By Daniel Stroe – Bucharest
This week’s events have confirmed politicians are readying themselves for the two election cycles this year – Euro-elections in May and presidential elections in November – with a series of decisions which reek of vote reaping strategies and a war behind the curtains between the main players in the country – PM Victor Ponta and President Traian Basescu.
The week debuted with Ponta’s efforts to rein in the Special Telecommunication Service (STS) which he blames for delayed rescue operations following an airplane crash last month which resulted in two deaths. The PM tried to channel the public’s outrage at state emergency services locating the crash site after six hours and take over the control of STS, one of the country’s secret services. Ponta aims to bring it under governmental control from the current state superior defense council’s supervision. President Basescu defended STS and pointed out the responsibility rests with the poor governmental coordination.
Many analysts say Ponta is taking advantage of the public ire is turning it into his own political advantage. As controlling STS is a long desideratum of his, Ponta is now using the accident leverage to put pressure on the service and its head and subordinate the institution. In 2012, shortly after coming to power, Ponta passed the Ministry of Interior’s intelligence service under his direct control. Many say the stake of STS’s full control is strictly related to electoral goals since the service supervises data transmission from polling stations which prevents possible electoral frauds in a country where such “tactics” are not rare.
Ponta’s eagerness to tune into the electoral spirit was confirmed the next day when he revealed a proposal deemed by many as populist to halve the installments of bank loan burdened people with low income. The government says the measure is meant to stimulate consumption among this large category of people who got bank loans and can no longer afford to keep the pace with the installments. But when it turned out about 900,000 Romanians may be envisioned by this measure, the step was quickly held as a populist move especially since the government is endeavoring to raise money to the state budget by applying on the other hand a controversial fuel tax.
Since the fuel tax came into discussion, President Basescu again warned the IMF’s visiting delegation that he would not accept it, echoing a months long warning given to PM Ponta, the one who came up with the idea of extra-taxing fuel consumption to bring more money to the state budget. Fearing an electoral backlash, Ponta said he had discussed with IMF to possibly postpone applying the tax for another three months, most probably for after the Euro-elections in May. Ponta wanted to adopt the new tax as of April. Anyway, his financial calculations, both electoral and political, and his publicly expressed concern to bring more money to the state budget were embarrassed by a report of Romania’s Court of Accounts which on Tuesday showed that poor management and political incompetence have cost Romania 600 million Euros over the past two years.
On Thursday, electoral concerns started to catch a firmer shape after a series of moves made by the National Liberal Party (PNL) in the ministerial positions it holds in the government, but which pointed out, other than the infighting among the liberals, that PNL, the junior party in the ruling coalition, is more and more at odds with the social-democratic party (PSD), the main party led by PM Ponta. The liberals withdrew a key man from the government, Daniel Chitoiu, minister of Finance and deputy-PM, after the latter seemed to have forged a very close political relationship with Ponta which the liberal leadership saw as dangerous to the party. Chitoiu, the “Trojan horse” of the social-democrats as the media labeled him, was constantly accused he is not supporting the liberals’ interests, but rather PSD’s. Chitoiu’s removal also comes amid growing demand in the party that it breaks free from the ruling coalition before this year’s elections.
The lingering crisis in the ruling coalition resurfaced on Friday when the liberals, led by Crin Antonescu, the Senate speaker, nominated Klaus Johannis, the German ethnic mayor of Sibiu, a city in central Romania, as the new minister of Interior. The social-democrats wouldn’t have anything to comment upon this nomination unless the liberals proposed Johannis, the second in the approval ratings after PM Ponta, as deputy-PM, the position Chitoiu held. All the more, Johannis is one of the voices calling on the party to withdraw from the ruling coalition which makes the social-democrats even more uneasy about him getting the second job in the government. Thus, a couple of PSD leaders immediately went public and wondered whether Johannis can hold both the governmental positions and the mayoral seat at the same time. Social-democrats fear liberals want to use the governmental central position to promote Johannis, with his good public image, as a candidate for the presidential elections where he could face PM Victor Ponta. Johannis also fills the minister of Interior’s position which, again, is a crucial job in the forthcoming elections.