Romanian PM Victor Ponta gives up doctorate after years of plagiarism allegations

Romania's Prime Minister and presidential candidate Victor Ponta speaks to the media after exit-polls in Bucharest on Nov 16, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
Romania's Prime Minister and presidential candidate Victor Ponta speaks to the media after exit-polls in Bucharest on Nov 16, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta has handed back his doctorate, he said on Tuesday, two years after he was first accused of plagiarising chunks of his law thesis.

While he still denies plagiarism, Ponta's move shows he is keen to end damaging speculation about his PhD as he tries to rebuild confidence in his government, weeks after losing a presidential election.

A panel of Bucharest University academics in July 2012 ruled that Ponta had plagiarised much of his 2003 PhD thesis on the International Criminal Court, which they said "broke the ethical, integrity and good conduct principles of research".

Ponta called that ruling politically motivated. The leftist leader said on Tuesday he had finally decided to relinquish the doctorate to prevent his newly appointed education minister being tarnished by the ongoing accusations.

In a message posted on his Facebook page, addressed to the rector of Bucharest University, Ponta said: "I have written to you to notify that I give up the doctor of law title obtained in 2003. This is a gesture that I should have done before, since public allegations about my PhD thesis emerged."

Reeling from his surprise defeat in November's presidential election, Ponta reshuffled his cabinet last Sunday, replacing technocrats in key ministries with political appointees from a coalition ally.

His defeat in the election, in which he had been the clear frontrunner, cost him the support of two allies and could see his position as prime minister challenged early next year.

The plagiarism row hit Ponta in June 2012, at the start of his term, when the science magazine Nature alleged that more than half of his Romanian-language thesis was copied.

Ponta's thesis supervisor was former prime minister Adrian Nastase, who has since served a jail sentence on unrelated corruption charges.

Ponta, a former prosecutor, has said the row over his doctorate was part of a long-running feud between himself and outgoing President Traian Basescu. He has admitted that he should have credited sources in footnotes, rather than just in the bibliography, but has denied copying other people's work.

Plagiarism accusations have forced several European politicians to quit, including Hungary's president, a German defence minister tipped as a possible successor to Angela Merkel, and one of Ponta's past nominations as education minister.