Romania allows local party-swapping, critics see threat to democracy

BUCHAREST Thu Aug 28, 2014 10:29am EDT

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BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Romania's government approved a temporary emergency ordinance on Thursday to let local administrations change political affiliations in a pre-election move it says will unblock policymaking but which critics say threatens democracy.

The ordinance gives local mayors and councilmen in the European Union state 45 days to choose to join a party other than the one from which they were elected in office without losing their seat, as was the case previously.

Romania will hold a presidential election on Nov. 2 and Prime Minister Victor Ponta of the leftist Social Democrat Party (PSD) is widely tipped to win it.

Centre-right opposition parties opposed the ordinance, which circumvents parliament and takes force immediately, as they fear it may spur defections from their ranks to the PSD, boosting Ponta's electoral position.

"We are concerned with its timing," the U.S. Embassy said in a statement, referring to the ordinance. "We have in the past expressed concerns about legislating complex issues via emergency ordinances."

Ponta's government has said the ordinance aims to streamline policymaking after changes to central political alliances this year caused rifts in local councils, freezing investment projects that tap into EU development funds.

A study by Romania's Institute for Public Policy think-tank found that over 80 percent of local administrations have rejected public investment projects or failed to meet the quorum for votes in the last three months.

But the Institute criticized the ordinance for bypassing active legislation, threatening the rule of law in Romania, one of the EU's poorest and most corruption-ridden countries, along with neighboring Bulgaria.

"The impact ... is devastating for the rules of a democratic state. Does the government intend to pass ordinances that suspend for a certain period of time the obligation to respect speed restrictions when driving, or to pay taxes?" it said.

"We ask ... parties to be responsible and solve local councils' disagreements politically, not through the law."

The Liberal Party, formerly in coalition with the PSD, split away at the start of this year and are now allied with the opposition centre-right Democrat Liberals. The PSD has formed a new majority together with the ethnic Hungarian Party and two other smaller groupings.

In 2012, Ponta drew a severe rebuke from the European Union over his efforts to ensure President Traian Basescu, a political rival, was impeached in a national referendum, a dispute that raised concerns over the rule of law.

Romania's next president will play a pivotal role in appointing a new prime minister and a government line-up to oversee IMF-backed reforms under the standby 4 billion euro aid deal it secured last year.

(Reporting by Luiza Ilie; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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