Category Archives: Romania

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.

President/Cabinet Conflict in Romania – The Results of an Expert Survey

I am currently working on a book project, part of which involves a study of president/cabinet conflict in Europe’s parliamentary and semi-presidential regimes. Following the example set by Sedelius and Ekman (2010) and Sedelius and Mashtaler (2013), I conducted an expert survey. The survey was conducted between the beginning of August and October 2015. I was lucky enough to receive replies from over 100 academics. I am very grateful and I will acknowledge the help of all the respondents personally in the book.

I asked academics to provide a judgment of the level of president/cabinet conflict in 235 cabinets in 21 countries from 1995-2015. The academics were all political scientists with country-level expertise. I asked them to judge the level of president/cabinet conflict for each cabinet in a particular country on a four-point ordinal scale: a High level was indicated as the situation where there was persistent and severe conflict between the president and the cabinet; a Low level was expressed as the situation where there was no significant conflict between the president and the cabinet; and two intermediate levels – a Low-Medium level, and a Medium-High level – where the level of conflict was unspecified. The number of returns per country ranged from 1 for Malta to 9 for France.

With expert surveys, inter-coder reliability is always an issue. Certainly, there was disagreement among country experts and for some countries the level of inter-coder reliability was surprisingly low. However, Romania was one of the countries where the level of inter-coder reliability was high. Here, I report the president/cabinet conflict scores for Romania. In subsequent posts, I will report scores for other countries.

For Romania, I was looking to record scores for 16 cabinet units. I did not ask for scores for non-partisan presidents or caretaker governments. I received seven expert replies.

If we assign a value of 0, 0.33, 0.67, and 1 for Low, Low-Medium, Medium-High, and High respectively, then we return the following levels of conflict. See Table below.

The periods of conflict will not come as a surprise to Romania experts, especially the seven experts who kindly returned the survey given the level of agreement was high. However, along with scores from the other countries, these results and those like them provide a first step in the process of explaining why president/cabinet conflict varies both across countries and across time in countries. This is the aim of the study in the book that will appear later in the year.

References

Sedelius, Thomas, and Ekman, Joakim (2010), ‘Intra-executive Conflict and Cabinet Instability: Effects of Semi-presidentialism in Central and Eastern Europe’, Government and Opposition, 45(4): 505–30.

Sedelius, Thomas, and Olga Mashtaler (2013), ‘Two Decades of Semi-presidentialism: Issues of Intra-executive Conflict in Central and Eastern Europe 1991–2011’, East European Politics, 29(2): 109-134.

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.

Happy New Year? Christmas and New Year’s addresses by European presidents for 2017

This post marks the third time that I have written about selected presidential Christmas and New Year’s addresses by European presidents (see 2015 and 2016 here), so that it is now becoming a tradition of its own. This year’s speeches differed only little in focus from last year, as the refugee crisis and security concerns continue to determine the public debate, yet speeches took a more political tone in a number of countries. At the same time, this year also saw some ‘firsts’ – newly-elected Estonian president, Kersti Kaljulaid, gave her first New Year’s address and Austria (for the first time in decades) had no New Year’s address at all.

Slovak president Andrej Kiska reading out his New Year´s Day Address | © prezident.sk

Presidential Christmas and New Year’s Addresses tend to be a mixture of reflections on the political and societal events of the last year and general good wishes for the festive period or the new year. While the previous year had already seen an increase in political content, this year even more presidents referred to concrete events and policies – first and foremost the terrorist attack in Berlin on 19 December 2016. German president Gauck’s Christmas message was clearly dominated by the attack, yet stressed the need for compassion, highlighted efforts by volunteers both after the Berlin attacks and in helping refugees, and called for unity over sweeping judgments. Slovak president Andrej Kiska dismissed xenophobic sentiments in his New Year’s address even more directly, acknowledging a deviation from usual end-of-year reflection and highlighting his disagreements with the government over the issue. The Slovak government has not only strongly opposed taking in any refugees, but also includes the far-right Slovak National Party (SNS) and recently passed a more restrictive church law specifically targeting Muslims (which was promptly vetoed by Kiska). Quite in contrast to these conciliatory words, Czech president Zeman used the opportunity claim a ‘clear link between the migrant wave and terrorist attacks’. In his 20-minute address – far longer than any other presidential holiday speech – from the presidential holiday residence at Lany, he also attacked the governing coalition, spoke about banning internet pornography and expressed his admiration for Donald Trump and his ‘aggressive style’.

