Category Archives: Romania

“Can I have your signature?” – Comparing requirements for registering presidential candidates in Europe

Every so often, I receive a message from colleagues asking whether I know of a comparative overview on a particular aspect of presidential politics. I have previously written blog posts with such overviews on presidential term length and possibilities of re-election, salaries of West European and Central East European presidents, and the question of who acts as head of state when presidents are incapacitated or resign. Three weeks ago, I received another enquiry asking about the number of signatures required to register as a presidential candidate in popular presidential election – prompted by the seemingly high number of 200,000 signatures in Romania (notably, this threshold also applies to European elections, a fact highlighted by the extra-parliamentary “Democracy and Solidarity Party – DEMOS” earlier this year).

Electoral laws often specify various requirements for candidates, such as age, no criminal record, residency etc, but these all relate to the candidacy of a person as such, not its registration with authorities. To register one’s candidacy for president, collecting a certain number of supporting signatures arguably presents the most common requirement (closely followed by making a – often non-refundable – deposit to the Electoral Commission). Collecting signatures helps to prove that a candidate is a serious contender and can attract at least a minimum of support. In this post, I hence provide an overview and assessment of the signature requirements for presidential candidates in Europe and beyond.

The Code of Good Practice in Electoral Matters of the Venice Commission (an advisory body to the Council of Europe on matters of Constitutional Law) states that “The law should not require collection of the signatures of more than 1% of voters in the constituency concerned” (Part I, Chapter 1.3, point ii) – hence, for popular presidential elections signatures of no more than 1% of all registered voters in the whole country should be required for registration. Overall, all but three European nations adhere to this recommendation, albeit still showing considerable variation.

On average, a little less than half a percent of registered voters (0.454%) is required to register a candidacy as presidential candidate in European semipresidential and presidential republics. Requirements range from 0.016% (i.e. 100) of registered voters in Cyprus to 1.5% in Montenegro, yet the median of 0.396% (BiH Republika Srbska) illustrates that most countries can be found towards the bottom of the range. Three countries stand out because they do not foresee any kind of public signature collection: Ukraine abolished any kind of signature requirement in 2009 (it had previously been 500,000 in 2004 and 1m in 1999).  In contrast, presidential hopefuls in France and Ireland need to collect support from public officials – 500 signatures of elected public officials in France, and nomination by 20 members of parliament or four county or city councils in Ireland. Four other countries also have rules for the nomination of candidates by legislators – such rules generally benefit established parties.

Romania indeed belongs to countries with the highest signature requirements in European comparison, yet it is still surpassed by Montenegro. While Romania only exceeds the Council of Europe recommendation by 0.1% (ca. 17,300 signatures), this margin would already be enough to register a candidate in Austria, Bulgaria, Cyprus, or Portugal! The Montenegrin electoral law actually specifies that signatures equal to 1.5% of registered need to be collected in order to register a candidate for the presidency (and has subsequently been the subject of repeated criticism by the Venice Commission and the OSCE).

What do these numbers mean for parties, candidates and competition in popular presidential elections? Generally, higher signature requirements increase entry costs for political newcomers and can be a serious impediment to democratic competition. Candidates nominated by political parties can rely on established organisations for the collection of signature (often under a tight deadline) as well as for the financing of such an exercise – even in smaller countries with lower requirements, a small army of volunteers is needed. Given that signatures can later be ruled invalid for various reasons, candidates actually need to collect more signatures than the official number to prepared for this eventuality. Regulations that allow (or restrict) the nomination of candidates by a handful of members of parliament (e.g. in the Czech Republic, Ireland, or Slovakia), also benefit established parties and provide obstacles to independents and newcomers. Nevertheless, a greater number of candidates in direct presidential elections does not automatically equal a better or more democratic process. In the prevalent two-round run-off systems (only Ireland used preference voting and Iceland a plurality run-off), a highly fragmented candidate field in the first round can easily lead to the elimination of a Pareto-winner as well as voter dissatisfaction if a large proportion of voters do not see their preferred candidate advance to the second round.

When it comes to signatures for registering a presidential candidate, there is no objective “magic number”; yet, when looking at the various requirements across Europe, it would likely be around 0.4% of registered voters.

