Author Archives: Cristina Bucur

Romania – President postpones anti-corruption referendum

Romania’s fourth spell of cohabitation between centre-right President Iohannis and PM Grindeanu of the Social-Democratic Party (PSD) seems to contain all the key ingredients of high inter-executive conflict: a tense relationship between the president, the cabinet and the parliament fuelled by mass anti-government demonstrations, referendum threats, and the ever present warnings of presidential suspension.

For several weeks in January and February 2017, Romania has seen some of the largest anti-government demonstrations since 1989. Thousands of people have taken to the streets to protest government plans to decriminalise official misconduct and commute sentences for some non-violent criminal convictions. The government maintained that the amnesty and pardon measures were necessary in order to get the Criminal Codes in line with recent Constitutional Court rulings, reduce prison overcrowding, and prevent sanctions from the European Court of Human Rights due to the poor quality of detention conditions. However, the avoidance of transparent public debate on such important issues and the use of nearly clandestine means to pass draft decrees were perceived as attempts to reverse the anti-corruption fight led by the country’s national anticorruption directorate (DNA) and its chief prosecutor Laura Codruţa Kövesi.

President Iohannis has played an active role during the protests. Since the beginning of his new cohabitation with a Social-Democratic government, the head of state singled out the continuation of the anti-corruption fight as one of his priorities for the rest of his term. Thus, as soon as the new ministers’ took office in early January, he warned them against trying to pass amnesty and pardon legislation that would potentially undermine Romania’s anti-corruption efforts. Then he prevented the government’s first attempt to pass the draft emergency decree regarding the pardon of certain detainees and the amendments to the Penal Code by showing up unexpectedly at the cabinet meeting held on 18 January. The government’s plan to commute some sentences was also criticised by members of the judiciary, including the General Prosecutor and the Supreme Council of Magistracy (CSM).

On 22 January, the president joined protesters in Bucharest, who demanded that the government abandons the emergency ordinance and other plans to weaken the rule of law. Critics said his involvement in the protests was a flagrant violation of his constitutional role as a mediator between political actors. The following day, the head of state took another step forward in his confrontation with PM Grindeanu’s cabinet and announced his intention to put the government’s amnesty bill to referendum. Under Article 90 of the Romanian Constitution, the president can call a consultative referendum on a “matter of national interest”. The parliament needs to be consulted, but obtaining its approval is not mandatory. However, as the Constitution does not allow organising polls on fiscal matters, amnesty, or pardon, the referendum topic was transformed into the continuation of the fight against corruption and the integrity of the public office.

PSD leader and Chamber of Deputies Speaker Liviu Dragnea reacted by announcing that the government also plans to hold two new referendums in spring: one on the definition of traditional family, which would effectively translate into a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage and adoptions by same-sex couples; and the other one on removing immunity for elected officials, including the head of state. Proposals to hold the government and the president’s referendums on the same day were also made.

As it is known, the cabinet went ahead and adopted the controversial emergency ordinance 13 (OUG13) that decriminalised official misconduct in which the financial damage was less than 200,000 lei (€45,000) in a late-night session cabinet meeting on January 31. The decree also reduced penalties for corruption offences such as abuse of office, conflict of interest, and negligence at work. Following a week of mass anti-government protests that took place across the country on an unprecedented scale, the emergency ordinance was repealed on 5 February before it went into effect. Soon afterwards, the justice minister responsible for the decree stepped down as well. Nevertheless, some protests have continued since then because people are not convinced that the government has given up plans to free corrupted officials.

On 7 February, after the joint legal committees of the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate gave a unanimous favourable opinion for the organisation of the referendum, President Iohannis reinforced his commitment to call the referendum as soon as the parliament provided a final response. However, since the parliament approved unanimously the referendum request on 13 February, the president has delayed giving details about the date or the referendum question. More recently, he announced that he has not abandoned the idea of the referendum, but he intends to use it as “insurance policy” in case the government attempts another attack on justice.

The decision to postpone the referendum is motivated by the fact that the street protests alone were successful in forcing the government to repeal the graft decree. In other words, calling the referendum now would be a wasted opportunity to hold the Social-Democrats accountable for an action that has already been reprimanded by the civil society. As the amendment of the Criminal Codes has moved into the parliamentary arena, the referendum threat could be better used as a bargaining tool to ward off future attempts to weaken the criminal law or attack key institutions of the judiciary like the DNA.

There is also the concern that, in the absence of a mobilising question, the referendum could fail because of low voter turnout. The participation threshold for the validation of a referendum has undergone several changes since 2007, when the first referendum to impeach President Băsescu was called. Currently, turnout must surpass 30% of the registered electorate and at least 25% of the votes must be valid for a referendum to be passed by the Constitutional Court.

Recent events suggest that new clashes between the government and the head of state on anti-corruption issues may be imminent. For example, the PSD leader of the legal committee in the Senate proposed several amendments to the pardon draft bill adopted by the Grindeanu cabinet that pardoned corruption crimes like passive and active bribery, influence peddling, and abuse of office. Under pressure from Vice-President of the European Commission Frans Timmermans and his party leader Dragnea, the senator accepted to withdraw the controversial amendments but only after their debate in the committee. Similar attempts to weaken the anti-corruption legislation cannot be ruled out.

The new Justice Minister is also mounting pressure on the DNA chief prosecutor and the general prosecutor. His attack comes after a recent ruling of the Constitutional Court, which found that the DNA had gone beyond its duties in the investigation on how the government drafted and adopted the controversial OUG13. Moreover, according to the Court decision, the DNA disrupted the normal functioning of the Government and the relationships that must exist between the judicial, executive and legislative. Promptly, the Justice Minister promised to evaluate the activity of the anti-corruption directorate and the public ministry, going as far as to suggest that the general prosecutor Augustin Lazăr and the DNA head Codruţa Kövesi should step down before he makes a decision.

However, the removal of the general prosecutor and the DNA head from office cannot be attained without the president’s agreement, who is unlikely to co-operate on the matter. In fact, following the justice minister’s statement, the president declared himself satisfied with the activity of both chief prosecutors. Coincidently, though, a draft bill introduced by the Senate Speaker Călin Popescu-Tăriceanu that aims to change the system of key nominations in the judiciary is now under debate in the legal committee. While currently the head of state appoints and removes chief prosecutors on the proposal of the justice minister and the Superior Council of Magistracy (CSM), under the new law the appointment and removal of top prosecutors would be decided only by the CSM.

The ruling PSD-ALDE coalition might also entertain the option of suspending the president. The possibility was first evoked in December 2016, when President Iohannis turned down PSD’s first nomination of Sevil Shhaideh as prime minister without motivating his decision. Since then, the president recidivated and angered the leaders of the ruling coalition on a number of occasions – for example, when he showed up unexpectedly to chair the cabinet meeting on 18 January;  when he joined anti-government protesters; when he asked the CSM and the Ombudsman to notify the Constitutional Court about the conflict between the government and the judiciary and challenge the constitutionality of OUG13; and when he delivered a harsh speech in parliament on 7 February. Consequently, on 8 March, the parliament adopted a political declaration that accused President Iohannis and the CSM of “abuse of law” and “usurpation” of the parliament’s right to hold the government accountable. Both the president and the CSM had filed complaints to the Constitutional Court about OUG13 that were eventually dismissed by the Court. The parliament’s act does not have any immediate consequences, but it was interpreted as a way of putting pressure on the president and the judiciary and even as a first step towards suspending the president.

