said a referendum to remove him permanently would be valid only if more than 50 percent of voters turned out.
Ponta has called an extraordinary meeting of parliament to change the referendum rules.
A series of rallies are scheduled throughout Romania in the coming weeks to bolster support for Basescu, who came to power in 2005 on an anti-corruption ticket but lost much of his popular backing as corruption festered.
The 50 percent turnout rule gives Basescu a good chance of survival despite personal popularity ratings of only about 10 percent. He survived a similar referendum, also launched by his Socialist rivals, in 2007, when the turnout was only 44 percent.
Basescu launched his referendum campaign on Wednesday, saying he planned to win the vote. "My battle now is not for a presidential chair but for democratic institutions," he said. "My main goal is to win the referendum, even though this may look like mission impossible."
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