The Christmas speech of Polish president Andrzej Duda also took an unusually political turn as it started off with much praise for government reforms. Although the Polish government, too, refused to accept refugees under the EU compromises, references to EU crises remained relatively vague. Remarkable, however, was Duda’s call to ‘respect the rules of democracy’ which was clearly aimed at the parliamentary and extra-parliamentary opposition which criticised what they in turn perceived as the unconstitutional behaviour of the governing party (see here). The address by Duda’s Croatian counterpart, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, was also in remarkable as she devoted the entirety of her speech to condemning recent increases in intolerance and the simultaneous glorification of past fascist and communist regimes which she then linked to the fact that “busloads of young people are leaving the country each day” and called the government and all parties to action. Italy’s president Sergio Mattarella likewise urged parties to take action  to avoid the ‘ungovernability’ of the country, yet mostly focussed on listing the concerns of citizens and various tragic deaths rather than providing a very positive message.

Bulgarian president Rosen Plevneliev used his last New Year’s address as president to highlight more positive achievements, such as the ten year anniversary of EU accession (also mentioned by Romanian president Iohannis in his very brief seasons’ greetings), a rise in GDP and successful completion of the presidency of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe. While stressing the need for further reform, President of Cyprus Nicos Anastasiades also provided a more positive message focused on the progress in the negotiations about a reunification of the island, also thanking people for their sacrifices in implementing the financial bail-out completed in 2016.

Hungarian President Ader with sign language interpreter (left); Latvian president Vejonis with his wife (right)

On a different note, Hungarians and Latvians might have been surprised to see additional faces in the recordings of presidential messages: Hungarian president Janos Ader’s speech was simultaneously interpreted into sign language by deaf model and equality activist Fanni Weisz standing in the background, whereas Latvian president Raimonds Vejonis even shared parts of the address with his wife. For those interested in ‘pomp and circumstance’, the address by Maltese president Marie-Louise Coleiro is highly recommended as the recording features a praeludium and a postludium by a military band in gala uniform inside the presidential palace (Youtube video here).

Last, for the first time in decades Austria lacked a New Year’s address by the president. Although Alexander Van der Bellen was finally elected president in early December, he will only be inaugurated on 26 January 2016. His successor, Heinz Fischer, finished his term already on 8 July 2016 and the triumvirate of parliamentary speakers (which incidentally include Van der Bellen’s unsuccessful challenger, Norbert Hofer), who are currently serving collectively as acting president, did not provide any New Year’s greetings.

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A full list of speeches is available for download here.

Veronica Anghel – In the making: A Romanian government with a potentially enhanced life-expectancy

This is a guest post by Veronica Anghel, University of Bucharest

The outcome of the December 11th parliamentary elections in Romania left little room for surprises in terms of composition of the future cabinet. The Social Democrat Party (PSD) won slightly over 45% of the popular vote, which translated into 221 seats out of 465, just short of 12 for an absolute majority. The main contender, the National Liberal Party (PNL) trailed at slightly over 20% of the votes, attaining 99 seats. Newcomer Save Romania Union (USR) won 43 seats, the Democrat Union of Hungarians in Romania (UDMR) 30, the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (ALDE) 29 and the Popular Movement Party (PMP) 26. An added 17 guaranteed seats for minority representatives bring the total number to 465 members of parliament.[i]

The most likely outcome of the government is a PSD and ALDE coalition with a PSD PM. President Klaus Iohannis, a formerly PNL supported candidate, has some institutional leverage in nominating the PM, but the final say rests with the parliamentary parties according to the constitutionally set investiture rules[ii]. The final decision for PM nomination of the president, as a rational participant in the government formation game, is expected to meet a plausibility criterion of acquiring parliamentary support. This reasoning excludes the nomination of a non-PSD + ALDE proposed candidate. While acknowledging PSD’s democratic win, Iohannis has also put forward his own integrity criteria for the PM which excluded PSD chairman Liviu Dragnea, who serves a suspended two year sentence for electoral fraud[iii]. The PSD nomination for PM was predictably a longstanding PSD member and working partner of his during former positions in central administration, Sevil Shhaideh.[iv]