Thus, given the multitude of tactics that ruling Social-Democrats can deploy to get their way with passing the controversial changes to corruption laws through parliament, the president might not need to wait a long time before he decides to play the referendum card. The role that the opposition parties will play in this process remains to be seen. The National Liberal Party (PNL) and the Save Romania Union (USR) continue to be divided, searching for strong leaders and a clear vision of how to react to current events. The two parties were only able to co-operate in calling a no-confidence vote against PM Grindeanu’s cabinet, which was easily defeated on 8 February. Both parties will be electing their leadership in the national congresses that will take place in May (USR) and June (PNL). In the meantime, former PM Dacian Cioloş has taken the first step towards establishing a new political party and seems to have abandoned plans to join either PNL or USR.

Romania – The politics of the fourth cohabitation

Less than a month after the general election held on December 11, a new government formally took office in Romania. As anticipated, a two-party coalition was formed between the Social Democratic Party (PSD), represented by 221 MPs in the 465-seats bicameral parliament, and the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), which holds 29 seats. The Hungarian minority party (UDMR), which won 30 seats in the election, signed a parliamentary support agreement with the ruling coalition but decided to stay out of government. Counting in the support of the 17 representatives of the national minorities, the government majority is only 13 seats shy of the two-thirds majority required for a constitutional amendment. The two ruling parties also seized the top legislative posts: PSD’s chairman Liviu Dragnea claimed the leadership of the Chamber of Deputies, while the Senate presidency went to the ALDE leader and former prime minister Călin Popescu-Tăriceanu.

While little time was spent on PSD-ALDE coalition negotiations, President Iohannis’ involvement in government formation delayed the appointment of a new prime minister and came close to triggering a new constitutional crisis. The Constitution grants the head of state some discretion in identifying a prime minister candidate, but the final decision on the approval of a new government rests with the parliament. The president’s actual influence on who gets the PM post depends on political context and is usually limited to situations when either a presidential majority exists in parliament or a deep political crisis opens a window of opportunity for the head of state to put together a “crisis-solving” government. The latter scenario took place in November 2015, when President Iohannis appointed a technocratic government led by former European Commissioner for Agriculture Dacian Cioloş after the then PSD government led by PM Ponta stepped down amid country-wide anti-corruption protests. As the National Liberal Party (PNL) together with the other centre-right groupings barely control 36% of the parliamentary seats in the current legislature, the head of state seemed to have hardly any leeway in the exercise of his PM appointment powers.  However, President Iohannis found a way to hinder PSD’s efforts to dictate the formation of the post-election government.

First, he used a 2001 law that forbids convicted persons to be appointed to government as a legal ground to bar PSD’s leader Liviu Dragnea from becoming prime minister on account of a two-year probation sentence for electoral fraud he received in 2015. Dragnea admitted he was unable to claim the PM post for himself “for the time being”,  but made it clear he had a free hand from the party to make appointments to cabinet and hold the executive accountable for its actions. Consequently, his first nomination for the PM post was Sevil Shhaideh, a PSD member without a personal power base in the party but one of his longstanding collaborators and loyal supporters. President Iohannis rejected Shhaideh’s nomination without formally motivating his decision. Her Syrian husband’s ties with President Bashar al-Assad’s regime was however seen as the main reason for the president’s unprecedented move to turn down a PM nomination. The PSD-ALDE coalition reacted with threats to initiate the proceedings for the president’s impeachment. This episode ended with President Iohannis’ acceptance of the Social Democrats’ second proposal for prime minister. Sorin Grindeanu, a relatively unfamiliar figure for the general public despite having been a minister in the PSD government ousted in November 2015, presented his cabinet and won the parliament’s investiture vote held on January 4 with 295 votes against 133.

PM Grindeanu’s cabinet profile: “politics is made elsewhere”

 Ministerial portfolios in PM Grindeanu’s cabinet are distributed among the two parties in strict proportion with their legislative seat-shares.

While most members in PM Grindeanu’s cabinet have some experience in national or local politics, few of them are high-profile politicians. About half of the ministers, including PM Grindeanu and deputy PM Sevil Shhaideh, have held posts in previous PSD cabinets. They occupy more or less the same portfolios they held before, despite having left few notable traces in their respective domains. Some of them come from local public administration (Sorin Grindeanu and Sevil Shhaideh fit this profile as well). Only half of the ministers were selected from among the sitting parliamentarians and not many of them have been key figures in their party’s national or local organizations. Moreover, despite PSD’s heavy criticism of the previous government’s technocratic nature, three of the cabinet members have no formal political affiliation. Additionally, several ministers are involved in corruption investigations or other controversies. As a matter of fact, PSD’s governing programme does not contain any references to continuing the fight against corruption.

Arguably, the ministers’ lack of personal notoriety makes them more susceptible to direct party control. The prime minister himself is better known as a local politician, due to his recent election as president of the Timiş City Council, despite having been a deputy in the 2012-2016 legislature and a minister in PM Ponta’s last cabinet. Although a longstanding PSD member, Sorin Grindeanu has never held a key position in the party’s national executive. That said, it is not unprecedented for a prime minister not to be a party leader as well. For example, PM Ponta stepped down as PSD leader in July 2015, after prosecutors from the National Anti-Corruption Directorate (DNA) opened a corruption investigation against him (ironically, he was succeeded as party leader by Liviu Dragnea, who had already received a one-year suspended jail sentence for electoral fraud). Even in the French Fifth Republic, where control over the party machinery is often thought a prerequisite for the exercise of key executive roles, Lionel Jospin willingly resigned as leader of the Socialist Party before taking office as prime minister in 1997 (also at the beginning of cohabitation with President Chirac). In these cases, though, the prime ministers’ political authority over their governments’ actions and even on their parties was not questioned. This is hardly the case with PM Grindeanu, who lacks a personal power base in the party. In fact, one might be hard pressed to find another example of a prime minister stating that his cabinet has a purely administrative role, as “politics is made elsewhere”.

All important decisions following the general election have been announced by PSD’s leader Liviu Dragnea, including the formal presentation of PM Grindeanu’s list of ministers. In fact, he repeatedly stated that the government is directly accountable on the party line and that he will personally monitor each minister’s performance. Dragnea has also taken over announcements concerning the steps taken by the government to fulfill the generous promises of the Social-Democratic programme, such as the swift elimination of the income tax for small pensions. Thus, as leader of the main governing party and president of the Chamber of Deputies, Liviu Dragnea possesses all essential tools to control and speed up executive actions, acting as the country’s most powerful politician.

President Iohannis’ role in the fourth cohabitation

Although this is Romania’s fourth spell of cohabitation, it is the first time that a general election brought it about. There are good chances it will also be Romania’s longest cohabitation to date, as the next presidential election is not due before late 2019. Therefore, one can only speculate about the role President Iohannis will choose to play from now on, especially if he intends to run for a second mandate. Granted, it is too early to tell if he will attempt to redefine his role as the leader of the opposition, like his predecessor did in 2007 and 2012. However, there are signs he might be willing to take a more active role in the confrontation with the ruling coalition.

For example, the head of state delivered a tough speech at the government’s swearing-in ceremony on January 4. On this occasion, he picked holes in the governing programme for not specifying how it will manage to keep the budgetary deficit under 3%, while making populist promises to increase salaries and pensions and cut down the VAT. He also hinted at the ministers’ inability to answer basic questions related to the governing programme during the parliamentary hearings, which were cut down to only 30 minutes for each minister.

Notable among the president’s latest actions were also his blasting comments on the Ombudsman’s decision to challenge the law banning convicted persons to join the government to the Constitutional Court. In fact, the Ombudsman’s action is generally seen as a blatant attempt to ease Liviu Dragnea’s future accession to the prime ministership. The president made similar harsh remarks several days later, when he warned the government against attempting to pass a law on amnesty and pardon of convicted or prosecuted politicians. He also pledged support to the DNA’s internationally recognised anti-corruption fight and vowed to use his veto powers against legislative and executive actions directed towards the weakening of anti-corruption legislation.

