North Korea

North Korea
The always bombastic and unpredictable North Koreans go hysterical again. This time the country is prepared to "go to war" with South Korea because that country is playing loudspeakers directed at North Korean territory. A headline from a UK paper reads, "More than 50 North Korea submarines 'leave their bases' as war talks with South continue "

Friday, July 27, 2012

Romania holds referendum on impeaching its President

This weekend, Romanians will be headed to the polls to vote on the impeachment of a very unpopular President. However a larger judgement will also be rendered on the health of Romanian democratic institutions. The country's Prime Minister has been widely condemned for engineering the vote as a manipulation of power politics.

Romania, with a population of just over 21 million, is another Eastern European country struggling to rise from its subservient role, over 20 years ago, within the communist Soviet Union.

The European Union (and the US) have weighed in on the rough politics, after an EU report on Romania concluded that the country's political elite does not understand how democracy works, an indirect admission that the country should not be in the European Union at all – just five years after it joined.

As the UK Guardian put it, "The political crisis has left many Romanians confused and unsure about how to vote on Sunday. Endemic corruption and disenchantment with the political class have led many to believe that, regardless of the outcome, the referendum is a no-win situation. ... it is a referendum forced by a left-wing government looking to ensure the right-wing head of state faces impeachment charges."

The main figures are Traian Basescu, President of Romania since 2004 with a conservative perspective, while the Prime Minister is a 39-yr old lawyer, Victor Ponta, with clear leftist leanings. As the Guardian article concedes, "Ponta's arrival unleashed brutal trench warfare in Romanian politics; the prime minister is eager to use his ascendancy to settle scores."

President Basescu, has not been successful in working with a string of six Prime Ministers since 2004, and has already been suspended once from his Presidential duties in 2007.

Prime Minister Victor Ponta, after just 5 months in office, has also raised alarm bells over his use of powers. One of the major clouds has been charges of plagiarism. The allegations were first brought in June by the British scientific journal Nature, which reported that Ponta copied large portions of his 2003 thesis while at the University of Bucharest. The Romanian National Council for Attestation of University Titles concluded a few days later that the thesis had, indeed, been plagiarised. Ponta responded by rescinding the council's legal authority.

Basescu is unpopular; his rightwing party took a pounding in local elections last month, taking only 15% of the vote. He had over the past 8 years failed to tackle real and perceived corruption within the political system, while his latest push for austerity measures was the basis for Parliament suspending him pending the referendum vote. But the manner in which the new Prime Minister Victor Ponta has waged his war against the president is the reason that Brussels - representing the European Union - has intervened. From another newspaper account, "Ponta felt the full weight of EU wrath after his government took on the Constitutional Court, threatening to replace judges, reduce its powers and ignored one of its decisions ..." in his drive to push Basescu from office.

The second poorest country in Europe, Romania joined the EU with Bulgaria in 2007. Both states were not really viewed as properly fit for entry but admission was seen as a clever geo-political move in the contest with Vladimir Putin's Russia for influence in the Balkans, particularly in countries with historically close ties to Moscow.

Romania has struggled to improve basic infrastructure, such as this degraded country road

So, apparently a number of countries are watching not only Romania's vote on Sunday, but even more closely, the aftermath. If Basescu is impeached, a new presidential election will be held within 3 months, and it is likely that Ponta's left wing party will triumph. Whether that leads to any deeper change from corruption and lack of respect for democratic institutions is now at stake.

Bucharest is Romania's capital, and likely best known city

Several international observers have become concerned over the trajectory of a number of Eastern European countries, freed from Soviet domination in the early 1990s, who are showing signs of slipping back towards more authoritarian governance. A USA Today article recently noted, "The political crisis in Romania could derail years of democratic progress and analysts say that the West must act decisively to arrest backsliding among Eastern European nations such as Hungary and Bulgaria before autocracy makes a comeback. ... The events unfolding in Romania echo events in neighboring Hungary. Earlier this year the Hungarian government implemented a new constitution that limits individual rights, the judiciary and the independence of the central bank. Analysts say more than harsh words from the West are needed to reverse the trend.

The economic downturn is not helping matters. Romania has been forced to cut wages and benefits to public workers, and enact layoffs, opening the way for Ponta to argue that free markets and democratic reforms are not working for Romania."

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