The groundwork for a would be functional political marriage

While rhetorically the PSD/anti-PSD cleavage is kept alive, the Romanian party system overcame this polarization (and others that followed) and is no longer unidimensional. This outcome hinders the potential of looking at government formation from a “most valuable coalition” cooperative game approach. ALDE is a splinter of PNL which merged with another traditionally PSD political supporter, the Conservative Party (PC) in 2014. Although a scenario for an anti-PSD large coalition that should have comprised all other parliamentary parties kept commentators’ imagination alive following elections, the possibility of a shift of allegiance of ALDE from the side of the PSD to an ad–hoc heterogeneous coalition of “others” on pseudo-reasons of ideological proximity on the center – right was an improbable option.

The PSD – ALDE cabinet is a successful result of rational – choice calculations of balancing costs and benefits to reach a goal that maximizes each party’s advantage under given rules. Choosing to be a part of this coalition is the consequence of individually played optimal strategies.  While the PSD could, on paper, govern as a minority cabinet with the support of the 17 minority votes or some other form of negotiated legislative support and not share any of the governing cake, choosing to be on shaky grounds rather than forging a strong commitment with a longstanding loyal partner would not make for a good strategic move. A choice of a different partner for the PSD among the other parties that got over the threshold would increase costs for no benefits. Equally, the possibility of engaging in a cooperative game with all the others, as there is little reason to assume a superior individual gain as a part of a multi – member coalition with histories of dissent, should provide ALDE with little incentives for shifting.

These decisions would seem to be made based on office seeking assumptions, but the blend of motivations is more complex and also includes shared policies. Since there was little real distinction between the governing programs of all parties who stood elections, a suggestion of ideological closeness between PSD and ALDE in particular would be a stretch.  However, there is a match of agendas on key issues. For instance, both PSD and ALDE share a similar understanding that the judicial anti-corruption process has led not only to reforms but also to abuse.

Another reason why the PSD ALDE government stands as an option equal to none is their longstanding history of collaboration that dates back to the beginning of the 1990s. The current ALDE chairman, Calin Popescu – Tariceanu, was a founding member of a 1990 splinter of the then PNL, which signed the first Romanian coalition agreement with the National Salvation Front (FSN), the earliest incarnation of the PSD. As the PM of a PNL led minority coalition cabinet in 2007 – 2008, Tariceanu benefited from PSD legislative support on the basis of an informal arrangement and jointly worked to also impeach the president at that time, Traian Basescu. In 2009, PNL, of which Tariceanu was once more a prominent member although no longer president, stroke one of the most size successful political alliances in Romanian history, the Liberal – Socialist Union (USL). Once this alliance broke in 2013, Tariceanu and his supporters split once more from the PNL in early 2014 to support PSD political strategies, policies and a common presidential candidate. He was rewarded with the position of Speaker of the Senate and his then Reformist Liberal Party (PLR) entered the government at the end of the same year. He remained on the side of the PSD ever since while also merging with the Conservative Party (PC), which had served as the political arm of a powerful media trust owner who greatly supported the PSD and who now serves a ten year prison sentence.

Institutional conditionality and tamed cohabitation

In the making of the cabinet, bargaining happened less between parties, as the matter of who governs and who stays in the opposition was mostly intuitively settled. The absence of a pre-electoral coalition agreement between PSD and ALDE could have been a reason to assume some potential of a break, but this was not a strong enough alert. The pattern of signing coalition agreements in Romania between a dominant and a support party has more often than not only met a symbolic meaning, while informal ties between party leaders carried the actual weight of the commitment. Also, history has shown that such alliances could be broken under different conditions even in the eventuality of a written set of rules.[v]All suppositions have been cleared with a post – electoral coalition agreement between PSD and ALDE signed on December 19th[vi], at the beginning of the week of scheduled party consultations with the president.

The matter of the two established camps was further settled by a PNL announcement that they would not put forward a PM nomination during consultations with the president.[vii] This was confirmed on December 21st.