Whether such pledges can still pay off electorally – a view the latest polls did not seem to support – or have any political effects in the face of PSD’ solid parliamentary majority remains to be seen. For the time being, the PSD-ALDE majority has just engineered the government’s ability to govern through emergency ordinances that do not require the president’s approval while the parliament has convened for an extraordinary session.

Romania – Social Democrats’ landslide victory in parliamentary election brings about another spell of cohabitation

 

One year after country-wide anti-corruption protests forced Victor Ponta’s Social-Democratic government out of office, the PSD won a landslide victory in the general election held on December 11. The Social-Democrats have topped the polls in each general election held since 1990 and formed the government each time a centre-right coalition was too weak or too divided to coalesce around a common leader. This time, though, their historic 46% of the vote might bring along an outright parliamentary majority – a first in Romania’s post-communist electoral history – after the redistribution of unallocated mandates. However, despite the clear election results, a political crisis might still be looming on the horizon. During the electoral campaign, President Iohannis vowed not to nominate a convicted politician as prime minister, a situation which includes the PSD leader, Liviu Dragnea, who received a two-year probation sentence for electoral fraud earlier this year.

Election results

The Social-Democrats are followed by President Iohannis’ National Liberal Party (PNL) with a distant 20%. Since the local elections held in June, the party has lost about 10% of the voters’ preferences. The election outcome is all the more disappointing for the PNL, as one year ago the party could count on 35% of the public support according to opinion polls. However, instead of calling early election when the PSD government was ousted, President Iohannis chose to appoint a technocratic government led by former commissioner Dacian Cioloş. Some of the PNL’s eroding support was captured by the Save Romania Union (USR), a new anti-corruption party set up only six months ago, which won around 9% of the vote.

Apart from the Hungarian minority party (UDMR), two new parties also managed to cross the 5% national threshold: the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), which is the merger between a PNL faction and the Conservative Party (PC) led by former prime minister Călin Popescu Tăriceanu; and former President Băsescu’s Popular Movement Party (PMP), which broke away from the Liberal Democratic Party (PDL) in 2013 (the other PDL faction merged with PNL in 2014 and supported Klaus Iohannis as a common candidate in the 2014 presidential election).

None of the 44 independent candidates who stood for election across the country’s 42 constituencies managed to obtain an electoral mandate. A couple of newly-formed ethno-nationalist parties also run unsuccessfully, proving that xenophobia and far-right extremism have not found fertile ground in Romania. That said, the election winners were able to capitalise on growing anti-EU sentiments. Turnout to vote was just 39.5%, the lowest on record since 1990. The full allocation of seats in the two parliamentary chambers is yet to be determined.

Chamber of Deputies (330 seats)
Party % Vote share %Vote change
Social Democratic Party (PSD) 45.55 +9.14
National Liberal Party (PNL) 20.04 -4.23
Union Save Romania (USR) 8.83 New
Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania (UDMR) 6.19 +1.82
Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (ALDE) 5.62 New
People’s Movement Party (PMP) 5.34 New
United Romania Party (PRU) 2.79 New
Greater Romania Party (PRM) 1.05 -0.2
Ecology Party 0.91 +0.12
Our Alliance Romania (ANR) 0.87 New
Senate (136 seats)
Party % Vote share % Vote change
Social Democratic Party (PSD) 45.71 +12.19
National Liberal Party (PNL) 20.42 -7.99
Union Save Romania (USR) 8.88 New
Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania (UDMR) 6.25 +1.14
Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (ALDE) 6.0 New
People’s Movement Party (PMP) 5.64 New
United Romania Party (PRU) 2.95 New
Greater Romania Party (PRM) 1.18 -0.29
Ecology Party 1.1 +0.31
Our Alliance Romania (ANR) 0.95 New

The electoral campaign

Several factors contributed to the PSD’s stunning victory. The new electoral legislation, as well as the laws on political parties and campaign financing adopted by the parliament in 2015 played a significant role. A previous post discussed the change in electoral rules, from the mixed-member system used in the 2008 and 2012 elections to the closed-list proportional system with moderately low-magnitude districts, which was employed until 2004. The new law on party financing capped campaign budgets for individual candidates to 60 gross average salaries, severely restricted the range of electioneering activities – such as street advertising and the dissemination of electoral gifts – and increased the parties’ dependence on state budget for campaign spending. These regulations favoured the two big parties, the PSD and the PNL, and limited the ability of newer parties to make themselves known outside the big cities. Under these circumstances, door-to-door canvassing and online campaigning became an essential part of campaign strategies. These techniques were also skilfully used by USR, due to its strong ties with civil society and its popularity among educated voters who are more likely to use the internet for political information.

The depersonalisation of the electoral campaign was another factor that enhanced the Social-Democrats’ chances (or at least prevented them from haemorrhaging support as in 2014, when the centre-right electorate mobilised against Victor Ponta and handed over the presidency to Klaus Iohannis). The campaign lacked the usual debates between party leaders and PM candidates and the clash of political programmes and policy proposals. Learning the lesson of the 2014 presidential election, the PSD refrained from making any nominations for prime minister, although everything pointed to its current leader, Liviu Dragnea, as the party’s first choice for the PM post. As Dragnea received a two-year probation sentence for electoral fraud earlier this year, his endorsement for the prime ministership ahead of the election would have been an easy target for the centre-right parties, which campaigned on an anti-corruption platform.

On their side, PNL and USR chose to associate themselves with the record of the technocratic government, praising its efficiency in the reform of central and local public administration. Both parties tried to lure PM Cioloş into their ranks. When the premier turned down their offer, the two parties ended up endorsing his political platform and nominating him for a second term as head of government. The move backfired for two reasons. On the one hand, it showed that PNL is still in search of leaders for top national positions, a weakness that also cost the party the defeat in the race for the mayor of Bucharest in the June contest. In fact, PM Cioloş was reluctant to even take part actively in the campaign. On the other hand, it allowed the PSD to associate the centre-right parties with the mishaps of the Cioloş government and its refusal to consent to populist public spending measures passed by the PSD parliamentarians in the eve of the electoral campaign. Moreover, just a few days before the general election, PSD presented plans for next year’s budget, which included proposals for a national reindustrialisation programme and consistent wage increases for public sector employees. This generous stance on boosting social spending and tax cuts was contrasted with PM Cioloş’ firm position on containing the budget deficit, despite Romania’s GDP growth by 6% this year.

Although President Iohannis refrained from getting too involved in the campaign, he did make three notable interventions. First, he tried to force PM Cioloş into joining the PNL ranks by announcing that he would not appoint an independent prime minister after the December poll. Faced with the premier’s refusal to join a political party, the president backed down saying that Cioloş could in fact continue in office if political parties endorsed him for a second mandate. The second time President Iohannis showed off his constitutional role in PM appointment, he ruled out designating a criminally prosecuted or convicted politician, regardless of that person’s parliamentary support. Then, less than a fortnight before the election, he prohibited officials with a criminal record to take party in the formal celebrations organised for Romania’s National Day on December 1. As a result, several high-ranking PSD and ALDE politicians, including Liviu Dragnea and former PM Popescu-Tăriceanu, were denied access to high-visibility events organised by the Presidency. Arguably, these interventions anticipated the President’s intention to make active use of his formal powers in government formation and to prevent the PSD leader from taking over as prime minister.

