Category Archives: Romania

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.

Romania’s technocratic government: high expectations and challenges ahead

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

New format for government formation talks

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

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

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

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

Non-partisan ministers in Romanian cabinets

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

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

Challenges and possible effects

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Romania – President-PM clash over fiscal reform during cohabitation

A previous post on Romania’s current period of cohabitation focused on the first serious clash between President Iohannis of the National Liberal Party (PNL) and PM Ponta of the Social Democratic Party (PSD) caused by the former’s veto on the Forestry Code. The relations between the head of state and the prime minister are now heading towards a full-blown crisis after President Iohannis rejected a tax-cutting plan that had been almost unanimously backed by the parliament, including the opposition led by the Liberal party.

The president’s justification for vetoing the forestry legislation in March 2015 was its breach of European Union competition law, as the new bill aimed to limit the economic activities of some companies. On July 17, President Iohannis rejected the government’s tax-cutting plan on the grounds that it had failed to obtain the approval of the European Commission and IMF officials and ran counter to the fiscal and budgetary strategy and the convergence programme.

The head of state deemed the new fiscal plan unsustainable in the long run. He argued against both excessive taxation and strong fiscal relaxation and criticised the government for failing to present a budget spending plan for 2016 including concrete measures aimed at reducing public expenditure to compensate for the extensive tax cuts. The prime minister denounced the president’s veto as a purely political act, aimed at blocking government actions at any cost and/or enforcing decisions made abroad against Romania’s interests.

The president’s decision to veto the Fiscal Code came as a surprise for several reasons. To start with, President Iohannis’ National Liberals not only gave their full support to the tax cuts in parliament, but also insisted on lowering the VAT rate from 24 percent to 19 percent (instead of 20 percent as the government had initially proposed). The reduction of the VAT rate to 19 percent had also been one of Klaus Iohannis’ core electoral pledges in the 2014 presidential campaign. The president’s opposition to the new fiscal legislation was therefore difficult to foresee, all the more so as he refrained from commenting on the new fiscal legislation while it was under public debate or when the Chamber of Deputies passed the bill with strong cross-party support on June 24. As a matter of fact, the president voiced his opposition to the tax cuts only a few days before the end of the 20-day period during which he is required to sign bills into law upon receiving them from the parliament or to request their re-examination.

Nevertheless, the president’s veto needs to be seen in a larger context. Economically, Romania’s Central Bank as well as the IMF and the EU have drawn attention to the unsustainable increase in fiscal deficit that the government’s fiscal easing plan might trigger in 2016. Additionally, prior to having its latest tax package passed by parliament, the government also lowered the VAT rate for food items from 24 percent to 9 percent with effect from 1 June 2015.

Politically, the relations between the Klaus Iohannis and Victor Ponta have worsened significantly after a criminal investigation was opened against the prime minister on June 5 on grounds of forgery, tax evasion, money-laundering, and conflict of interest. Since then he survived a parliamentary vote to have his immunity lifted, a no-confidence motion, and the president’s repeated calls for resignation. Eventually, PM Ponta did withdraw temporarily as a leader of Social Democrats, a move that opened up a fight for power inside the party.

Given the prime minister’s vulnerability on the party line, President Iohannis seized the opportunity to undermine his authority over the cabinet as well. Just days before he vetoed the fiscal code, the head of state rejected the prime minister’s first nomination for the Transport Ministry in a move that was reminiscent of his predecessor’s cohabitation wars. Undoubtedly, their relationship stands to deteriorate even further as the 2016 electoral contests are drawing closer. Under these circumstances, the head of state may be understandably unwilling to allow an embattled prime minister to use fiscal relaxation to his advantage in the 2016 local and general elections.