Semi-Presidential Policy-Making in Europe: Executive Coordination and Political Leadership

 

This post was co-authored by Tapio Raunio and Thomas Sedelius.

Despite almost three decades of empirical research on semi-presidentialism, we still know very little about the actual functioning of day-to-day routines and coordination mechanisms between the president and her administration on the one hand, and the prime minister and her cabinet on the other. Our new book Semi-Presidential Policy-Making in Europe: Executive Coordination and Political Leadership, published in the Palgrave Studies in Presidential Politics series, breaks thus new ground by exploring how intra-executive coordination works (and does not work) in three European countries with roughly similar constitutional frameworks – Finland, Lithuania, and Romania.

Drawing on in-depth interviews with select informants (primarily ministers and civil servants from the offices of the president and the prime minister with long-standing experience of intra-executive coordination), official documents, as well as secondary material such as politicians’ memoirs, the purpose of our book was to go beyond cohabitation and constitutional powers and to dig deeper into the relations between the two executives. Our basic premise was straightforward: the less there is formal, regular coordination between the two leaders, the more there is space for presidential activism. Formal coordination mechanisms in a sense tame or constrain presidents – and should overall contribute to smoother intra-executive relations.

When deciding on our case selection, we wanted to compare countries that have sufficiently similar constitutional regimes but display variation regarding the socio-economic context and the dynamics of party politics. The presidents of Finland, Lithuania, and Romania enjoy broadly comparable constitutional prerogatives, although the Finnish presidency is vested with somewhat weaker powers. However, the difference lies not so much in constitutional rules as in the socio-economic context. Finland is an old democracy known for its political stability and low level of corruption. The constitutional reform process that culminated in the new unified constitution of 2000 was an orderly, calm process based on broad party-political consensus. Lithuania and Romania, in turn, are much younger democracies that needed to rapidly adopt new constitutions in the heated circumstances of the early 1990s. Their party systems tend to be less stable, with political parties often vehicles for the personal ambitions of individual politicians. Both countries, particularly Romania, have also had serious problems with corruption. Not very surprisingly, Finns tend to trust their political institutions whereas Lithuanians and Romanians do not (at least no to the same extent).

Our main findings need to be understood in the context of these rather fundamental societal differences. In Finland the politicians and legal experts responsible for amending the constitution opted for formal coordination instruments that essentially force the president and the prime minister to cooperate regularly. The Finnish president chairs the Ministerial Committee on Foreign and Security Policy and meets both the prime minister and the foreign minister on an almost weekly basis. But perhaps even more important is the legacy of Urho Kekkonen, who ruled the land with an iron hand for quarter of a century from 1956 to 1981. There was a shared understanding among the political elites that the balance of power had shifted too far in favour of the president. There was thus the political will to significantly reduce the powers of the president, but also a recognition of the need to bind the president to governmental decision-making. In Finland it is still perceived inappropriate for the president to become involved in matters falling under the jurisdiction of the cabinet and the Eduskunta. This applies particularly to government formation, as one of the key factors contributing to the position of Kekkonen was his ability to basically dominate government formation processes, cherry-picking prime ministers and vetoing ministerial candidates and even the inclusion of whole parties in cabinets. Finnish presidents do not criticize the prime minister and the cabinet publicly. Disagreements do occur, but they are mainly handled behind the scenes without public conflicts.

In Lithuania and Romania, on the other hand, it is certainly both legitimate and appropriate for the president to interfere in matters that constitutionally belong to the competence of the government. The transition to democracy in the early 1990s provided a critical juncture in terms of institutional design. Both countries opted for a stronger presidency than in Finland and, more importantly, decided against specific rules about intra-executive coordination mechanisms. Neither country utilizes ministerial committees that would enable regular exchange between the president and the government. Even though the president meets the prime minister often, the frequency of such bilateral meetings is very much dependent on individual office-holders. Both countries also offer evidence of communication breakdowns, with the president or the prime minister simply refusing to talk to one another. Crucially, it is the president that holds the initiative regarding interaction with the prime minister or the government. The level and forms of intra-executive coordination are thus very much determined by the president. Lithuanian and Romanian presidents have adopted even quite confrontational stances, unleashing harsh attacks on the government.