Towards a new government and another period of cohabitation

Although the allocation of seats has not been officially announced yet, the Social-Democrats and their smaller ally ALDE are likely to reach a sizeable majority. Consequently, the PSD will be granted the first chance in nominating a new prime minister candidate. While so far no official proposals have been made, senior PSD figures have strongly endorsed their party leader for this role. However, not only has President Iohannis vowed to deny appointment to convicted politicians, but a 2001 law also forbids convicted persons to be appointed to government posts. Nevertheless, PSD insists that constitutional provisions, according to which the president must appoint a candidate for the PM post following consultations with the party holding the absolute majority in Parliament, should take precedence in this case. As Liviu Dragnea is unlikely to allow a political rival to capitalise on his electoral success, the conditions for a new constitutional crisis seem in place. Its resolution might once again depend on the decision of the Constitutional Court, or, as several PSD members suggested, could lead to another attempt to impeach the president.

Either way, Romania seems headed towards a new period of cohabitation. It will be interesting to see what role President Iohannis will choose to play in this situation. Will he attempt to become the leader of the opposition, like Traian Băsescu in 2007 and 2012? So far there have been few signs of the president’s willingness to take an active role in the confrontation with political parties. That said, the presidential elections scheduled for 2017 could provide a strong enough incentive to capitalise on the eventual eroding popularity of the centre-left government.

2016 Romanian Parliamentary Election: Pre-Election Report

 

Romania is almost mid-way through the electoral campaign leading up to the parliamentary election due on 11 December. Although the results are unlikely to take anybody by surprise, especially if last summer’s local election is anything to go by, the general election brings several novelties.

First, there is a change in electoral rules, as the mixed-member system used in the 2008 and 2012 elections has been replaced by the closed-list proportional system, which was employed until 2004. Second, while the left-wing Social Democrats (PSD) and the centre-right National Liberal Party (PNL) are expected to top the polls, probably in this order, neither looks likely to win an outright majority. As a result, the composition of the next government will be decided by the performance of several small parties that are hoping to pass the 5% national threshold. Third, this electoral campaign is one of the least personalised in the history of Romanian post-communist elections, as all party leaders have refrained from throwing their hats into the ring for the prime minister post. While the centre-right parties have coalesced around Dacian Cioloş, the independent Prime Minister who took office one year ago, the social democrats are refusing to make any nominations for a prime minister candidate. So far, President Iohannis has refrained from getting involved in the electoral campaign.

Return of the closed-list proportional system

 After experimenting with a mixed electoral system in the 2008 and 2012 elections, 2016 marks the return to the closed-list proportional system that was used for general elections until 2004. Romania’s version of a mixed electoral system combined a single round of voting in single-member constituencies with a complicated system of seat allocation for parties that surpassed an electoral threshold of 5%. Candidates who won over 50% of the votes in single-member constituencies were automatically elected and the remaining seats were distributed among the political parties first at the county level and then at the national level. The complex rules of the redistribution of seats had two key effects that rendered the system highly unpopular.

First, candidates who were ranked third or even fourth in a constituency were elected at the expense of candidates who were ranked second in the same constituency, depending on the quota that their parties reached in the respective counties. Second, in the 2012 election, the success of the PSD-PNL coalition in the single-member constituencies generated 118 overhang seats, bringing the total number of MPs to 588. The increase in the number of parliamentarians was all the more negatively perceived as in a referendum passed in 2009 the vast majority of voters opted to reduce the number of parliamentarians to 300.

Overall, voting in single-member districts did not seem to increase the quality of representation as it had been hoped. The Romanian parliament continued to be hit by corruption scandals; party switching in parliament did not slow down and remained as serious a threat to government stability as it had been before 2008; the ties between citizens and their representatives showed no signs of strengthening; and the MPs’ involvement in legislative activities did not increase. Under these circumstances, the parliamentary parties decided to return to the closed-list proportional system that had been used until 2008. The new electoral law was passed by parliament in June 2015.

Under the new law, 312 deputies and 136 senators will be elected in a two-tier system. The country is divided in 42 administrative counties, with a 43rd constituency dedicated to Romanian citizens living abroad. Additionally, 18 seats are reserved for ethnic minorities. Similar to 2004, the size of district magnitude in the lower chamber ranges from 2 to 29 in capital Bucharest, with an average of around 7. The electoral thresholds are kept to the 2000-2004 level, with a 5% national threshold for single parties and 8%-10% for alliances. A party failing the 5% national threshold may still get into the parliament if it obtains 20% of all votes cast in at least 4 counties. The alternative threshold might favour the party representing ethnic Hungarians in Romania, UDMR, whose support is concentrated in Transylvania.

Post-electoral coalitions

Over the last year, the country has been governed by a technocratic cabinet led by former European Commissioner Dacian Cioloş. The previous PSD government resigned in November 2015 amid country-wide protests against corruption in central and local administration. However, the unprecedented wave of protests that swept Romania just one year ago fell short of shaking the party system. The old parties still hold the monopoly over the political system and the composition of the next parliament is unlikely to look very different from the present one. The results of the local elections held in June have confirmed the clear domination of the two biggest parties. PSD topped the polls across the country with almost 38%, including an unprecedented victory in the race for Bucharest mayor, while President Iohannis’ centre-right PNL scored nearly 32% of the vote nationally.

That said, anti-system feelings did fuel the emergence of a new political party that condemns the endemic corruption of traditional parties. In the local election held this summer, Union Save Bucharest came second in the battle for the mayor of Bucharest. The party will run in the general election as Save Romania Union (USR) and is expected it to win around 10% of the votes according to opinion polls. USR has continued to play the anti-system card that paid off in the local election and has refused to engage in pre-electoral talks. The party is nevertheless expected to join PNL in a coalition government if it enters the parliament. Several ministers stepped down from the PM Cioloş’ cabinet to run on USR lists in the general election. The Hungarian minority party, UDMR, which could contribute 5% of legislative seats, might also join the PNL-USR coalition. Another potential coalition partner for the PNL could be former President Băsescu’s Popular Movement Party (PMP), which broke away from the Liberal Democratic Party (PDL) in 2013. The other PDL faction merged with PNL in 2014 and supported Klaus Iohannis as a common candidate in the 2014 presidential election. Thus, PMP would not be the most unnatural of partners for the PNL, despite President Băsescu’s bellicose attitude towards his former allies. The former president tops the Senate list in Bucharest, but his party is currently trailing below the 5% threshold.

In comparison to the National Liberals, the Social Democrats have fewer options for a post-electoral coalition. In fact, the party has ruled out any coalition partner except for the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), a merger between a PNL faction and the Conservative Party (PC), which won 6% in the local election. Given that PSD is expected to poll around 35-40% and it should also benefit from the redistribution of mandates at national level, a PSD-ALDE coalition might suffice for a parliamentary majority. While no other parties are expected to pass the electoral threshold, minority governments have previously been formed in Romania with support from the ethnic minorities, who hold 18 seats, and independent MPs.

Prospective prime ministers

So far, the electoral campaign has been one of the least personalised in the history of Romanian post-communist elections. For different reasons, the two big parties, PNL and PSD, have refrained from nominating their leaders as frontrunners for the PM position.

The PNL is still in search of leaders for top national positions and the party once again had to look outside for a candidate for the PM post. Although the technocratic government experienced its fair share of mishaps, PM Cioloş is still seen as one of the most effective players in the anti-corruption fight. At first, President Iohannis and the PNL tried to condition their support for the independent PM on his formally joining the party if he wished to continue in office after the election. USR also courted the incumbent PM. However, a few weeks before the electoral campaign started, PM Cioloş launched a political platform outlining the basic principles of his governing program and pledged not to stand in the elections and not to join a political party. Moreover, Cioloş ruled out entering a PNL-PSD government or any government that would include PSD. Under these circumstances, both PNL and USR rushed to endorse the “Romania 100” platform and nominate Cioloş for the top government post. The prime minister accepted the two parties’ nomination, despite his initial reluctance to be associated with any political party during the campaign.

