Wednesday 10 June 2015

Victor Ponta and the deep state


Yesterday the Romanian Chamber of Deputies, as expected, voted not to lift Prime Minister Victor Ponta's immunity from criminal prosecution. 

Mr. Ponta, leader of the Social Democrats (PSD) has a skin as thick as a lizard's, that quality politicians most need. His unexpected defeat by a large margin in the Romanian presidential election last November meant most people expected him not to last long as Prime Minister. But he's still there. Now Mr. Ponta intends to carry on, despite being charged with 17 offences by the Anti-Corruption Authority (DNA). He pointed out that corruption allegations have been made by the DNA against leading opposition politicians too.

Klaus Iohannis, Romania's ethnic German President, had demanded that the Prime Minister resign for the sake of the country but I wonder whether the President really wants Victor Ponta to go. Romanian 
presidents have to pretend to sever all party ties when they take office but none do and Mr. Iohannis wants his 'former' party the Liberals to come to power. If I were in the President's place, I think I should prefer Mr. Ponta to remain, with the accusations hanging over his head like a sword of Damocles. If Mr. Ponta is still Prime Minister when next year's Parliamentary elections take place I imagine he has small chances of leading his party to victory. 

There is, I suppose a chance that enough PSD legislators will switch sides to enable an early election, but the legislators have paid large amounts of money to their parties for their seats and are very reluctant to pay again sooner than is necessary. Politics is very 18th century here, though Romanian politicians have much less Latin and Greek than the Whigs and Tories of Georgian England. A lot of them aren't even much good at the fiendish complexities of Romanian grammar, which is as complicated as most things in Romania.

The PSD is not really a national party. It is a confederation of local county machines, each controlled by so-called 'barons', popularly believed to be thoroughly corrupt. The party leader is leader so long as he can offer the barons a chance of winning elections and the fruits of office, particularly in the form of contracts. The PSD's only purpose is to win elections but it seems pretty bad at doing so. 
Mr. Ponta cannot offer them much chance of winning the 2016 election. 

If President Iohannis truly wants Mr Ponta to go I presume he will agree with the grandees in the PSD to replace Mr Ponta with someone else from the governing coalition. This would be good for the country but also good for the PSD, who thereby would be rid of an electoral liability. On the other hand, if President Iohannis wants to help the Liberals then he would favour creating a coalition from the opposition parties or leaving Mr Ponta in place.

As the Guardian in London picked up today, after interviewing Mr. Ponta (you could be forgiven for missing it if you only read the Romanian press) Mr. Ponta's immunity from prosecution only covers him for prosecution for conflict of interest while in office, not for forgery, money-laundering and tax evasion back in 2007 and 2008, the bulk of the DNA's charges. He can still therefore be prosecuted.

Ion Cristoiu, the political commentator, argues that the money with which the Liberal party paid for the demonstrations against Victor Ponta (demonstrators are often paid to demonstrate in Romania) is money that came from bribes paid in the EADS and Microsoft scandals. In fact, bribery in Romanian politics has two aspects: bribery to enrich politicians and bribery to pay the costs of running political parties. The public does not understand this distinction and in most cases politicians who receive money in bribes give some to their party and rake off some for themselves, so the distinction is unclear.

I think the young prosecutors of the DNA are doing very well indeed the job for which they are paid and uncovering corruption. They are engaged in cleaning the Augean stables. The secret service, an organisation which had immense power under Communism and still does, is the source of the information which leads the DNA to bring its charges. The secret service is, naturally, very secretive, highly political (they report to the president not the Government, an enormous source of power for the former) and pragmatic, not idealistic. 

The anti-corruption revolution which has led to so many politicians of all parties being accused of corruption and in many cases being imprisoned thus has a dual aspect. It is a very welcome sweeping out of a corrupt political class. It is also an assault on some politicians by an institution which is part of, perhaps is the centre of, what is called in Romania 'the structure of power' - the deep state that rules the country from behind the scenes.

But anyone who doubts that the DNA is a force for good should look at the other big news. Ovidiu Tender, one of the richest and most powerful men in Romania, has been sent to prison for twelve years and seven months and ordered to pay back EUR 41 million to the state. An associate has received a longer sentence. Someone else has received a lengthy term for huge corruption in the rail sector. 

The Mayor of Bucharest's personal adviser was arrested on Thursday for corruption. And so it goes.


  1. If I were the Liberals, I'd certainly want Ponta in place for the next few months.

  2. Actually, Romanian media noticed that the vote in Parliament protects Ponta from prosecution on the conflict of interests counts, but not on the forgery counts.

  3. I agree: If I was president I would want Ponta to stay in as long as possible as he can only drag the PSD further into the mire. Excellent article BTW.

    1. The PSD is a dying party but is taking a very long time to die. I imagine the President would really like anticipated elections but I doubt they will ever happen for the reason I gave in the article.

  4. The analogy is nearly complete: Ponta is to Blatter as parliament is to FIFA (and the PSD majority to the national football federations supporting Blatter). The analogy is strained if we compare the DNA to the (US) DOJ, and breaks down completely in one significant way: Romanian politics will never be as entertaining as the beautiful game!

    1. Changing the analogy to rugby, Romanian politicians have a habit of fumbling the ball.

  5. I suspect Paul that all of this personalized theatre is actually a Plover ploy to distract attention from the heavy reworking of the criminal code, many of the modifications would benefit both Goverment and Opposition. Ponta's skin is thick , but make no bones if PSD needed to sacrifice him, or the majority to survive the Barons would not hesitate for a second.

  6. You are right. I would add to the picture two notes about corruption.

    1. We should take into account the EU complicity with P.S.D. It was a fruitful collaboration since 2000 under Nastase regime.

    2. I wouldn't go so far as to the Fanariot times.
    The present day corruption has important roots in the communist period. Then, after '89 many apparatchiks reinvented themselves, some in foreign affairs some others in other directions, but remained together in spirit and interests. After a while, their kids returned back from some foreign universities, some of them quite prestigious, continuing their parents' "affairs". Not few were named initially in the new nomenklatura... in Administration Councils and other lucrative & warm places. There... they became screwed into the political clientele. They will be ready to spoil the state budget via all those contracts decided the by the Administrative Councils, to give back "the right" to their patrons, and eventually to be accepted in the Romanian parliament, Senat most probably.

    Well, I expect that their final station will be Rahova State Prison.

    and 3. Ponta is just an episode from a longer series. A party may disappear but not this octopus P.C.R. (pile-relatii-cunostinte / roots - relations - acquaintances) All the parties did similar things for quite a while. This is the reason why all of them are so surprised when they are taken into custody, For them this kind of politics is just common knowledge.