What next? Unless parliament calls an extraordinary session, a new vote on the Fiscal Code will take place in September. If legislators vote to preserve the initial form of the bill, the president has to promulgate it within ten days after receiving it unless he decides to challenge its validity at the Constitutional Court. Despite the bill’s initial passage in the Chamber of Deputies with just two votes against and one abstention, its fate the second time around depends on whether the National Liberals stick to their programmatic position or decide to rally around the president’s call. The prime minister has also announced the government’s readiness to speed up the enforcement of the VAT rate cut either by emergency ordinance or by assuming responsibility for the Fiscal Code in parliament.

Romania – President’s veto on Forestry Code sparks first conflict with prime minister

In the first five months of his term, President Iohannis has asked parliament to re-examine eight bills. This is by no means an unusual level of presidential activism during a period of cohabitation, as the bar was set high by his predecessor. However, the president’s veto on the Forestry Code stands out because it triggered not only one of the first serious clashes with the prime minister, but also a strong public reaction and a change in the president’s approach of publicising the way in which he uses the formal power to either promulgate or return laws to parliament.

One of the first bills President Iohannis sent to parliament for re-examination in late March 2015 was the Forestry Code. One of the provisions singled out for reconsideration regarded the introduction of a 30% threshold on the amount of a certain type of wood that single companies can process. According to the president’s re-examination request, the new bill ran counter to European Union competition law as it aimed to limit the economic activities of some companies. However, the decision to veto this law was not accompanied by a public statement or motivation, in spite of a vigorous and years-long public debate in Romania about massive deforestation and foreign lobbying in the forestry industry.

As it happened, the Austrian-based Holzindustrie Schweighofer, one of the largest wood processing companies in Romania, had been lobbying against the new Forestry Code using the same arguments. Several weeks after the president returned the bill to the parliament, the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) accused Schweighofer officials of accepting illegally harvested wood and promising bonuses to the sellers. The revelations prompted country-wide protests against both the government, for allowing foreign companies to destroy Romania’s forests, and the president for delaying the enforcement of a bill that aimed to prevent foreign monopoly over the forestry industry.

A public spat soon erupted between the prime minister and the president as well, after the former claimed that the decision to veto the forestry bill had been influenced by Liberal leaders after private meetings with the Austrian company. President Iohannis was uncharacteristically vehement in his reaction, as he asked the chief of the Romanian Intelligence Service (SRI) to check the premier’s statements and threatened legal action if they proved wrong.  Soon afterwards, both of them took steps to put illegal logging at the top of the political agenda: the premier announced an emergency decree to temporarily ban exports of unprocessed wood, while the president tabled an analysis of illegal deforestation in the next meeting of the Supreme Council of National Defence (CSAT).

Interestingly, the controversial association between the president’s veto and foreign lobbying in the forestry industry has also led to a reconsideration of the way in which the head of state informs the public about his actions. In a press conference called shortly after three parliamentary committees rejected his re-examination request, President Iohannis announced that in the future he will explain publicly decisions to promulgate, veto, or challenge the legality of important bills. He also clarified that the decision to return the Forestry Code to parliament was motivated by a formal notice from the Competition Council, adding that he was not planning to ask a Constitutional Court ruling on the bill.

Moreover, apart from discussing other bills he promulgated or was prepared to challenge, the president also spoke about bills he would veto if passed by parliament in current form. Specifically, President Iohannis warned that he would not promulgate amendments to the Criminal Code that protected MPs from investigation and was ready to challenge the law at the Constitutional Court.

In the future it will be interesting to follow if such warnings of imminent veto power use and public justifications of re-examination accompanied by amendment suggestions have a better change of increasing the president’s influence over the legislative process.

