Can the president of a semi-presidential republic build a politically independent and effective check-and-balance on government and parliament? The question continues to instil both scholarly and general interest debates. Recent political developments in Romania have once again brought to the public eye the matter of whether a president can actively and constructively contribute to government formation, the policy making process and agenda setting. And should s/he do so? In the present text I discuss what tools the current president has chosen to use from his ‘toolbox’, and what he stays away from.
- The Newest Government Formation
On 29 January 2018, Iohannis nominated his third prime-minister from the Social Democrat Party (PSD) in the course of approximately one year. The exclusive prerogative of nominating the prime-minister shines a spotlight on the president. The government was once again formed without his own National Liberal Party (PNL), prolonging a period of cohabitation. His supportive part of the public expected the president to lead the opposition in extensive negotiations for an alternative government formation. However, he quickly accepted the proposal of the parliamentary majority. Bargaining duration was of one day only. Consequently, he not only contradicted public expectations, but also some of the most recent empirical studies claiming that presidents have an interest in seeing their parties succeed and are willing to act to facilitate their success (Savage, 2017; Anghel, 2017). For the time being, the president has chosen not to instrumentalize his constitutionally prescribed role in cabinet formation to influence its outcome.
Iohannis shows a loose connection to his party (PNL), from whose ranks expectations of support and leadership have always existed. The PNL itself has a weak performance in the role of the main opposition party, which could incentivize the president’s doubts regarding its coalition potential or ability to assume governance. Coupled with what his supporters perceive as a disengagement from public life, this might bring into question the interest of the president in pursuing a second mandate.
- Veto Power
The president of Romania has the right to veto legislation on constitutional grounds by reference to the Constitutional Court or for any other grounds by returning the bill to parliament. MPs may repass a bill through ordinary majority, and the president cannot veto it a second time. The table below shows the number of times president Iohannis made use of this prerogative (see Koker, 2017 for a comparison with the veto use in other countries in Central and Eastern Europe). The third column shows how many laws passed with his consent. When comparing figures, we could infer a working relationship between parliament and president, and a consensus oriented elite. Most of the laws sent back to parliament have actually undergone a process of re-examination and have not been repassed in their exact initial form.
The major source of tension between the president and the parliament is the set of laws on justice reform supported by the government and the majority of MPs. In the proposed bills, the president’s own institutional role in the anti-corruption fight has been watered down. Iohannis has constantly shown a different approach to the government’s plans and even joined street-protests against a government ordinance that would have decriminalised some forms of public office abuse. He is expected to use this ‘tool’ and veto the justice laws once they reach him for promulgation. This prospect, coupled with some anticipation of a severe societal backlash, has so far influenced the government’s actions and is delaying a resolution.
The same issue related to anti-corruption prompted the president to use two more of his executive attributions: calling for national referenda and taking part in the cabinet sessions when matters related to national security or foreign policy are discussed. Iohannis successfully prevented the government’s first attempt to pass the draft emergency decree to pardon certain detainees and amend the Penal Code by unexpectedly attending a would be decisive cabinet meeting in January 2017. He also announced his (unfulfilled) intention to call for a national referendum concerning this amnesty bill, should it not be withdrawn. Iohannis’s use of formal presidential ‘tools’, in the context of recurring mass street protests, has so far delayed the government’s plans to reform the justice laws.
- Informal Powers
Most investigations on the powers of the president in multi-party systems agree that the president has a formally more or less limited role, in accordance to the Constitution. Scholars have so far provided few inquiries into the informal aspects of presidential authority. The few studies that exist are focused on the USA and showed how presidents rely on their electoral legitimacy and visibility to influence the policy process via their public positions and symbolic actions (Strauss and Sunstein, 1986; Ashley and Jarmer, 2016). We should expect it to be the case for any directly elected president, and expand our research agenda.
In the case of Romania, the president’s public appearances are an underused tool. He is reactive in his (e.g) public statements, does not engage in unscripted dialogue with media representatives and mostly limits his activities to technical or ceremonial appearances. His priorities appear locked in preserving the status quo in the justice system, and does not appear willing to set other directions to the public agenda and use his own electoral legitimacy to get people to think about new issues or believe in particular actions. Three years in his (five year) mandate, we could conclude that informal powers are not among his preferred tools of action.
When compared to years of presidential activism by former president Traian Băsescu (2004 – 2014) and the symbiotic relationship he had with his Liberal-Democrat Party (PDL), we can conclude that the mandate of president Klaus Iohannis turned Romania away from a path of increased presidentialization (Samuels, Shugart 2010) and party presidentialization (Passarelli, 2015).
The present text acknowledges that formally, a major effect of the president on the political life is conditional on the inclusion of his or her own parliamentary party in the cabinet. Institutionally, he or she has a limited number of tools to use as effective check-and-balance on government and parliament. Nevertheless, the question remains whether the willingness of presidents to use informal powers (symbolic actions, visibility, leadership abilities, electoral legitimacy, and a working relation with their own party) may not also condition the final output. The use of informal powers by popularly elected presidents in presidential and semi-presidential systems[i] to affect government formation, policy making and agenda setting would benefit from further empirical research.