The Social-Democrats strongly oppose PM Cioloş’ political platform but have so far refused to nominate their own candidate. In this way, the party hopes to avoid losing the election due to the mobilization of voters against unpopular or corrupt politicians, as it was the case in 2014, when former PM Ponta lost the presidential election to PNL’s Klaus Iohannis (it is worth remembering, though, that Iohannis was also seen by many as an outsider to the PNL, just like PM Cioloş). In fact, Liviu Dragnea, the current PSD leader, is largely expected to take up the PM position if the PSD and ALDE obtain a majority of seats. As Dragnea received a two-year probation sentence for electoral fraud earlier this year, his nomination ahead of the election would be an easy target for the PNL-USR campaign, which have committed to support PM Cioloş’ national anticorruption strategy.

To sum up, in the 2016 general election Romanians are faced with a choice between two options. On the one hand, a heterogenous, unbalanced, and potentially unstable centre-right coalition, which has nevertheless found common ground in supporting an independent prime minister who is committed to continue the anti-corruption fight. On the other hand, a return to the PSD administration, whose former prime minister was indicted on corruption charges and would probably not hesitate to place another leader sentenced for vote-rigging in the prime minister office.

 

Bonnie N. Field – Forming a government in Spain: The influence of Spain’s first experience with mass democracy

This is a guest post by Bonnie N. Field, Professor & Chair, Department of Global Studies, Bentley University

Field-Bonnie Left lr-1

Spain has been struggling to form a government since the December 2015 parliamentary elections transformed its party system from one that had been dominated by the center-left Socialist Party (PSOE) and conservative Popular Party (PP) to one in which there are four significant national parties, including newcomers Podemos and Ciudadanos, along with a variety of regionally-based parties, none of which has a majority of seats in parliament. After failing to form a government, new elections took place in June 2016, which, to date, have not produced a new government. The difficulty of forming a government is related to the parties’ calculations about the likely costs and benefits—in terms of political support from voters, achieving their policy priorities and attaining political offices—of supporting or not distinct governments. The rules for government formation and censure affect this calculation.

The rules that Spain adopted in its 1978 constitution are dramatically different than those in place during its first mass democracy, the second republic (1931-36), a coup against which led to a brutal civil war and decades of authoritarian rule under Francisco Franco. The current constitution, adopted during its transition to democracy, gives parliament a significant role in government formation, while simultaneously making it difficult for parliament to remove the government. In contrast, the 1931 constitution gave the president of the republic a critical role in government formation and censure. At the same time, parliament did not have a formal role in government formation yet it could more easily remove the government. Spain’s current rules are in part a reaction to the experience of governmental instability during the second republic.

Spain’s Parliamentary Monarchy: Government Selection and Termination

According to the 1978 constitution, to form a government, the monarch nominates a candidate for prime minister after a round of consultations with the political parties in parliament. Following a parliamentary debate, the candidate is subject to a formal investiture vote in the Congress of Deputies, the lower and more significant chamber of the bi-cameral parliament. The prime ministerial candidate, and it is only the candidate that is voted upon, must receive the absolute-majority support of the total number of deputies (≥ 50% + 1 yes votes) in a first-round vote. If an absolute majority is not attained, a simple majority of more yes than no votes suffices in a second-round vote forty-eight hours later. This means that a sufficient number of parliamentarians must cast their vote in favor of the candidate or abstain, which favors the candidate in the second-round, in a highly visible, public vote, if a government is to form. In other words, parties must clearly reveal their positions, and face the positive or negative consequences of their choices.

But, it is not only the formation rules that matter. Parliaments in parliamentary democracies can remove governments in a vote of no confidence. Yet Spain, in adopting a constructive vote of no confidence in its 1978 constitution, established a high threshold for removing the government. The constructive vote of no confidence requires that an absolute majority of parliamentarians vote to remove the government and simultaneously agree on a new prime minister. Therefore, in selecting the government, parliamentarians are cognizant that the existing rules make it very difficult to remove a government once it is formed.

Spain’s Second Republic: The President’s Role in Government Selection and Termination

Unlike in the parliamentary monarchy today, the president was the head of state during the second republic. The 1931 constitution stipulated that parliament would elect the first president through an absolute majority (first round) or plurality (second round) vote. Subsequently, the president would be elected jointly by parliament and by electors—equal in number to the members of parliament—who are popularly elected. The latter provision, which occurred in practice only in 1936, makes it an interesting hybrid between a parliament-selected and a popularly-elected president.

The second republic parliament did not give itself a formal role in government formation. According to the constitution, the president of the republic “freely names and removes” the prime minister, and, on the latter’s instructions, the government ministers. While many of the governments that formed between the approval of the constitution and the outbreak of the civil war called a confidence vote to demonstrate they had parliamentary support, legally the government was presumed to have the confidence of parliament unless or until it formally withdrew it (Vintró Castels 2007). With a highly fragmented parliament, and more parties than in Spain’s parliament today, the president in practice had great influence over the composition of the government. The rules also eased government formation because parliamentarians did not need to agree before the government formed.

Once formed, governments of the second republic could be removed more easily than is the case today. The constitution gave the president the power to “freely” dismiss the prime minister, and stipulated that the president must dismiss the government if parliament withdrew its confidence in it, making the government separately responsible to both institutions. The unicameral parliament could censure the government or one of its ministers with the support of an absolute majority of its members, in contrast to today’s constructive vote of no confidence.

After the approval of the 1931 constitution, the parliament selected Niceto Alcalá Zamora to be president of the republic. The role of the president in the selection and dismissal of the government was often controversial (Juliá 1995; Linz 1978; Villaroya 1975). Amongst others, he has been criticized for engaging in extensive consultations prior to selecting the prime minister, which extended far beyond the individuals and parties in parliament; yet he refused to consult with anti-Republican political forces. He fostered the formation of governments that included his friends and excluded key party leaders. He withdrew his confidence in Prime Minister Azaña when Azaña still had the confidence of parliament in 1933. He very broadly interpreted his constitutional authority to include making nominations that differed from the preferences of the majority of parliament, especially after the 1933 elections produced a victory of the political right. Additionally, after 1933, he attempted to shape the government’s objectives through “presidential notes” that accompanied the nomination of the government.

President Alcalá Zamora also dismissed parliament on two occasions during his term. While constitutional, the constitution also stipulated that the new parliament would assess the necessity of a second dissolution during a president’s six-year term. If parliament found the president’s dissolution unnecessary, the president would be removed from office. In April 1936, parliament removed President Alcalá Zamora from office after it deemed the second dissolution unnecessary. After a brief interim presidency, Manuel Azaña was elected president in May. Shortly thereafter, in July, the civil war began.

The experience of the second republic shaped numerous aspects of Spain’s current democracy. Government instability, as indicated by the 17 governments that existed between the approval of the 1931 constitution and the outbreak of the civil war in 1936, led the designers of Spain’s current constitution to adopt institutions that they believed would foster government stability. These provisions included a parliamentary investiture vote to select the government and a constructive vote of no confidence. Yet, combined with the new party system, these rules have made it more difficult to form a government.

References

Julía, Santos. 1995. “Sistema de partidos y problemas de consolidación de la democracia,” Ayer 20: 111-139.

Linz, Juan J. 1978. “From Great Hopes to Civil War: The Breakdown of Democracy in Spain.” In The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes, eds. Juan J. Linz and Alfred Stepan (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP).

Villaroya, Joaquín Tomás. 1975. “La formación de Gobierno durante la Segunda República,” Revista de Estudios Políticos 204: 49-94.

