Romania mired in political instability

CLUJ-NAPOCA, Romania — As she is having lunch in a small fast-food restaurant downtown, Mirela Popa cannot take her eyes off the currency exchange board across the street.

“In half an hour the euro went up three times,” she said. “And it’s all because of their stupid political games. The country is sinking and they could not care less.”

Mirela’s anger is by no means an exception in this city of 400,000 a day after the minority government fell after a no-confidence vote in Parliament. The events leading up to the first toppling of a government — led by the centrist Prime Minister Emil Boc — in post-communist Romania have led people here to have doubts about the country's stability.

A primary concern of millions of Romanians is that political insecurity would cause a further devaluation of the national currency RON against the euro, and therefore ever higher loan payments, since many loans are denominated in euros.

“It’s been terribly hard this year with the economy going bad, but it seems that it can get even worse now, due to this political circus,” said Alina Marian, whose monthly bills to different banks amount to 80 percent of her total income at the moment. Like most Romanians, Marian earns in RON but has loans in euros.

In addition to practical concerns, the political upheaval has eroded Romanians' trust in their political leaders. The country's top five parties have frequently clashed in recent months. Two weeks ago, the governing coalition dissolved abruptly over a fight concerning a ministerial post.

After an avalanche of executive orders in the last few months, which bypassed Parliament and overhauled the Civil and Penal Codes, the education system and state employment rules, confusion is widespread. The Boc Government was eventually ousted this week by the no-confidence vote when it sought to pass another executive order on pension caps.

“We’re in a complete mess, which I doubt the next government will manage to clear up,” said 64-year-old engineer Gheorghe Preda. “Look at my situation: I have no idea now whether I will have to retire soon, or stay in my current job, and then for how long, and under which salary conditions?”

High school seniors, whose graduation exams — known collectively as the Baccalaureate — have been modified several times recently, are also uncertain. They wonder whether a new government will introduce any further changes to the exams' content or dates.

“We’ve been guinea pigs our entire lives,” complained 18-year-old Robert Ionescu. “Every new education minister decided something else. Honestly, we are afraid of what they might come up with now.” Teachers, doctors and civil servants for their part wonder whether they will receive their salaries, on time or at all. Mere hours after Boc said the treasury had enough money to secure salaries and pensions until the end of the year, President Traian Basescu warned that this might not be the case after all, if Romania fails to overcome the political crisis in time and secure the third IMF loan payment later this year.

“It is almost irrelevant to talk of an influential Romanian Government. Clearly, it is the IMF that is ‘governing’ us at the moment,” political opinion writer Cristian Tudor Popescu said on the Realitatea network.

For now, union federations representing the 1.4 million state employees have suspended plans for massive strikes, since they say they don’t know who to negotiate with anymore. They gave a serious warning 10 days ago when 800,000 people stopped working for a day, protesting low salaries and increasing layoffs. The unemployment rate currently stands at about 7 percent and will grow to 10 percent in the next few months, analysts predict.

It is in this climate of confusion that newly designated Prime Minister Lucian Croitoru — an economist and former IMF representative with no political affiliations — will have to form a new government within 10 days and then hope that parliament approves his cabinet. That could be a tall order: 65 percent of senators and deputies belong to parties that preferred a different candidate.

Presidential elections scheduled for the end of November could lead to another round of changes in the government. So the government Croitoru is putting together could have a very short stint in office. It is the president's prerogative to nominate the prime minister, who then forms the government mostly according to party affiliations and coalitions, so a political struggle over ministries could keep the agenda busy until the end of the year.

“And in the meantime Romania and Romanians are just losing out, in all ways possible,” concluded Preda, who said he is thinking of starting an online group called "Too Disgusted To Vote." He said he is sure to have plenty of followers, as Romanians are nothing but “deeply disappointed and overly fed up with everyone running the show.”