An interesting dimension is party politics, or the role of political parties in facilitating or hindering presidential influence. In all three countries the president as the head of state is not formally a member of any party, but here we see notable variation. Romanian presidents are quite openly involved in the work of their parties: the presidents have attended various party congresses, maintain in general close ties with their parties, and even campaigned in favour of their parties in parliamentary elections. In Lithuania such party ties are much weaker, although we must remember that two of the three presidents, Adamkus and Grybauskaitė, were elected into office as independent candidates. In Finland the non-involvement of presidents in party politics is strictly observed. Future research should examine more closely how presidents use their parties or friendly legislative majorities to achieve policy goals. The Lithuanian and Romanian examples illustrate how ‘outsider’ presidents, such as Constantinescu and Iohannis, have found it much more difficult to shape politics than incumbents that have long experience from party politics.      

Our analysis indicates the buffet table of strategies available for presidents to wield influence. Apart from using their constitutional prerogatives, presidents make active use of informal channels: they meet with individual politicians, including party leaders, hold important public speeches that typically enjoy wide media coverage, and establish close links with various interest groups and citizens’ associations. Again such activities are not regulated by any laws. Previous research has very much focused on visible actions – presidential vetoes or the role of the president in forming and dissolving cabinets. These are clearly important dimensions that deserve to be examined, but influential presidents may not need to veto bills or reject governments. Given favourable circumstances, not least a friendly prime minister and a legislative majority, presidents can achieve a lot without leaving any public trace of her actions. This is why we deliberately relied heavily on interviews with people in key positions. If we want to understand how individual presidents behave, one simply must talk to such informants and identify how presidents seek to influence politics.  

An important and so far under-researched theme is the role of presidential staff. In Finland the size of the presidential office is very small, and hence the Finnish president is strongly dependent on preparatory work carried out by the government. In Lithuania and particularly in Romania the presidential palaces have generous staff levels, meaning that the presidents have, if required, the capacity to look into policy questions in much more detail and to prepare various political documents. A striking and perhaps also a surprising finding concerns the portfolios that the staff focus on. Most of the staff working for the Lithuanian and Romanian presidents deal with policy areas that fall under the competence of the government – economic policy, education, social and health affairs, culture etc. Importantly, these persons follow developments in the ministries and the legislature, maintain active links with interest groups and other shareholders, and in general try to generate support for the positions and initiatives of the president. Future research on political leadership should therefore pay close attention to advisors and other staff, including of course also in the office of the prime minister.

Intra-executive coordination is most institutionalized and regular in foreign and security policy. Finland uses a specific ministerial committee in foreign and security policy that meets around twice a month and brings together the president, the prime minister and other cabinet members. Lithuania and Romania utilize national security councils that meet less often but are convened to discuss various topical matters related to security policy. While there have been some public disputes or disagreements between the president and the government in Finland, Lithuania, and Romania, normally the goal of speaking with one voice in foreign and security policy is achieved. There is routine, day-to-day administrative interaction between the presidential office and the foreign ministry, and in all three countries the president meets the foreign minister on a regular basis.

The findings are thus in line with our theoretical expectations. The more there is formal and regular coordination, the less space for presidential activism – and vice versa. And in line with institutional theory, our book illustrates path dependency and the stickiness of initially adopted courses of action. We also provide further evidence of some of the negative features often associated with presidents and semi-presidential regimes. Most of the intra-executive conflicts or tensions in Finland, Lithuania, and Romania result from actions of the president. At the same time we must underline the exploratory nature of our research. Our analysis covered only three countries, and thus the number of individual presidents in our data set was small. Various presidential activities – from public speeches, party links, to ties with various stakeholders – could be subjected to much closer examination and be linked to data on intra-executive conflicts or legislative vetoes. Finally, our research design and data should not be understood as criticism of more quantitatively oriented studies. However, an in-depth understanding of presidential behaviour and how the two executives work together is not possible without reaching ‘behind the scenes’ and talking to people with first-hand knowledge of intra-executive coordination.   

Romania – The President’s ‘Breaking Bad’: When Does Negative Campaigning Work?