Vintró Castells, Joan. 2007. La investidura parlamentaria del Gobierno: perspectiva comparada y Constitución española (Madrid: Congreso de los Diputados).

Romania – Local elections results and the road to the November general election

Romania held local elections on Sunday June 5th. The results show the clear domination of the two biggest parties. Left-wing Social Democrats (PSD) topped the polls across the country with almost 38%, including an unprecedented victory in Bucharest. President Iohannis’ centre-right National Liberal Party (PNL) scored nearly 32% of the vote nationally but experienced a humiliating defeat in Bucharest, where it was not only defeated by PSD, but also outperformed by a new anti-establishment party. Other parties that came close to the 5% national threshold were ALDE, a small PSD ally, which scored 6.31%, the Hungarian minority party (UDMR) with 5.33% and former President Băsescu’s People’s Movement Party (PMP) with 4.27%.

The local election was the first national poll after the PSD government led by Victor Ponta resigned last November following a deadly night club fire in Bucharest that triggered massive street protests against corruption in central and local administration. Since then the country has been led by a technocratic government led by former European Commissioner Dacian Cioloş, who is expected to remain in office until the general election due in November.

A number of factors explain the success of the Social Democrats. To start with, the election rules, which combine a one-round majoritarian first-past-the-post system for the election of mayors with a proportional list system for the election of local and city councils, advantage incumbent mayors. As the largest party in Romania’s parliament throughout the post-communist period and the main governing party since 2012, PSD benefits from strong support among the poor and the elderly, strong local structures and access to state budget revenues. Consequently, as the local elections were approaching, city mayors and other officials were increasingly seen to switch sides and join the PSD ranks in an attempt to increase their re-election chances.

In spite of the anti-corruption mass demonstrations that triggered the PSD government’s fall last November, the party appears to have paid a small electoral price for its casualities in Romania’s ongoing crackdown on corruption. In 2015, PSD’s former leader and prime minister Victor Ponta was charged with tax evasion and money laundering. Liviu Dragnea, Ponta’s successor as PSD leader, received a two-year suspended jail sentence for electoral fraud less than two months before the June poll. Other local officials, including Bucharest’s general mayor and 5 other district mayors, were indicted for corruption in 2015. And yet, many of them ran for re-election and won, as the Romanian law allows anybody who has been indicted of corruption but not yet convicted to run for office. For example, one of PSD’s district mayors in Bucharest was re-elected with over 60% of the vote despite being under investigation on corruption charges. Thus, graft revelations do not seem to jeopardize the party’s chances to return to power after the November general contest. Instead, voters’ discontent with corrupt politicians may yet again translate into absenteeism (turnout in local elections was only 48%, one of the lowest in Romania’s post-communist electoral history).

Another factor explaining PSD’s success across the country and particularly in Bucharest is the fragmentation of the centre-right and the internal divisions in the National Liberal Party. In the race for the Bucharest mayor’s seat, PSD topped the polls with 43% of the votes, well above the country average, and also won all of the six district mayor seats in the capital. Nicuşor Dan, a civil society activist and leader of Save Bucharest Union (USB),  a new anti-system party that condemns the endemic corruption of traditional parties, won the second place in the race for the mayor seat scoring 30.5% of the vote. USB also came second in the election for Bucharest’s general council and in three of the six races for the capital districts. PNL won a distant third place, scoring 11% in the race for Bucharest mayor and 14.5% of the votes for the general council. Several other candidates from centre-right groupings totalled about 10% in the race for the mayor post. Thus, had the centre-right been able to rally around the best-placed candidate, the social democrats could have been defeated.

A common view is that PNL lost the Bucharest race because of obvious campaign mistakes but also due to the lack of strong central leadership and clear national strategies. In fact, the merger between the two centre-right groupings that came together ahead of the 2014 presidential election to support Klaus Iohannis as a joint candidate is still not complete. The party needed three unsuccessful nominations for the Bucharest mayor post before Cătălin Predoiu, a former justice minister and leader of the Bucharest organization, reluctantly accepted to enter the race. A strategy aimed at attracting new voters has also been lacking. The party proves unable to mobilize the wave of undecided voters who contributed to president Iohannis’ election in the 2014 runoff and the anti-corruption protesters who toppled PM Ponta’s government last year.

USB’s strong performance in Bucharest may change the two-party dynamics of the general election contest. Plans have already been announced for the party to run in the November general election as Save Romania Union (USR). A repeat of the Bucharest scenario in other major cities means that USR will be eroding PNL’s centre-right electorate. It remains to be seen whether USR intends to play the anti-system card in the general election and take advantage of the protest vote against the corrupt political elite, or if a centre-right alliance will be forged to prevent the PSD and its allies from securing an outright parliamentary majority. However, such an alliance will not take place without a leadership change in the PNL. Given the absence of a charismatic leader and an obvious party candidate for the prime minister post, many see PM Cioloş as an appropriate choice to lead the centre-right coalition in the general election. Indirectly, President Iohannis also seems to signal his preference for this scenario.

Romania – President Iohannis’ contested performance and a brief assessment of his exercise of constitutional powers

An article recently published in the German weekly Der Spiegel has called into question President Iohannis’ 15-month record as head of state. The verdict is unequivocal: when it comes to saying the right thing or taking the right action, Romania’s new president is a political “dilettante”. What about the use of constitutional powers? Is President Iohannis’ record lagging behind his predecessors’ when it comes to interfering in cabinet affairs, influencing legislative outcomes, and coordinating foreign policy? This post takes stock of the way in which President Iohannis has been using his constitutional powers since he was elected in November 2014.

President Iohannis was elected on an anti-corruption platform. He was widely expected to support the DNA anti-corruption agency after he put pressure on MPs to reject a bill on amnesty and pardons for prosecuted politicians. Nevertheless, his image as a supporter of the anti-corruption fight was dented at the end of 2015, when a final court ruling concluded that one of the several properties he owns in Sibiu was illegally acquired. The negative echoes of this affair continue in 2016, as the president has challenged the court ruling at the Supreme Court.

President Iohannis’ image as a committed supporter of anti-corruption policies suffered another blow in February 2016. This time around, the president criticized the approach taken by tax administration agency ANAF over the eviction of TV stations founded by Dan Voiculescu – a businessman and former leader of the Conservative Party who was sentenced to ten years in jail in August 2014 for fraudulent privatization and money laundering.

One of the president’s latest actions that caused uproar was to strip MEP Laszlo Tokes, the ethnic-Hungarian dissident priest who triggered the 1989 Revolution in Timişoara, of the “Star of Romania” order. In this case, though, the president’s discretion was minimal, as he was following a court ruling that validated the decision taken by the ‘Star of Romania’ National Order to withdraw the distinction granted to Tokes.

Given this wave of negative judgments stirred by President Iohannis’ alleged missteps and having in mind the two major electoral tests scheduled later this year, one might ask about the extent to which the head of state understands to take advantage of the constitutional powers that allow him to influence political outcomes.

Cabinet politics and inter-executive relations

President Iohannis’ first year in office was marked by the cohabitation with the centre-left coalition government led by PM Ponta of the Social Democratic Party (PSD). During most of 2015, the relationship between the president and the prime minister was as conflictual and counter-productive as it had been during President Băsescu’s last two years in office. President Iohannis questioned several key government policies and repeatedly called on the prime minister to resign after a criminal investigation was launched against him. In this context, it is worth remembering that the president can suspend cabinet members from office only when a criminal investigation is launched against them for acts committed in office (article 109). As the charges against PM Ponta dated back to past activities as a lawyer, his continuation in government office could only be decided by the parliamentary majority or his party.

