Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta has been charged with fraud, tax evasion and money laundering. And calls for his resignation are becoming louder, even among his erstwhile supporters.
While Europe celebrates averting an imminent Grexit, in Romania talk of a "Pontexit" is growing louder amid increasing demands for the resignation of socialist Prime Minister Victor Ponta.
Conservative-liberal President Klaus Iohannis was the first one to speak out against Ponta about a month ago when corruption investigations had been launched against the prime minister, only to be halted by a majority vote in the Romanian parliament. Iohannis accused Ponta of obstructing justice and urged him to resign. The president has now repeated this demand.
The latest probe is delving into legal consultancy agreements concluded between Ponta and two state-owned energy companies eight years ago, when the prime minster was working for a law firm belonging to his fellow party member Dan Sova. State prosecutors are alleging around 800,000 euros ($868,000) in national budget losses. Ponta is said to have issued a total of 17 invoices for services he had never provided. It is alleged that reports were created retroactively to justify the payments when a financial audit was in the offing.
Keeping a low profile
But the investigation is not the only reason why some of his supporters are now asking for a Pontexit: a recent nearly month-long absence on the part of the prime minister also prompted heated discussions. At the beginning of June, when allegations against him had reached the public, Ponta secretly departed for Baku, where he, as the only EU leader, attended the opening of the European Games along with his Turkish and Belarusian counterparts, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Alexander Lukashenko, as well as Russian President Vladimir Putin. From the capital of Azerbaijan, Ponta then flew to Turkey to undergo knee surgery. Ponta had not informed President Iohannis about the trips.
Late last week, Ponta returned to Bucharest and informed his Social Democrat peers that he would temporarily step down as the party's leader to prevent further damage to the party.
Social democrat party backs Ponta - for now
The prime minister's image - even with the Social Democratic Party (PSD) - has been tarnished for some time now. In 2012, an independent university panel accused him of plagiarizing large sections of his doctoral thesis. He forthwith summoned a commission that refuted the plagiarism claims, only to voluntarily renounce the doctoral title later on. In the summer 2012, he sought the unconstitutional impeachment of then President Traian Basescu, but failed miserably. In the presidential election of 2014, Ponta then suffered a completely surprising loss to Klaus Iohannis.
Former Romanian Justice Minister and current European Member of Parliament Monica Macovei thinks Ponta's insistence on remaining head of government "is an act of betrayal that discredits Romania." Partner states' trust in Romania is dwindling with every day Ponta spends in office, says Macovei, who is seen as one of the strongest advocates of an independent judiciary in Romania.
Still, the socialist party publicly stands behind the leader. Earlier this year, Ponta was still speaking of remaining in office until the parliamentary elections in November 2016. The judiciary will decide whether or not he succeeds.