President Klaus Iohannis during a visit at a Romanian military base that was a PR success.  Source: digi24.ro

With one year to go until he stands for re-election, Romanian president Klaus Iohannis appears willing to go outside his defining detachment and become a fire – starter in the already tense framework of cohabitation.

The conventional wisdom that negative political campaigning works has been largely dismissed by research results. Scholars found no evidence of its success (see Lau, Sigelman and Rovner, 2007 for a literature review) or even claimed that the choice of negativity is disadvantageous, in contrast to the effects of positive messaging (Malloy and Pearson-Merkowitz , 2016; Claibourn 2012) and in particular for incumbents (Blackwell 2013).  We then continue to ask why candidates and political consultants believe in the effectiveness of attacking opponents. Most research on this topic focused on the US political system, but throughout the next year of presidential campaigning, Romania may provide a novel experimental setting to answer the same question: is political ‘breaking bad’ a good strategy to win presidential elections?

The Mobilizing Effect of Conflict Framing

Most recently, President Iohannis (National Liberal Party – PNL candidate) concerned the EU by declaring that, (mostly) because of the incompetence of the social – democrat led government, Romania is unprepared to take over the EU’s rotating presidency on January 1, 2019 (NY Times reports). A declaration that was intended to win him points in national politics quickly escalated internationally when the Finnish PM, Juha Sipila, declared they are ready to take over earlier should Romania default on its obligations. This prompted the Romanian Minister of Foreign Affairs to issue an official statement denying the presidential claims and ‘stressing the importance of handling with responsibility information that is not founded on concrete endeavours (sic) and which may affect the image of Romania (…)’. Since this exchange, Romanian diplomats in Brussels have to publicly defend the on-going preparations.  Following this statement, the president suffered a backlash from his usual supporters, motivating him to soften his position by stating it was still possible to be reasonably prepared.

Given the usual dispassion of president Iohannis for political conflict coupled with the positive nature of his discourse in the first campaign (2014) and the first 4 years of mandate, his recent preparedness to lash out with negative attacks on the government can provide the counterpoint in a comparative test of what makes successful campaign strategies. Iohannis’s reactions are motivated by the criticism he endures for not being active on the public stage (I previously reported on this blog on the preference of president Iohannis to use formal powers and overlook informal ones). And in spite of the apparent uselessness of negative discourse, in the absence of a constructive policy agenda and constraining tools, there is one important effect of conflict framing and negativity that can be relied on for electoral success in the Romanian context.

Research results found (conditioned!) effects of negativity on increasing voter turnout. Krupnikov (2012) showed that negativity increases the likelihood that an individual will make a candidate selection. And conflict framing in campaign news mobilized voters to vote even in the less electorally engaging European Parliament elections (Schuck, Vliegenthart and DeVreese, 2014). This factor becomes increasingly important given that voter mobilisation is a substantial concern for presidential candidates in Romania and usually tilts the balance between winners and losers.

Framing the Presidential Run

Conflict framing has been at the base of Romanian elections since the early 1990s (see Anghel 2017 for a review of Romanian ‘anti-’ campaigns). In this broad agenda type of political contests, technical superiority, emotional voting and political calculations have a substantial importance. The position of a non – Social – Democrat Party (PSD) presidential candidate is naturally advantageous. Opposition parties can compensate their organisational weaknesses by unifying non-PSD voters, while the PSD is stuck at approx. 20% in voter preference.  A constant dwindling of turnout to less than 50% has secured PSD (partial) legislative victories, since their approx. 20% supporters also show up at the polls. The higher turnout in presidential elections has failed to deliver the PSD a victory in the past three runs (15 years).

Consequently, the effect of predominant conflict framing may be a mobilizing factor once again and increase the chances of president Iohannis for re-election. But this is highly context-dependent and not all researchers agree that the effect of negative campaigning is substantial on voter turnout (Garramone et al. 2009). It therefore may not be worth pursuing this strategy alone, as it can easily backfire. Other studies show that negative political campaigning evokes negative affect toward both the targeted opponent and the sponsor (e.g. Merritt 2013).