Bogdan Dima – The Romanian Presidency and the Constitutional Court

This is a guest post by Dr Bogdan Dima, Lecturer in the Faculty of Law, University of Bucharest

Note: The first two sections of this study are part of a larger paper presented at the 5th Semi- presidentialism and Democracy International Conference: Constitutional Development: A Dialogue between Asia and Europe, held on May 17th, 2014, in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. The paper will be published in a volume at Wunan Publishing House, Taiwan. The full text was published in Manuel Gutan, Bianca Selejan Gutan (eds.), Judicial Culture and Europeanization in Contemporary Democracies (Bucharest: Hamangiu, 2014).

bogdan_dima_m

Shaping the Role of the President: The Influence of the Romanian Constitutional Court’s Jurisprudence

1. The primary intentions of the Romanian constitutional legislator

Caught between the fears of the past and the fears of an unknown process of democratization, the emergent political forces of the new post-communist regime achieved in the end a hard negotiated compromise: a President with a relevant symbolic role, but with diminished formal powers. It was a negotiated compromise between the supporters of a strong President (the political majority of the 1990 and 1991) and the partisans of parliamentarism (the opposition of the 1990 and 1991).

The classic opinion regarding specific characteristics of the Romanian system of government was firstly articulated at the beginning of the nineties by two experts involved in drafting the post-communist Fundamental Law. They were Florin Vasilescu and Antonie Iorgovan[i]. The Romanian system of government is a mild semi-presidentialism or parliamentarized semi-presidentialism, in contrast with the French system of government, which has a strong and influential President.

The President’s constitutional prerogatives are limited in comparison to other presidents` prerogatives in various European states (e.g., France, Finland, and Poland). Most presidential powers are subject to the control of other institutions, such as the Government and the Parliament. As such, not all formal presidential powers regulated by the Constitution can be freely carried out by the chief of state. As a consequence, the role of President within the political system depends not only on the number of his prerogatives, but also on the effective and independent/exclusive use of these powers.

I shall present 10 arguments in favor of the mild semi-presidentialism, most of them of a normative nature, as they were proposed by the Romanian doctrine[ii]:

  1. Both the Parliament and President are elected in direct universal elections, and they are representative authorities at the national level. Nevertheless, only the Parliament is the “supreme representative body of the Romanian people” according to Art. 61 (1) of the Romanian Constitution.
  2. The President’s power to dissolve the Parliament implies the achievement of six preliminary conditions, which make this prerogative almost impossible to be effectively used in practice (Art. 89 of the Constitution).
  3. The Constitution regulates for two types of President`s responsibility: political responsibility for grave acts infringing upon constitutional provisions (Art. 95), and a special criminal responsibility for high treason (Art. 96).
  4. Even though initiated and finalized by the President, the procedure for appointing a Government implies a vote of confidence from the parliamentary majority. Hence, it is the political majority within the Parliament which is essential for the birth of a new Government, not the formal prerogative of the President to appoint a candidate for the PM’s office.
  5. According to Art. 109 (1) of the Romanian Constitution, the Government and each member of the cabinet are only politically and jointly liable for their activity in front of a parliamentary majority.
  6. Not only the President, but each Chamber of Parliament, may demand legal proceedings to be taken against members of the Government for acts committed in the exercise of their office. Moreover, the President may suspend these ministers from office if criminal proceedings are undertaken against them – according to Art. 109 (2) of the Romanian Constitution (see also Decision of the Constitutional Court no. 270/2008).
  7. The President does not have the authority to initiate draft laws. Only the Government, members of Parliament, and a certain number of citizens have this authority according to Art. 74 (1) of the Romanian Constitution.
  8. The right of the President to refuse the promulgation of a law adopted by Parliament can be exercised only once after the law is received from Parliament (Art. 77 (1) and (2) of the Romanian Constitution).
  9. The most important presidential powers in foreign affairs are submitted to governmental or parliamentary control (Art. 92 and 93 of the Romanian Constitution).
  10. Presidential decrees (President`s official acts) adopted by the President in order to exercise his most important constitutional prerogatives are countersigned by the Prime Minister according to Art. 100 of the Romanian Constitution.

