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Romania – President postpones anti-corruption referendum

Romania’s fourth spell of cohabitation between centre-right President Iohannis and PM Grindeanu of the Social-Democratic Party (PSD) seems to contain all the key ingredients of high inter-executive conflict: a tense relationship between the president, the cabinet and the parliament fuelled by mass anti-government demonstrations, referendum threats, and the ever present warnings of presidential suspension.

For several weeks in January and February 2017, Romania has seen some of the largest anti-government demonstrations since 1989. Thousands of people have taken to the streets to protest government plans to decriminalise official misconduct and commute sentences for some non-violent criminal convictions. The government maintained that the amnesty and pardon measures were necessary in order to get the Criminal Codes in line with recent Constitutional Court rulings, reduce prison overcrowding, and prevent sanctions from the European Court of Human Rights due to the poor quality of detention conditions. However, the avoidance of transparent public debate on such important issues and the use of nearly clandestine means to pass draft decrees were perceived as attempts to reverse the anti-corruption fight led by the country’s national anticorruption directorate (DNA) and its chief prosecutor Laura Codruţa Kövesi.

President Iohannis has played an active role during the protests. Since the beginning of his new cohabitation with a Social-Democratic government, the head of state singled out the continuation of the anti-corruption fight as one of his priorities for the rest of his term. Thus, as soon as the new ministers’ took office in early January, he warned them against trying to pass amnesty and pardon legislation that would potentially undermine Romania’s anti-corruption efforts. Then he prevented the government’s first attempt to pass the draft emergency decree regarding the pardon of certain detainees and the amendments to the Penal Code by showing up unexpectedly at the cabinet meeting held on 18 January. The government’s plan to commute some sentences was also criticised by members of the judiciary, including the General Prosecutor and the Supreme Council of Magistracy (CSM).

On 22 January, the president joined protesters in Bucharest, who demanded that the government abandons the emergency ordinance and other plans to weaken the rule of law. Critics said his involvement in the protests was a flagrant violation of his constitutional role as a mediator between political actors. The following day, the head of state took another step forward in his confrontation with PM Grindeanu’s cabinet and announced his intention to put the government’s amnesty bill to referendum. Under Article 90 of the Romanian Constitution, the president can call a consultative referendum on a “matter of national interest”. The parliament needs to be consulted, but obtaining its approval is not mandatory. However, as the Constitution does not allow organising polls on fiscal matters, amnesty, or pardon, the referendum topic was transformed into the continuation of the fight against corruption and the integrity of the public office.

PSD leader and Chamber of Deputies Speaker Liviu Dragnea reacted by announcing that the government also plans to hold two new referendums in spring: one on the definition of traditional family, which would effectively translate into a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage and adoptions by same-sex couples; and the other one on removing immunity for elected officials, including the head of state. Proposals to hold the government and the president’s referendums on the same day were also made.

As it is known, the cabinet went ahead and adopted the controversial emergency ordinance 13 (OUG13) that decriminalised official misconduct in which the financial damage was less than 200,000 lei (€45,000) in a late-night session cabinet meeting on January 31. The decree also reduced penalties for corruption offences such as abuse of office, conflict of interest, and negligence at work. Following a week of mass anti-government protests that took place across the country on an unprecedented scale, the emergency ordinance was repealed on 5 February before it went into effect. Soon afterwards, the justice minister responsible for the decree stepped down as well. Nevertheless, some protests have continued since then because people are not convinced that the government has given up plans to free corrupted officials.

On 7 February, after the joint legal committees of the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate gave a unanimous favourable opinion for the organisation of the referendum, President Iohannis reinforced his commitment to call the referendum as soon as the parliament provided a final response. However, since the parliament approved unanimously the referendum request on 13 February, the president has delayed giving details about the date or the referendum question. More recently, he announced that he has not abandoned the idea of the referendum, but he intends to use it as “insurance policy” in case the government attempts another attack on justice.