Increasingly aware of his electoral weaknesses, Iohannis also made an appearance at the yearly PNL Congress (August 4, 2018), showing his support for the PNL leadership and program and lobbying for their organisational support in the elections.  Having political proxies (or lobby groups) to deliver negative messages for the candidate is also better than when the candidate delivers them. According to Dowling and Wichowsky (AJPS, 2014), “candidates can benefit from having a party or group ‘do their dirty work’”.  However, the current relation of PNL with the president is jaded and many strong local party leaders lack the incentives to engage in the hard presidential elections for another win for Iohannis, who has not collaborated with them in the last four years.

Conclusion: ‘Breaking bad’ badly is…not good

For a political attack to work, it must raise a credible issue. This is not difficult for the incumbent president, as the PSD led government has gone through a series of unpopular controversies related to justice system reforms. Yet the decision to ‘go negative’ to benefit from increased voter turnout appears counterproductive on all other accounts or, at best, difficult to manage. Should president Iohannis decide to continue on this path, the 2019 elections will provide the conditions for a comparative within case study of presidential political campaign strategies.

Romania – An Underused Presidency?

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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

President Klaus Iohannis and PM Sorin Grindeanu (18/01/2017) Iohannis appeared unexpectedly during a cabinet meeting where an emergency decree to pardon certain detainees and amend the Penal Code was to be discussed. PhotoSource: A3 Press

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.

  1. 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.

Conclusion

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.


[i] This blog also suggested that even presidents who are not directly elected can make a constructive contribution in government formation. See the case of Germany.

Semi-presidentialism – Can presidents influence coalition outcomes?

This post is based on my article ’Why Can’t We Be Friends?’ The Coalition Potential of Presidents in Semi-Presidential Republics—Insights from Romania” in East European Politics and Societies.

The research article published by East European Politics and Societies sought to investigate the basis of the power of presidents to shape coalitions in semi-presidential systems, using the case of Romania. The findings put forward by the article contribute to the weakening of the theory that semi-presidential systems are inherently affected by a process of growing presidentialization.

Throughout my study of coalition governments more generally, the question about the potential systematic influence of presidents in their formation and evolution has often risen. To know who has the upper hand and the final say in the process of government formation is of chief importance to the students of political institutions. However, previous research on coalitions rarely addressed the topic related to the powers of the president, with recent findings claiming that in European democracies presidents have a substantial ability to induce their preferred governments. The case of Romania disputes these claims and shows that the mechanisms of a multiparty regime mostly limit the president’s exclusive bargaining advantage to nominating the prime minister and then, much as in a parliamentary democracy, render him or her dependent on the coalition potential of his or her own party.

President Klaus Iohannis, prime minister Mihai Tudose and Liviu Dragnea, chairman of the dominant party in the coalition, the Social Democrat Party (PSD) (2017). Although a ‘friendly’ government is not always in the president’s cards, more often than not, he finds himself dancing to their tune.

Romania is a young, consolidating, semi-presidential European democracy and a fertile ground for the presidentialization of politics, according to the measures proposed by previous research. Samuels and Shugart use the Romanian presidential elections of 2004 to open their 2010 seminal volume and highlight influence of presidents on government formation in semi-presidential republics: “The results of the direct presidential election thus not only took government formation out of the hands of the largest parliamentary party and the largest parliamentary coalition, but also served to break a pre-election agreement, altering the partisan balance of forces that parliamentary coalitions and parliamentary elections had established.”(p.2)[1]

Nevertheless, an in-depth, qualitative investigation of the same case generated surprising insights by showing this outcome to be rather the exception than the rule and entails certain conditions to be met. Overall, the study shows that when the president and prime minister (or a plausible designate prime minister of a presidentially “unfriendly” majority) enter a competition to shape a coalition in this institutional format, they enter as equals. The weight of their supporting parties makes the difference in deciding the winner.

Methodologically, the article supports the need for more in-depth qualitative study of such matters, mostly since there are insufficient accounts for the informal aspects of presidential authority in government formation. Ignoring such aspects, which we can only uncover through elite interviews, could lead to incomplete results.  Although there are limitations linked to respondents’ subjectivity when asked about the direct involvement of the president in off-the-record negotiations for government formation, including accounts of first hand participants is a valuable addition to our understanding. The article relies heavily on semi-structured discussions with prime –ministers, ministers or important witnesses at sensitive moments linked to the role of the president in coalition formation.