All of the above mentioned arguments are viable considering their normative logic. Nevertheless, the main problem is to find out if these arguments remain viable when analyzed from the perspective of political and institutional practice of the last quarter of a century. Vasilescu and Iorgovan`s opinion regarding the Romanian system of government is not enthusiastically shared by all scholars. For example, Tudor Drăganu makes a strong case arguing that the constitutional provisions and the institutional post-communist practice have created rather a classic semi-presidential system than a mild or parliamentarized one.

First, the President holds significant powers which are exercised without the Prime Minister`s or other ministers’ consent (for example, the appointment of civil servants).

Second, regardless of whether or not they are countersigned by the Prime Minister, the President is liable for his decrees: “Thus, following the logic of the 1991 Constitution, the decrees for which the Prime Minister’s countersignature is not necessary and those for which a counter-signature is mandatory directly engage the liability of the President; hence, one can say today, in our country, the principle according to which the chief of state reigns but does not govern has been changed with this rule stating that the President reigns and governs (my translation, B.D.)”[iii].

Third, because he is elected directly by the people, the President exercises from the beginning of his mandate a higher authority than the Prime Minister’s. The latter owes his office to political negotiations and compromise between leaders of the parliamentary majority and the chief of state.

Fourth, when parliamentary elections overlap with presidential elections, the key elements of the electoral campaigns focus on the presidential candidates` personalities and their political programs. Basically, the electoral interests of the members of Parliament are subordinated to the major electoral interests of the presidential elections.

Finally, the President represents the Romanian state according to Art. 80 (1) of the Constitution. He meets with other heads of state at official international conferences and reunions. This constitutional provision provides significant symbolic authority to the President (see also the Constitutional Court decision no. 683/2012).

2. The practice of Romanian semi-presidentialism

The practice of semi-presidentialism in Romania shows that the Romanian President played and plays a relevant role within the political system. Even though his formal powers are limited, the President exercises a lot of political influence. The symbolic and formal powers of the President create an independent institution, scrutinizing and controlling the political action flow of other institutions.

In Romania, from a normative perspective, we have a mild semi-presidentialism, but from the political practice perspective, we developed a true semi-presidential system, with a strong chief of state and with many intra-executive conflicts and also conflicts between the legislative and executive branches of government.

The institutional system regulated by the 1991 Romanian Constitution created relative stability for the political regime following the collapse of communism; even so, there were political struggles between the opposition and those in power; struggles within the legislative and governmental coalitions were often harsh and ruthless. There are at least two kinds of factors explaining the stability of the new democratic regime. On one hand, there are factors related to the political party system and extra-normative relations between political actors; on the other hand, there are factors related to the institutional matrix regulated by the Constitution, laws, and the jurisprudence of the Constitutional Court.

In the logic of the Romanian system of government, the dissolution of Parliament is constitutionally restricted to the point of being nearly impossible. Nevertheless, in a certain political context, the President might threaten with dissolution procedures, hence influencing the decisions of the parliamentary majority. At the same time, the President cannot be dismissed by the Parliament; he is dismissed only by the citizens via a referendum or by the High Court of Justice and Cassation for high treason. The Parliament can sanction the President by suspending his term in office (art. 95), or it can decide to impeach the chief of state for high treason, the final decision being taken by the High Court of Justice and Cassation (art. 96). From this perspective, the Romanian constitutional architecture seems closely related to a presidential system, with a more rigid separation of powers between the President and Parliament, or a mutual independence, according to Stepan and Skach.

Because the post-communist presidents could not dissolve Parliament, they were also unable to fully and directly control parliamentary majorities. Hence, they searched for alternative means for exercising political control over these parliamentary majorities. One solution was to maximize their political influence within the process of Government appointments, regardless of whether or not they were held at the same time as the presidential elections. The symbolic prerogative of designating a candidate for the Prime Minister’s office became an extremely powerful weapon in the hands of post-communist presidents, who used it to its full capacity in order to create or demolish parliamentary majorities.