Nevertheless, a sort of public negotiating took place between the president and the winning PSD. As Iohannis placed as a sole conditionality the need for a PM with a clean judicial track, he required from PSD to consider well their choice so as to avoid unneeded conflict. Dragnea chose to step back for the time being by nominating a loyal representative who could serve the interest of the party just as well. The median voter thus benefits from this one policy accommodation as he would not witness a new process of negotiating with the law (there is a 2001 Law that prohibits convicts from being cabinet members) and the Constitution (there have been sparse voices which contested the constitutionality of this 2001 Law).

All things equal, there are some signs for a mutual consent for a tamed cohabitation. The president has little coalition potential as he has no strong enough political organisations to work through and shows limited interest in getting involved in political negotiations. In the absence of such a dependable, strong party and after his institutionally granted moment of nominating the PM, the president only preserves little, localised effect on the governance of the state.

Government stability, but to what end?

Once in place, there is reason to believe in an enhanced life-expectancy for the PSD – ALDE government, as they tick all the needed boxes: controlling a legislative majority; low ideological dissent among cabinet members; a reduced fragmentation in the party system, limited to the opposition; a favourable institutional design (no formal presidential powers for government breakup and no informal authority to the same end in the absence of a strong presidential agenda support party). The legislative support agreement signed with the UDMR is only the icing on a quite stable cake.[viii]

All in all, the soon to be invested cabinet provides some positive signs on the front of government stability. A new episode of negotiating with the president is clearly not desired by the PSD leadership, enough to assume that both the government composition and the would-be PSD PM are here to stay. Even so, one must take into account that so far, Romanian cabinets have had an average lifespan of about one year.

With the presidential elections three years from now and some projects that have the incentives for consensus building among institutions on the way (the 2018 100 years anniversary since the unification of Romanian historic territories and the 2019 EU Romanian Presidency) a time of silence could descend on the otherwise loud politics of the Eastern European state. But stability to what end? It is in the hands of the opposition parties now to make sure that the silence they endorse is not a free hand offered to the PSD to roam unhindered through the realm.

Along similar lines, should Sevil Shheideh be invested as PM, her gender, ethnicity (Tatar – Turkish) and religion (Muslim) will lead to a confrontation of the Romanian nation’s xenophobic, misogynistic streaks. On the one hand, this is a positive, as the PSD would have to eliminate such elements from their own speech. On the negative side, the PNL will enhance theirs. All in all, having these issues steal the political show would only deviate attention from the actual worries related to a PSD one dominant party government: the continuity of the processes to consolidate democratic institutions through the limitation of informality and the independence of the justice system. These are not irreversible projects and stability for stability’s sake in the absence of an articulated opposition on policy issues might prove detrimental for the quality of democracy in the long run.

Notes

[i]  http://infogr.am/_/5sQoCfE3K4ndWwGlQsbO

[ii] Romanian Constitution, Article 103 http://www.cdep.ro/pls/dic/site.page?den=act2_2&par1=3#t3c3s0sba103

[iii]http://www.romaniajournal.ro/president-iohannis-i-wont-designate-a-criminally-prosecuted-or-convicted-person-as-pm/

[iv] http://www.romaniajournal.ro/psd-proposes-woman-of-turkish-origin-as-prime-minister-liviu-dragnea-says-it-will-be-their-only-proposal/

[v] In 2004, parliamentary elections were won by a PSD+PC political alliance which had signed a pre-electoral coalition agreement, but their candidate failed to also secure the presidency. The winner, Traian Basescu, made use of his institutionally enhanced coalition potential to break PC from the PSD and join the runner up political alliance made up of his support Democrat Party (PD) and PNL.

[vi] PSD – ALDE Coalition Agreement (in Romanian) http://www.alde.ro/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/PROTOCOL-Coalitie-guvernare-PSD-ALDE_19.12.2016.pdf

[vii] http://www.romaniajournal.ro/liberals-wont-forward-any-proposal-for-the-pm-seat/

[viii] Legislative support agreement (in Romanian) http://www.hotnews.ro/stiri-politic-21486638-udmr-semant-acordul-sustinere-parlamentara-coalitia-psd-alde.htm

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.

 

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.