Firstly, the article makes a distinction between cases when coalition cabinets and presidents were in a situation of partnership (whether the president and the prime minister were from the same party or not) and cases of coalition cabinets and presidents in a situation of conflict (Table 1). It proceeds with a selection of a case where the president played an important role in government formation and could make use of his prerogative to name the prime minister from his loyal party, which thus became a formateur, and compared it with one where he could not (Romania has only had male presidents). The conditions to induce a preferred government are highlighted with the case of the 2004 parliamentary elections and the active involvement of president Traian Băsescu in government formation. In contrast, while maintaining the same actors and the same institutional design, the analysis goes on to show a different situation following the 2012 elections.Finally, it emphasises how, all things considered, the coalition appeal of the party behind the president makes the final difference in government formation, regardless of his or her exclusive prerogative to name the prime minister.

The implications of this study go beyond uncovering the dynamics of coalition formation in Romania. The study shows that although a president could find within the semi-presidential system the institutional incentives to try to increase his or her influence in government formation, he or she remains firmly limited by the coalition potential of his or her party, regardless of context-driven peaks of increased informal authority. It also argues that in choosing cases for a comparative analysis of coalition formation and administration, there is reason to go beyond a differentiation between semi-presidential and parliamentary regimes.

Notes

[1] David Samuels and Matthew Shugart, Presidents, Parties and Prime Ministers: How the Separation of Power Affects Party Organization and Behaviour (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), p. 2

Romania – The Judicial System and the Role of the President

 

Corruption has been a significant point of disorder and discontent for post-communist party systems and their societies. The case of Romania’s anti-corruption fight is significant for various reasons. It was commonly regarded as the ‘laggard’ of the countries that sought EU membership during the 2004/2007 enlargements[i] and became a subject of post-accession conditionality through the operationalisation of the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM). Through this mechanism, the European Commission (EC) continues to monitor the progress made in the fields of judicial reform and corruption to this day. Since then, the Romanian National Anti-Corruption Agency (DNA) has made remarkable achievements in targeting high level corruption and claims an impressive record of ongoing investigations. However, the last EC anti-corruption report evaluates the overall national efforts as ‘inconsistent’. In early 2017, the government’s plans to decriminalise official misconduct and commute sentences for some non-violent criminal convictions stirred the largest anti-government protests since 1989, with president Klaus Iohannis siding with the protesters. A Joint Statement of EC President Juncker and First Vice-President Timmermans was also released, stating that ‘the fight against corruption needs to be advanced, not undone’. The Social-Democrat Party (PSD) led coalition government backed down, despite having a solid majority in the parliament that could have supported their plans.

In this tense societal environment coupled with a general suspicion of politicians’ conduct for all things related to the judicial branch, any new reforms announced by the Ministry of Justice incite controversies and concerns. This is certainly the case with the amendments introduced into public debate by the Minister of Justice in August 2017. Some international actors question the amendments and some NGOs have perceived them as a new attempt to impede the progress made so far. The amendments would eliminate the president from the procedure to appoint the general prosecutor, the chief prosecutor of the DNA (and their deputies) and the chief prosecutor of the Organised Crime and Terrorism Investigation Agency (DIICOT). Currently, these are appointed by the president, following a proposal from the Ministry of Justice with the consent of the Superior Council of Magistracy (CSM).

The current procedure requires a consensus among the political elites of the executive and the judiciary branches, the latter being represented by the CSM. The legislative branch is not directly included in the present nominating scheme or in the proposed future one.

Among other propositions, the reform also includes the transfer of the Institution of the Judiciary Inspection of the CSM under the Ministry of Justice and supplementary requirements from magistrates for career advancement. And yet, debates have centred on the effect of eliminating the president from the aforementioned key appointments. The motivations behind the concerns are political, based on recent history, as well as institutional, based on concerns regarding the balance of powers.

