July 13, 2012

COVERAGE OF THE crisis in Europe has tended to focus on economic questions, such as whether Greece or other governments will default on their debts or whether the euro currency will survive. The growing political damage to institutions, and to democracy itself, is sometimes overlooked. But in several countries there has been an alarming erosion of political comity and constitutional checks and balances, driven by populists who exploit the public’s dissatisfaction with economic hardship.

The latest example is Romania, where a new left-wing prime minister has been pressing to remove checks on his government while trying to force the country’s president from office. Victor Ponta, who took power last May without an election after two successive right-of-center coalitions collapsed, has alarmed other European Union governments as well as the Obama administration by quickly seeking to consolidate power.

In a matter of weeks the parliamentary majority controlled by the new prime minister has replaced the leaders of the two chambers — one of whom is now in line to succeed the president — as well as an ombudsman who had sole authority to appeal the government’s decrees. The Parliament also sought to strip the Constitutional Court of authority to review its decisions, and Mr. Ponta spoke of replacing court members who ruled against him.

The Parliament then impeached President Traian Basescu, a right-of-center rival of Mr. Ponta. The vote mandated a July 29 referendum on whether Mr. Basescu will remain in office. But a government emergency decree and parliamentary legislation changed the rules for the vote so that impeachment could be ratified by a majority of those voting, rather than a majority of all registered voters.

Faced with an outcry from E.U. leaders, some of whom hinted that Romania could face sanctions, Mr. Ponta has appeared to retreat slightly. This week he said he supported a Constitutional Court ruling that would require a turnout of a majority of voters in the impeachment referendum in order for the results to be valid. That could ensure that Mr. Basescu remains in office, since many Romanians appear likely to skip the dog-days voting.

The revised voting rules must still be approved by Parliament, however, and Mr. Ponta’s campaign is not over: He will seek his own mandate in a general election this year. He is promising to reverse the stringent austerity Romania has endured since 2009, when it was forced to seek a bailout from the International Monetary Fund. Though relatively effective, the program prompted a popular backlash and street demonstrations that caused the downfall of the previous center-right coalition.

Contrarily, Mr. Ponta is also promising his E.U. interlocutors that he will stick to Romania’s international agreements, including one with the IMF. But the financial market’s view of his rhetoric has been reflected in the plunging value of Romania’s currency and a rise in its borrowing costs. Sooner or later, Romanians will discover that, as in the rest of Europe, there is no quick or easy solution to their economic problems — especially when it involves short-circuiting democracy.