President Iohannis stepped up to his role in government formation when PM Ponta resigned in November 2015 amid mass protests triggered by a tragic accident at a Bucharest nightclub that killed 64 people. The Constitution grants the head of state considerable discretion in identifying a prime minister candidate, who has to face a vote of investiture in parliament (article 85). President Iohannis’ influence was boosted by the delicate context and the fact that most political parties refrained from nominating their own candidates for the prime minister post. Under these circumstances, the president appointed a technocratic government led by former European Commissioner for Agriculture Dacian Cioloş. While a technocratic government was certainly the outcome of negotiations between the president and the main parliamentary parties, the fact remains that non-partisan cabinet ministers and technocratic governments are usually seen, for good or bad reasons, as strong indicators of influential presidents. [1]

Legislative powers

President Iohannis has not refrained from using his legislative veto powers. Between January 2015 and March 2016 he asked Parliament to re-examine 20 bills and forwarded several others to the Constitutional Court. Some of the re-examination requests sparked new conflicts with the government, such as the veto on the Forestry Code and the Fiscal Code. Legislators were also constrained to amend a controversial bill on special pensions for MPs. However, the president was criticised for missing the opportunity to challenge the constitutionality of the amended bill, especially after the Constitutional Court ruled that a similar law on special pensions for local elected officials was unconstitutional.

The institutional dialogue between the presidency and the parliament seems on the rise as well. Since December 2014, President Iohannis has already addressed MPs six times. A marked increase compared with his predecessors – President Constantinescu (1996-2000) addressed MPs only one time, President Iliescu (2000-2004) 5 times, and President Băsescu (2004-2011) 17 times. [2] Certainly, the mere number of presidential speeches in parliament does not say much about their substance and impact. At least occasionally, though, the president has raised important policy issues. For example, as early as February 2015, he asked legislators to consider changing the local elections bill to bring back the two-round voting system for mayors – almost a year before the Liberal Party declared it matter of outmost urgency ahead of the local election scheduled for June 2016.

Foreign policy

One particular area in which President Iohannis seems to have taken a step back is that of foreign affairs. Other commentators have noted the president’s apparent lack of visions and strategies for foreign affairs, which is surprising given the extensive agenda-setting powers that the Romanian constitution grants the head of state in this domain. Other signs point in this direction too. For example, during President Băsescu’s time in office, there were huge disputes between the president and the PM as to who should represent Romania at EU summits. While President Iohannis continued to deny PM Ponta the right to attend EU meetings, he delegated PM Cioloș, a former EU Commissioner, to attend the European Council meeting in Brussels in December 2015. PM Cioloş also attended the EU-Turkey summit and the informal meeting of the European Council members on 7 March, as President Iohannis paid an official visit to Israel and Palestine.

This aerial view on President Iohannis’ record so far suggests that the head of state does not shy away from using his formal powers. Held against the standard of his predecessor, however, he certainly looks less assertive, slow to act, lacking communication skills and willingness to take the extra mile and overall unconvincing of having a long-term political project and leadership strategy. In other words, a dilettante. Here lies a paradox, though, as other commentators have noted – Iohannis is criticised for not talking and acting as his predecessor, President Băsescu, who attracted huge criticism for his personal and political behaviour.

Ultimately, it must be remembered that, as in most other parliamentary and semi-presidential European democracies, the Romanian president’s powers in policy-making are limited. Moreover, the presidential sphere of action shrinks even further in the absence of a supporting majority in parliament – which has not happened in Romania since the onset of cohabitation in 2012. Under these circumstances, it is highly unlikely that the head of state succeeds in overhauling the political system through democratic means. The president and the entire political class are nevertheless bound to face two important tests in 2016, with local and general elections scheduled in June and November respectively.

[1] See Octavio Amorim Neto and Kaare Strøm. 2006. Breaking the Parliamentary Chain of Delegation: Presidents and Non-partisan Cabinet Members in European Democracies. British Journal of Political Science, 36:4, 619–43.

[2] See Mihaela Codrina Levai and Camelia Tomescu. 2012. Atribuţiile Preşedintelui Romȃniei în raport cu Parlamentul – aspecte teoretice şi practice. Revista Transilvană de Ştiinţe Administrative, 30:1, 84–105.

Bulgaria – Cabinet member chosen from the president’s staff and a brief sneak peek at the 2016 presidential election

Bulgaria’s Justice Minister Hristo Ivanov resigned on 9 December 2015 after the parliament revised some of his proposals for constitutional amendments, which were aimed at reducing the influence of the country’s chief prosecutor on the judiciary. His plans to reform and make the prosecuting authority more accountable before parliament had already led to tensions between GERB’s junior coalition partners, the Reformist Bloc (RB), a loose coalition of five right-wing parties, and the centre-left Alternative for Bulgarian Revival (ABV) party together with the nationalist Patriotic Front. Formally an independent minister, Ivanov entered PM Borisov’s government in November 2014 as part of the RB quota.

Initially, Ivanov’s resignation seemed to threaten the government’s own survival, as the leader of the Democrats for Strong Bulgaria (DSB), one of the parties in the Reformist Bloc, threatened to withdraw support from government. The RB holds 23 seats in the 240-seat legislature, including 10 DSB members. Additionally, the minister’s resignation was followed by street protests calling for a full-scale judicial reform, which were reminiscent of the mass demonstrations that had brought down PM Borisov’s first government in 2013. Given the government’s minority status in parliament, both the president and the prime minister raised concerns over political stability and warned of early elections if the coalition broke down.

In a move that seemed typical for the contradictory positions assumed by the members in the RB coalition, DSB announced its decision to move into the opposition without withdrawing their Health Minister Petar Moskov from the cabinet. Nevertheless, the other four parties in the Reformist Bloc decided to continue their support for the government, conditional on the renegotiation of the coalition agreement and the next steps in the judicial reform.

PM Borisov’s GERB and the RB held talks over possible nominations for the justice ministry, both parties advancing claims over the position. In the end, PM Borisov proposed Ekaterina Zaharieva, the president’s chief of staff as a new Deputy PM and Justice Minister. Her nomination was approved by 126 out of the 240 MPs, although some coalition members were split over the appointment.

Like her predecessor, Hristo Ivanov, Ekaterina Zaharieva is a non-partisan minister. She took office as the president’s Chief Secretary in 2012, after serving as a deputy minister for public works at the time when Rosen Plevneliev also held office as minister before winning the 2011 presidential election. Hardly a newcomer to key cabinet positions, she had previously held office as Deputy PM in the two caretaker cabinets appointed by President Rosen Plevneliev in March 2013 and August 2014. At the end of her caretaker minister duties, she returned as the president’s Chief of Staff in November 2014.

What could follow next in 2016? Despite the coalition splits unveiled by the recent government crisis, PM Borisov’s grip on power seems secure in the face of an even more divided opposition. The government may nevertheless need to demonstrate its support in parliament soon enough, as the opposition Socialists are holding consultations for a no-confidence motion with the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS).

Nevertheless, one of the most important events of the year is the presidential election that will be held in October. President Plevneliev has once again demonstrated his ability to provide solutions to political crises and skills in recruiting cabinet talent, which can be used as valuable assets if he decides to run for a second term in office.

The justice reform is likely to play an important role in the election campaign, not least because Bulgaria’s progress in this area continues to be monitored by the European Commission. In fact, PM Borisov accused DSB leader Radan Kanev of trying to exploit coalition tensions over the judicial reform to kick-start his election campaign. In his first messages addressed in early January, President Plevneliev has also taken the opportunity to stress the need for new constitutional changes to speed up the judicial reform.