Firstly, as anti-corruption is a high-stakes issue for national security and democratic consolidation, the maintenance of a balance of powers in appointing key figures of the judiciary system is significant. The Romanian president is directly elected – a fact which could provide him or her with the necessary authority to be involved in all strategic issues that affect the country. On this issue, one line of argumentation considers that the current arrangement of appointments answers to all branches of power, with the elected president being regarded as a substitute for the legislative branch. The opposite argument goes that it is the government, through the Ministry of Justice, who represents the elected parliament. This is where the legitimacy to make these appointments lies and there is no need for the interference of the president. Though incongruously, there is no reform alternative that directly includes the parliament in the said nominations.

Secondly, the role of the president in the anti-corruption fight is very much dependent on recent Romanian history and public perception. Politicizing corruption has shown to be advantageous in political campaigns for some types of parties[ii] and Romanian parties have also used the anti-corruption rhetoric as a source of popular legitimation even before EU accession. President Traian Băsescu (2004 – 2014), together with his Liberal Democrat Party (PDL), spearheaded the anti-corruption discourse and turned it into a successful campaign strategy in 2004. This was mainly directed against the incumbent PSD (2000 – 2004) and continued to be the top priority during his first presidential mandate which overlapped the pre-accession period. During his second mandate, an alliance between PSD and the National Liberal Party (PNL) led to his impeachment (2012) and an internationally resounding political crisis. It was a difficult moment for the whole society but it allowed the president to emphasize his image as the champion of the anti-corruption fight. The institution of the president came to be perceived as a bulwark against any abuse from the government or a legislative majority. President Iohannis continued to use the anti-corruption discourse as a main pillar of his political campaign in 2014. During the current debates, he expressed his own concerns related to the changes made, claiming in a FB post that Romania is witnessing an abuse against the rule of law and the independence of the judicial system.

Finally, the argument “if it’s not broken, why fix it?” carries its own weight. The progress made by the DNA and the other institutions in question is objectively measurable. Why should there be any changes in their organisation? The president has a say in matters of national security. One could argue that the weakening of the state through corruption is part of national security. On the other hand, the Constitution does not provide a role for the president on this particular matter and parliament could be considered within its rights to debate and vote laws proposed by the government.

In the end, any amendments would still reach the presidential desk for promulgation. And the president still has to sign off on his own elimination from this process. The return from the parliamentary summer holiday has coincided with heated debates over checks and balances and building elite consensus.


[i] See Pridham, Geoffrey (2007) ‘Romania and EU Membership in Comparative Perspective: A Post- Accession Compliance Problem? – The Case of Political Conditionality’, Perspectives on European Politics and Society 8(2), pp. 168 – 188

 

[ii] See Bågenholm, Andreas and Charron, Nicholas (2014), “Do politics in Europe benefit from politicising corruption?”, West European Politics 37(5), pp. 903-931.

 

Presidential Activism and Veto Power in Central and Eastern Europe

This post summarises the new book by Philipp Köker ‘Presidential Activism and Veto Power in Central and Eastern Europe’ (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017). The book is the inaugural volume in the new series Palgrave Studies in Presidential Politics (edited by Robert Elgie and Gianluca Passarelli) and is based on Philipp’s PhD thesis which won the ECPR Jean Blondel PhD Prize 2016.

Presidential powers feature prominently in academic debates. Paradoxically, until now only few scholars have tried to analyse and explain how presidential actually use them. This book tries to fill this gap in the academic literature, but is also rooted in a real-life encounter with presidential activism. As an undergraduate intern in the Polish Sejm I witnessed first-hand the negotiations between President Lech Kaczyński and Gregorz Napieralski, newly elected leader of the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), on blocking an override of the president’s veto of the media law in July 2008.The aim of this book is map and analyse such patterns in the activism of presidents and explain when and why presidents become active and use their powers. Thereby, it focuses on 9 Central and East European democracies (i.e. those that joined the EU in 2004/2007) during the period 1990-2010. Given that their political systems were created during the same, comparatively short period of time, share a common trajectory of development and were confronted with the same challenges, they are particularly suited for analysis. With regards to presidential powers, I concentrate on two of the most prominent presidential powers:

  1. the power to veto legislation and return it to parliament
  2. the appointment and censure of governments and cabinet ministers

The central argument is that presidential activism can best be explained by the institutional structure – including the mode of election – and the political environment, particularly the relative strength and level of consensus between president, parliament and government. Thereby, I argue that popular presidential elections matter fundamentally for presidential activism – directly elected presidents are agents of the public rather than parliament and lack the constraints and potential for punishment faced by their indirectly presidents elected counterparts (which challenges Tavits 2008). Furthermore, presidents should be more active when they find themselves in cohabitation with the government, when parliamentary fragmentation is high, and when the government does not hold a majority in the legislature.