The decision to postpone the referendum is motivated by the fact that the street protests alone were successful in forcing the government to repeal the graft decree. In other words, calling the referendum now would be a wasted opportunity to hold the Social-Democrats accountable for an action that has already been reprimanded by the civil society. As the amendment of the Criminal Codes has moved into the parliamentary arena, the referendum threat could be better used as a bargaining tool to ward off future attempts to weaken the criminal law or attack key institutions of the judiciary like the DNA.

There is also the concern that, in the absence of a mobilising question, the referendum could fail because of low voter turnout. The participation threshold for the validation of a referendum has undergone several changes since 2007, when the first referendum to impeach President Băsescu was called. Currently, turnout must surpass 30% of the registered electorate and at least 25% of the votes must be valid for a referendum to be passed by the Constitutional Court.

Recent events suggest that new clashes between the government and the head of state on anti-corruption issues may be imminent. For example, the PSD leader of the legal committee in the Senate proposed several amendments to the pardon draft bill adopted by the Grindeanu cabinet that pardoned corruption crimes like passive and active bribery, influence peddling, and abuse of office. Under pressure from Vice-President of the European Commission Frans Timmermans and his party leader Dragnea, the senator accepted to withdraw the controversial amendments but only after their debate in the committee. Similar attempts to weaken the anti-corruption legislation cannot be ruled out.

The new Justice Minister is also mounting pressure on the DNA chief prosecutor and the general prosecutor. His attack comes after a recent ruling of the Constitutional Court, which found that the DNA had gone beyond its duties in the investigation on how the government drafted and adopted the controversial OUG13. Moreover, according to the Court decision, the DNA disrupted the normal functioning of the Government and the relationships that must exist between the judicial, executive and legislative. Promptly, the Justice Minister promised to evaluate the activity of the anti-corruption directorate and the public ministry, going as far as to suggest that the general prosecutor Augustin Lazăr and the DNA head Codruţa Kövesi should step down before he makes a decision.

However, the removal of the general prosecutor and the DNA head from office cannot be attained without the president’s agreement, who is unlikely to co-operate on the matter. In fact, following the justice minister’s statement, the president declared himself satisfied with the activity of both chief prosecutors. Coincidently, though, a draft bill introduced by the Senate Speaker Călin Popescu-Tăriceanu that aims to change the system of key nominations in the judiciary is now under debate in the legal committee. While currently the head of state appoints and removes chief prosecutors on the proposal of the justice minister and the Superior Council of Magistracy (CSM), under the new law the appointment and removal of top prosecutors would be decided only by the CSM.

The ruling PSD-ALDE coalition might also entertain the option of suspending the president. The possibility was first evoked in December 2016, when President Iohannis turned down PSD’s first nomination of Sevil Shhaideh as prime minister without motivating his decision. Since then, the president recidivated and angered the leaders of the ruling coalition on a number of occasions – for example, when he showed up unexpectedly to chair the cabinet meeting on 18 January;  when he joined anti-government protesters; when he asked the CSM and the Ombudsman to notify the Constitutional Court about the conflict between the government and the judiciary and challenge the constitutionality of OUG13; and when he delivered a harsh speech in parliament on 7 February. Consequently, on 8 March, the parliament adopted a political declaration that accused President Iohannis and the CSM of “abuse of law” and “usurpation” of the parliament’s right to hold the government accountable. Both the president and the CSM had filed complaints to the Constitutional Court about OUG13 that were eventually dismissed by the Court. The parliament’s act does not have any immediate consequences, but it was interpreted as a way of putting pressure on the president and the judiciary and even as a first step towards suspending the president.

Thus, given the multitude of tactics that ruling Social-Democrats can deploy to get their way with passing the controversial changes to corruption laws through parliament, the president might not need to wait a long time before he decides to play the referendum card. The role that the opposition parties will play in this process remains to be seen. The National Liberal Party (PNL) and the Save Romania Union (USR) continue to be divided, searching for strong leaders and a clear vision of how to react to current events. The two parties were only able to co-operate in calling a no-confidence vote against PM Grindeanu’s cabinet, which was easily defeated on 8 February. Both parties will be electing their leadership in the national congresses that will take place in May (USR) and June (PNL). In the meantime, former PM Dacian Cioloş has taken the first step towards establishing a new political party and seems to have abandoned plans to join either PNL or USR.