Happy New Year? Christmas and New Year’s addresses by European presidents for 2016

In the first blog post of 2015, I explored the origins of and various customs and conventions surrounding the Christmas and New Year’s addresses by European heads of state. This year, I will look more closely at the content of these speeches (although focussing – for the sake of brevity – only on presidents, i.e. non-hereditary heads of state this time).

Finnish Niinistö records his New Year's speech for 2016 | photo (c) Office of the President of the Republic of Finland 2016

Finnish president Sauli Niinistö records his New Year’s speech for 2016 | (c) Office of the President of the Republic of Finland 2016

As I noted in my post last year, Christmas and New Year’s addresses rarely rarely belong to the most important political speeches in European democracies and often include a short summary of the last year’s events in the country. Common themes (apart from holiday wishes) are relatively rare. This year, however, many presidents directly addressed the refugee crisis in Europe. The presidents of Austria and Germany who have had to deal with extraordinary refugee streams both called for compassion and tried to strengthen the ‘can do’-spirit that has so far characterised the reactions of Federal Chancellors’ Merkel and Faynmann and volunteers in both countries. Presidents of other countries hit by the surge of refugees did not address the issue so clearly. Hungarian president Ader referred to it among other unexpected events of 2015, while the Slovenian and Croatian presidents Pahor and Grabar-Kitarović in their – significantly shorter seasons’ greetings – did not raise the issue at all apart from vague references to difficulties.

The refugee crisis featured more prominently on the other hand in the speeches of Slovak president Kiska and Czech president Zeman – yet taking almost diametrically opposed positions. Kiska largely downplayed the issue stating Slovakia was much less affected than other countries and the issue should not dominate the national agenda. Zeman on the other hand, called the influx of refugees as “an organized invasion” and called for young male refugees to return to their country to fight ISIS. Given Zeman’s previous statements this is hardly surprising, yet it is generally unusual for a Christmas message to include such controversial material. The refugee crisis also took centre stage in speeches by Finnish president Niinistö as he justified the steps taken by the government to limit the number of people receiving help.

Another theme in presidential speeches were national tragedies and the security. The Paris attacks featured strongly in French president Hollande’s speech, so did the Germanwing air crash in German president Gauck’s Christmas message. The ongoing Ukrainian crisis and potential conflict with Russia as well as the war in Syria were included in a number of speeches. Yet presidents also focussed on the economic situation and way of the recession – most prominently included in the messages of the presidents of Greece, Portugal and Iceland. The latter’s speech was however mostly reported on due to the fact that president Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson announced that he would not run for a sixth term as president.

Overall, this once again highlights that presidential Christmas and New Year’s addresses can be important indicators of the political situation or the importance of particular events throughout the year. Until now, there has nevertheless been only very limited academic research on presidential statements on these occasions. So far, I could only find an analysis of the role of religion in new year’s addresses by Swiss Federal Presidents – showing an overall decline in biblical references throughout the years. [1] In most European republics appear to follow this trend – explicit biblical references beyond a mere reference to the holiday can only be found in the speeches of the presidents of Malta and Hungary.

Christmas - NY presidents 2016 + Wulff 2011

From top left to bottom right: Presidents Higgins (Ireland), Duda (Poland), Wulff (Germany; 2011), Coleiro Preca (Malta), Iohannis (Romania).

Last but not least (and partly inspired by the DailyMail’s analysis of the photographs on Queen Elizabeth II’s desk), I think it is worth looking at the setting of presidents’ speeches. Where speeches are broadcast on TV (or recorded and then put on youtube), the setting is surprisingly similar with the president usually sitting or standing in front of flags or a fireplace. In Germany, this set-up had so much become the norm that Christian Wulff’s walking speech among a group of surprisingly diverse citizens (see centre image of above collage) caused great excitement among editors trying to fill the seasonal news slump. More unusual however was Swiss Federal President Adolf Ogi’s address of 2000 – he stood in front of a railway tunnel (watch the video here).

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[1] Kley, Andreas (2008). ‘”Und der Herrgott, Herr Bundespräsident?” Zivilreligion in den Neujahrsansprachen der schweizerischen Bundespräsidenten’. In: Kraus, Dieter et al. Schweizerisches Jahrbuch für Kirchenrecht. Bern, Switzerland, 11-56.

A list with links to the 2015/2016 speeches can be downloaded here.