BUCHAREST, Romania (AP) — Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta should feel like his political battles will become much easier, after his center-left alliance won a sweeping majority in last weekend's parliamentary elections.
With 68 percent of seats in Parliament, the alliance could expect the president to quickly reappoint Ponta, letting the government get to work on tackling the country's mounting problems. But these aren't normal times, even by the standards of Romania, which is already one of the European Union's poorest and most corrupt member states. Three days after Sunday's elections, Ponta can't be sure he'll be sworn in quickly because of a bitter feud with President Traian Basescu.
Even before the vote, Basescu said he would be loath to reappoint Ponta, an adversary whom he has derided as "a pig." Since the vote, he has said little and appears to be dragging his feet on the matter.
But Ponta told the Associated Press on Wednesday that he is confident the president will ultimately reappoint him for the sake of political stability. "Any gesture showing that he does not respect the result would put Romania in danger of being unstable and he does not want this, whatever the difficult personal relations between us," he said in an interview at his spacious office in a giant, snowed-in palace built by late dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.
Some analysts have said the president will likely delay the process of reappointing Ponta for as long as possible. But Ponta made the case to the AP that his Social Liberal Union's results were so good that Basescu will be forced to rename him. As the head of the largest party in the victorious alliance, Ponta should, by custom, lead the new government.
The enmity between the two men has poisoned the political atmosphere in Romania for months, a conflict that came to a head in the summer when Ponta tried unsuccessfully to impeach Basescu, a 61-year-old former ship captain. Romanians voted overwhelmingly to impeach Basescu, fed up with the combative nature of the leader in power since 2004, as well as austerity measures he pushed and perceptions of cronyism. But the bid failed because of low voter turnout.
The impeachment drama came on top of other turmoil: this year alone, the country has had three prime ministers and Cabinets as well as huge anti-government and anti-austerity protests that at times turned violent. Meanwhile, economic growth has been slowing to below 1 percent this year, and people are frustrated by living conditions. The average monthly salary is just €350 ($450), one of the lowest in the EU.
Another political standoff now could hurt the country further, threatening much-needed foreign investment and harming its reputation internationally. Outsiders observing the feud between Romania's top two leaders have faulted the 40-year-old Ponta as well. The EU and U.S. have criticized him for failing to respect the rule of law over how it conducted the impeachment process.
In another term, Ponta will also face the challenge of making good on promised reforms made to the International Monetary Fund in exchange for a €20 billion ($26 billion) bailout. Ponta restored most pensions and salaries that were slashed as part of the bailout loan agreement, but has largely kept the austerity measures of the previous Basescu-allied governments.
He told the AP he would reduce the sales tax from 24 to 20 percent in the next four years if budget revenues allow, and he would also "depoliticize the fight against corruption." He claimed that Basescu had used the anti-corruption fight as a tool in political battles and that graft had actually flourished under Basescu and governments allied with him despite pledges to fight corruption.
Though Basescu hasn't addressed the issue of appointing a prime minister since the election, other than to say he would respect the constitution, he hinted before the vote that he would have problems reappointing Ponta.
"I don't know if you can imagine what a president feels when he is asked to appoint a prime minister who contributed to his impeachment," he said on Nov. 27. "He feels disgust. You don't want to swallow a pig, a little frog would be OK, but a pig is harder to swallow."
Ponta insists that he is not offended by the language. "This is his style ... these are the expressions he uses with all his adversaries," Ponta said. "His problem is that he was the most popular politician and now he is the least popular."
Basescu could nominate someone else, but his choice would have to be approved by Parliament. If his candidate were rejected twice, Parliament could be dissolved and new elections called. Even if Basescu names Ponta, the bad blood between the two is expected to continue, bringing further instability to Romania. Basescu's term ends in 2014.
The government has threatened to try to impeach Basescu again if he refuses to nominate Ponta, but Ponta declined to be drawn in on that subject during the interview, insisting he was confident that Basescu would reappoint him.
Ultimately, Basescu might not be able to withstand the pressure to nominate Ponta. He is expected to do so, and his position is also weakened by his own group's weak performance in the election, which gave it less than 17 percent of the vote.
Basescu's allies in government grew unpopular because of harsh austerity measures — spending cuts and tax hikes — they imposed and allegations of cronyism. Ponta was appointed prime minister in May after a confidence vote, making him the third prime minister this year.
In Romania, the job of prime minister entails running the country and distributing public finances, while the president names the chiefs of the intelligence services, appoints ambassadors and chairs the country's top defense body, the Supreme Defense Council.