To test these and additional hypotheses, my book uses a nested analysis research design (Lieberman 2005) that combines the statistical analysis of an original cross-section time series data set on the use of presidential vetoes with carefully selected case studies based on numerous elite and expert interviews in four most-different countries. The analysis of presidential activism in government formation and censure is thereby deliberately left for the qualitative analysis as there is no adequate quantitative data yet.

Patterns of Presidential Veto Use in Central and Eastern EuropeMy regression models generally confirms the majority of my hypotheses. In line with the table above, my model results clearly show that presidents used their veto power significantly more often than indirectly elected presidents. Furthermore, presidents were more active during neutral relations with the government and cohabitation and the effects of the governmental and presidential seat shares, too, showed the expected effects. Echoing findings from the study of presidential veto use in the United States, president also vetoed more frequently the more bills were passed by parliament. Based on the predictions of the statistical models, I then select 12 president-cabinet pairings in four countries (Estonia, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia) for further in-depth analysis. Thereby, I make sure to select both strong/weak and directly/indirectly elected presidents and one pairing per office holder to control for institutional variations and individual presidents.

Presidential Activism in Practice

The in-depth analysis of presidential veto use also confirms my hypotheses and provides strong evidence that the hypothesised mechanisms actually insist. In particular, the mode of presidential election emerged as one of, if not the most important factor in explaining presidential activism. The popular mandate gained through direct elections gave presidents significantly more freedom in their actions but also required them to be more active to ensure their re-election – this was not only confirmed through my interviews with high-ranking presidential advisors but also evidenced by a number of presidents’ public statements. Indirectly elected presidents on the other hand acknowledged their dependence on parliament and therefore used their powers less often as not to interfere in the work of their principal. The relationship between president and government as well as the government’s strength in parliament were equally shown to be key determinants in presidents’ decisions to use their powers. Yet the qualitative also demonstrated that the size of presidents’ support base in parliament only becomes relevant when their party participates in government or when high thresholds are needed to override a veto. In addition, the qualitative analysis suggested an additional explanatory factor for presidential activism not included in my theoretical and statistical models – divisions within and between government parties provided additional opportunities for activism and could explain vetoes under otherwise unfavourable conditions.

My analysis of presidential activism in the appointment and censure of governments then takes a more exploratory approach and covers the entire period of observation (rather than just specific president-cabinet pairings). The results show some support for existing hypotheses in the literature but also call for re-thinking the use of non-partisan cabinet ministers as a proxy for presidential involvement. In particularly, non-partisans were not only often appointed without presidential involvement, but presidents were also more actively involved in placing co-partisans in the cabinet.

Studying Presidential Activism in Central and Eastern Europe and Beyond

Presidents still belong to the group of less-studied political actors. Yet even though countries differ greatly in how much power is vested in the presidency, presidents always possess at least some power and even the least powerful presidents play an important functional and procedural role in their political systems apart from ceremonial duties. Thus, studying presidential politics has a very strong practical relevance for any republican political system.

My book shows that theoretical approaches developed for presidents in other contexts (i.e. mostly the United States) ‘travelled’ almost effortlessly to Central and Eastern Europe. Several mechanisms of effect could be observed irrespective of institutional structure, highlighting the enormous potential of ‘comparative presidential studies’ beyond national contexts. Thus, I hope that my book is – together with the work of this blog and the recently formed ECPR Standing Group on Presidential Politics – will help to further develop this sub-discipline of political science to the extent that it becomes en par with long-established scholarship on the presidency of the United States.

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References & Notes:
Lieberman, E. S. (2005). Nested Analysis as a Mixed-method Strategy for Comparative Research. American Political Science Review, 99(3), 435–452.
Tavits, M. (2008). Presidents with Prime Ministers: Do Direct Elections Matter?. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press.

Find out more details about the book and the new series Palgrave Studies in Presidential Politics  on the Palgrave website.

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.