BUCHAREST (Reuters) - A senior Romanian lawmaker accused President Klaus Iohannis of seeking to hijack this month’s European Parliament elections in the country by calling a referendum on the same day on the ruling coalition’s contested judicial plans.
Iohannis, a strong critic of the Social Democrat-led coalition, wants Romanians to vote in the May 26 referendum against government plans to potentially weaken anti-corruption legislation further via emergency decrees.
The referendum and the EU election will be the first test of public support for the governing coalition and its judicial changes, which the European Union and U.S. State Department as well as Iohannis say undermine the rule of law and democratic standards in Romania, seen as one of the most corrupt EU states.
The leader of the junior coalition party ALDE, Calin Popescu Tariceanu, said the referendum would now overshadow the EU election, distracting Romanian voters from more pressing issues.
“(The referendum) is just a political game allowing the president to enter the political debate,” Tariceanu told Reuters in an interview, noting that Iohannis, a centrist, will seek a second term in a presidential election due later this year.
Tariceanu, who has hinted he might also run for the presidency, said the referendum would “solve no major problem because I do not believe there is someone in Romania who will say they do not want rule of law or an independent judiciary”.
Defending the coalition’s judicial changes, Tariceanu, leader of parliament’s the upper house, said anti-graft prosecutors and the secret services had been using methods reminiscent of the communist era to target high-level politicians.
“I have no doubt that a deep operation in the justice system is needed. We cannot tolerate communist-era practices... where justice was determined by the secret services and prosecutors,” he said.
Tariceanu said cooperation protocols with the secret service to collect wiretaps and other proof for prosecutors based on court warrants had tainted due legal process. However, data from the secret services and state prosecutors show the number of wiretaps used has been much lower than the coalition said.
Opinion surveys show ALDE gaining roughly 12 percent of votes in the EU election, twice its votes in the last parliamentary election in late 2016. With the ruling Social Democrats predicted to see their support more than halve to about 22 percent, ALDE’s weight in the coalition could increase.
Romania holds the EU rotating presidency till June 30 but the judicial changes have harmed its reputation. Brussels has said it could make future access to generous EU aid conditional on member states showing full respect for the rule of law.
Editing by Gareth Jones