Romania’s technocratic government: high expectations and challenges ahead

On November 4, Romania’s prime minister stepped down following huge protests triggered by a tragic accident at a Bucharest nightclub that killed 60 people. This was the second time since 2012 that a head of government was toppled by street demonstrations. However, while the 2012 protests targeted the far-reaching anti-austerity measures imposed by the government, this time around the protesters’ anger was directed against the entire political class without any discrimination among political parties. The result was the formation of Romania’s first technocratic government.

New format for government formation talks

Under pressure for many months over accusations of plagiarism and corruption but without direct responsibility for the terrible accident, PM Ponta’s prompt resignation after the first day of protests was seen as the easy way out for himself and the ruling party. During the consultations with political parties convened by the head of state, the opposition led by President Iohannis’ National Liberal Party (PNL) called for early elections, while the ruling Social Democratic Party  (PSD) favoured a technocratic government.

As the magnitude of the protests only seemed to intensify after PM Ponta’s resignation, the president also invited civil society and protesters’ representatives to join the government formation talks, an unprecedented development in Romania’s post-communist politics. The president’s initiative to decentralise government formation by opening up the negotiation process from party leaders to civil society bears out the extent of his liberty of action under critical circumstances. His decisional power was further increased by the political parties’ deliberate and voluntary retreat from decision-making: after two rounds of political consultations, only the social-democrats made a concrete proposal for the PM post.

Eventually, the head of state announced the formation of a technocratic government led by former European Commissioner for Agriculture Dacian Cioloş. The new government won the investiture vote by a large majority on November 17, having the support of both former ruling PSD and the opposition groups. His team includes experts from the European Commission staff, diplomats, and professionals from the private and non-profit sectors.

As a purely technocratic government, the first of its kind in post-communist Romania, Cioloş’ cabinet attracted attention due to the elements of “deliberative democracy” that marked its beginning and the dangers that the “rule of experts” poses to democratic governance. How big a change does the new government really represent in Romanian politics?

Non-partisan ministers in Romanian cabinets

To start with, a formally independent prime minister is not a novelty in post-communist Romanian politics. In fact, Cioloş is the fifth non-partisan prime minister since 1989. After the 2012 protests, President Băsescu also opted for a politically non-affiliated head of government, who fell to a no-confidence vote less than three months after taking office. Neither of them was a stranger to high-office politics at the moment of appointment. Like PM Ungureanu, Cioloş joined the centre-right government that came to power after the 2004 elections. He came to office in 2007 as a minister of agriculture supported by the PNL. In 2010 he was nominated for the European Commissioner post by former President Băsescu’s Democratic Liberal Party (PDL). As a former commissioner and current advisor to the EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, close to the EPP, the largest group in the European Parliament, and a reputed Francophile, PM Cioloş seems to enjoy the support of both internal and external decision-makers.

Similarly, non-partisan ministers are far from a rare occurrence in Romanian cabinets. Due to the extensive politicisation of top civil servants, more or less visible connections between expert appointments and political parties are not difficult to uncover usually. In fact, a few ministers in Cioloş’ cabinet have also been quickly linked to both social-democrats and national liberals. However, a more interesting test of the technocratic nature of the new government could focus on the extent to which the new junior ministers are experts as well, or if political parties are able to control these appointments proportionally with their legislative strength and policy interests.

Challenges and possible effects

The new government’s performance could have far-reaching consequences. The period of time it can avail of to leave its mark is relatively short, as both local and general elections are scheduled for 2016. Many challenges ahead require more than limited action to be overcome. For example, the 2016 budget must meet the EU fiscal targets, while accommodating the extensive fiscal relaxation measures approved by the former social-democratic government during 2015. Among the government’s top priorities is the fight against corruption, which could nevertheless jeopardise its support in parliament.

Nevertheless, a good economic performance, such as marked improvements in the absorption rate of EU funds, could start rebuild the people’s confidence in public institutions. The technocrats’ efficiency might also force political parties to revisit their recruitment patterns for executive office in the future. A first test has already arrived, as the newly appointed Minister of Interior faces plagiarism charges – a common accusation among the ministers in the former government, including the former prime minister. How quickly PM Cioloş acts on this issue is seen as a test of his strength and liberty of action.

The unprecedented wave of protests might also trigger changes in the party system. New organisations emerging from a revived social society could finally break the old parties’ monopoly over Romania’s political scene. Alternatively, anti-system feelings could fuel the emergence of populist parties, which have been largely absent from the Romanian political landscape so far.

Arguably, President Iohannis played a key role in the unfolding of events that followed PM Ponta’s long awaited resignation. Unsurprisingly, his authority and approval ratings will be affected by the performance of the government that he presented as a new beginning in Romania’s politics.

Romania – Censure motion fails to remove PM indicted on corruption charges

On 29 September, Romania’s Social-Democratic government survived a no-confidence vote in parliament. This was the fourth censure motion submitted by the National Liberals (PNL), the main opposition party, in the last 18 months. Unlike previous motions, though, the most recent one did not target the government’s collective performance, but was filed in response to the prime minister’s formal indictment on corruption charges on 17 September. The initiators hardly mentioned any government activities and exclusively focused on the need to remove the compromised head of government.

The criminal investigation against the prime minister was launched by the National Anti-corruption Directorate (DNA) on 5 June on grounds of forgery, tax evasion, money-laundering, and conflicts of interest. Perhaps not coincidentally, the National Liberals filed a censure motion against the government on the same day. However, on that occasion the text of the motion criticised the government’s failure to introduce postal voting for Romanians living abroad. The comfortable majority social democrats and their allies enjoy in both parliamentary chambers allowed PM Ponta to survive not only the no-confidence motion, but also a separate parliamentary vote to have his immunity lifted.

Anti-corruption prosecutors formally charged the prime minister and seized his personal assets on 13 July. Shortly thereafter, Victor Ponta stepped down as leader of the ruling Social Democrats but remained in office as head of government. He was temporarily replaced as party leader by Liviu Dragnea, a former deputy prime minister, minister of development, and executive president of the social-democrats, who himself had been forced to leave PM Ponta’s government in May 2015 upon receiving a one-year suspended jail sentence for electoral fraud in the 2012 presidential impeachment referendum.

President Iohannis has repeatedly called on the prime minister to step down since 5 June, when the criminal investigation was launched by anti-corruption prosecutors. He urged the prime minister to resign again after his case was formally brought to the High Court for Cassation and Justice on 17 September and expressed support for the censure motion put forward by his National Liberal Party. However, Romania’s Constitution specifically denies the head of state the power to dismiss the prime minister (article 107). The president does have the power to suspend cabinet members from office when a criminal investigation is launched against them – but only when the accusations concern acts committed while in office (article 109). As the prime minister stands accused of criminal activities dating back to past activities as a lawyer, his continuation in government office can only be decided by the parliamentary majority and/or his party.

Romania’s Constitution features several requirements for a non-confidence vote: a censure motion must be initiated by at least one quarter of all deputies and senators, who are not allowed to endorse another motion of this type during each of the two ordinary parliamentary sessions each year, unless the government invokes a confidence vote (articles 113-114). Under these circumstances, the government is unlikely to face more than one censure motion per legislative session.  As the opposition has just availed of this opportunity at the beginning of the autumn session, the government can rest assured that it will not be confronted with another no-confidence vote until at least February 2016.

Thus, the only threat to PM Ponta’s office can come from his own party. Social Democrats have scheduled elections for the new party leader on 11 October, followed by an extraordinary congress on 18 October. Liviu Dragnea, PSD’s current interim president, has announced his candidacy for the party leadership, while Victor Ponta said he would not run anymore. With both local and general elections scheduled for 2016, it remains to be seen whether or how long the new party leadership will continue to grant unconditional support to a prime minister facing a corruption trial while in office.