There's a lot at stake for Romanian President Klaus Iohannis in 2019. He hopes to be re-elected for another term in late autumn, but first on the agenda are the European elections. The conservative-liberal National Liberal Party (PNL with which Iohannis is closely linked wants to win these elections. Since the ruling Social Democrats (PSD) can rely on their loyal voter base, the PNL believes a high voter turnout offers it the best chance of achieving its goal.
Iohannis's plan to hold a Externer Link: referendum on the emotionally charged topic of justice on the same day as the European elections is therefore seen by observers as a transparent ploy: even if PNL's voters can't be mobilised for the European elections, a referendum on Romania's justice reform will most certainly get them out to vote. On the website Externer Link: ziare.com this prompted journalist Ioana Ene Dogioiu to accuse the president of acting too late and solely in his own interest: "If he had called the referendum when the evil was still preventable, he would have used up all his ammunition for the election campaign. All he seems to be interested in is getting re-elected."
Concerns about the rule of law in Romania
The evil the journalist talks of is the Romanian government's Externer Link: new legislation for changes to the country's criminal codes. Since 2017 the coalition government made up of the PSD and the liberal Alde party has been reforming the judicial system step by step: under the proposed changes the justice ministry is to be given more control over judges and public prosecutors, whereas the Externer Link: anti-corruption agency would have fewer competences than before. Tens of thousands of people have repeatedly taken to Bucharest's streets to Externer Link: protest against these changes to the law.
The EU Commission has also criticised the Externer Link: judicial refom, voicing concern that it will compromise the independence of judges and the separation of powers. Liviu Dragnea, the leader of the PSD and President of the Romanian Chamber of Deputies, is widely regarded as the mastermind behind the reform. Convicted and under investigation in several corruption cases, Dragnea is barred from running for the office of prime minister, yet it is he who effectively wields the power in the government.
In the referendum on 26 May, Iohannis wants the Romanians to vote on two issues: a ban on amnesties and pardons for corruption convicts, and a ban on emergency ordinances in penal legislation. Since currently only one ombudsperson is allowed to appeal the constitutionality of emergency decrees before the constitutional court, the people are also to be called on to decide whether other authorities should have this right too in future.
Is the referendum bad news for the European elections?
The opposition supports the referendum, the ruling coalition is trying to pretend it doesn't exist, and experts and commentators are voicing mixed feelings. Opinion is divided over whether the referendum will weaken or enhance the significance of the European elections in Romania. Commenting in the weekly paper Externer Link: Observatorul Cultural, political scientist Cristian Parvulescu noted that "particularly in the current European context the referendum could offer the chance for an authentic debate on European issues." After all, he stressed, the referendum is about the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary – principles that are at the hard core of the European project.
On the other hand Radu Carp, a political scientist who supports the PNL, believes that the referendum could actually have a negative impact on the European elections: "If the ruling parties PSD and Alde boycott the referendum, we'll see the lowest turnout ever for the European elections in Romania," he argued in his Externer Link: blog with the daily paper Adevărul.
President Klaus Iohannis has made intense efforts to gain support among the public in recent weeks. He needs as much backing as possible because referendums don't exactly have an impressive track record in Romania – to say the least. No fewer than seven times have the citizens been consulted on various issues since the year 2000, but most of the referendums failed due to lack of public interest.
So in the EU Parliament election campaign, European issues such as Brexit, migration, the copyright reform, the mobility package, tax havens and the climate are likely to be drowned out by a public debate which is dominated by Romania's judicial policy.