By Daniel Stroe – Bucharest
The two main parties of the ruling coalition in Bucharest USL (PSD – social-democrats led by PM Victor Ponta and PNL – the liberals led by Senate speaker Crin Antonescu) traded barbs over the weekend, leaving the impression the alliance is about to break. The hostile public speech coming from the two sides shows tension is rising inside USL and that a break up is likely to happen in the near future, with many pointing to this spring.
On Monday, Lucian Bolcas, PSD’s proposal for a vacant seat at the Constitutional Court, decided to withdraw from this race after the media discovered a report by the Ellie Wiesel Institute accusing him of anti-Semitism. Namely, in an article published in the far-right magazine Romania Mare (Greater Romania), Bolcas signs, among others, a letter of protest against the removal of a bust of marshal Ion Antonescu, a WWII ally of the Nazi Germany.
On the same day, the liberals and the social-democrats starting exchanging fire. PM Ponta called Antonescu a liar over heated debates on a controversial law on amnesty which infuriated the public and the Western allies. “Ponta has the boldness to call me a liar which I will never permit” Antonescu reacted. “It will be very difficult to move on, but we will not give up. I cannot break an alliance, to knock down a project just because I do not trust a man anymore” he added, referring to USL.
But the tensions inside USL reached the climax on Monday after the social-democrats challenged their fellow liberal partners. During a voting session in the Chamber of Deputies for appointing Rares Bogdan, a journalist supported by the liberals, for the interim position of general-director of TVR, the state television, the social-democrats left the hall, depriving the liberals of the necessary votes to install their man. Bogdan withdrew his candidacy on the same day. The liberals’ frustration was even higher since they had earlier voted for PSD’s nomination for the Constitutional Court, Bolcas’ replacement.
Furious, Antonescu asked for explanations from Valeriu Zgonea, the social-democrat speaker of the Chamber of Deputies. In a heated argument, Antonescu threatened the social-democrats the liberals will withdraw from USL and then file a censorship motion.
On Wednesday, following the liberals’ warning they might break free, Ponta’s social-democrats starting negotiating behind the curtains with UDMR, the Magyars’ party, so they have a backup plan in case the liberals’ departure. The tension diffused only after Ponta announced a new voting session would be called on Friday to install the liberals’ man at the helm of the state television. Two days later, Stelian Tanase was voted interim general manager of TVR. On Wednesday evening, President Traian Basescu announced he had promulgated the 2014 state budget after PM Ponta decided to postpone the 7 Euro cents excise on fuel for three months.
On Thursday, Crisu Anastasiu, the Ombudsman, resigned amid negative signals from inside and abroad to the law on amnesty which for now has been left in abeyance to temper reactions. This position is extremely important in the Romanian legislative system because the ombudsman is the only one who can contest the government’s emergency decrees at the Constitutional Court. Many said Anastasiu chose to leave lest he is held responsible in case the government decides to pass the amnesty law and the controversial amendments brought to the Criminal Code through an emergency decree, bypassing the Parliament, which would have transferred all the pressure on the Ombudsman’s shoulders. On the same day, the government finally announced the winners of the tender to build the Comarnic-Brasov highway, a two decade awaited thoroughfare which links Bucharest to the Prahova Valley, the main tourist attraction in the country. The highway has also gained an electoral weight after PM Ponta announced he would not seek reelection unless the highway is finished by the next elections late 2016.
On Friday, the political tension in USL was dispelled after the deputies voted Stelian Tanase, the liberals’ proposal, to head TVR. But analysts say the precedent was created and a breakup is imminent likely to happen amid the electoral race for the European Parliament. The bone of contention remains the candidacy for the presidential elections next November. For now Antonescu is slated to be USL candidate, but social-democrats are unlikely to support him, with Victor Ponta’s name rising as a potential candidate for the country’s first job. The week ended with another warning from the US ambassador to OSCE who said that the amendments to the Criminal Code which exempts lawmakers from corruption offences will weaken the rule of law in Romania.