I shall make an inventory of several explanatory factors emphasizing the President`s political influence within the Romanian post-communist constitutional system. Of course, institutional practice and the extensive research of the archives could bring to the table other explanatory factors and even invalidate the ones identified in this study.

The extra-normative factors influencing the power relations between the chief of state and other political actors are numerous and heterogeneous. They include personality, style, psychological profile of any incumbent President or Prime Minister, the political strategy of each chief of state or Government leader, and also their public messages. In fact, the political messages construct the public perception regarding the persons occupying high state offices and their personal political projects. The public perception is measured via different sociological methods, and the results of these studies generate political support or rejection of a politician or political party.

The selection process of the presidential candidates is a highly important factor which might have a relevant influence on the power relations between the chief of state, the Prime Minister, and the Parliament. Generally, in the former communist states from Central and Eastern Europe, those winning the presidential office were the most important and visible leaders of major political parties. The Romanian post-communist presidents (Ion Iliescu in 1990, Emil Constantinescu in 1996, Ion Iliescu in 2000, Traian Băsescu in 2004) were strongly mediatized public personalities, they ruled over strong political parties or electoral alliances, and maintained a strong influence over the political structures of their parties long after they won the presidential elections.

The political leaders managing the transition process from a communist non-democratic regime to a post-communist democratic regime were massively trusted by the electorate. As leaders of the transition, their popular legitimacy was huge and well consolidated before the drafting of the first democratic constitutions (the case of Czech Republic, Romania, Poland, and Hungary). Some of these leaders maintained their initial political influence over the institutional system, and transformed the President’s office in the nervous central system of the national politics (e.g., Romania, Poland, and Bulgaria cases).

In Romania, the institutional building process of the new democratic regime was influenced by the first institutional power structures of the 1989 Revolution. The relevant factor was the political parliamentary majority concentrated around the most influential political leader, also legitimized by the first free democratic elections of the new regime. This political leader became the chief of state; hence, from the beginnings of the Romanian post-communist democracy, the presidential office was perceived by the people and political actors as more important and influential than the Prime Minister’s office.

Since presidential term lengths were modified from 4 to 5 years in the constitutional revision process of 2003, different cohabitation periods have emerged between a chief of state with certain political views and a parliamentary majority supporting a Prime Minister with different political views. In such circumstances, the influence of the President over the decision making bodies (the Government and the Parliament) was diminished, yet not eliminated.

3. The jurisprudence of the Constitutional Court

The Constitutional Court not only protected, but also enforced the role of the President. It is not clear if the Court has taken upon itself this mission in order to assure a more rigid separation of power between the executive and the legislative branches of power or it has just adjudicated from case to case, influenced by the political context, the specific facts of the case, and the constitutional doctrine.

In the same time, there are couple of Constitutional Court’s decisions which did not favor the President or enforce his role; moreover, some of these decisions have the potential to significantly change the relations between the President and the parliamentary majority in the years to come.

3.1 A key decision

A key piece of Constitutional Court’s jurisprudence regarding the Romanian system of government is Decision no. 683/2012. The incumbent chief of state asked the Court to judge a legal dispute of constitutional nature between the President and the Government, represented by the Prime minister. The substance of the conflict referred to a sensitive matter, meaning who had the right to represent the Romanian state at the European Council Summit on 26-28 of June 2012: the President, who is representing the state according to art. 80 (1) of the Constitution or the Prime minister, head of the Government, who is implementing the foreign policy of the country, according to art. 103 (1) of the Constitution?

Judging this case, the Court expressed its view about the Romanian system of government, invoking Duverger’s definition of the semi-presidential system of government and the French Fifth Republic’s Constitution as a source of inspiration for the Romanian constitutional legislator in 1991.

According to the Court, the role of the President regarding the foreign policy of the state, the position of chief commander of the armed forces, president of the Supreme Council of National Defense, the competence to return the law to the Parliament for reconsideration, the competence to ask the Constitutional Court for a judgment, the competence to designate the candidate for the Prime Minister`s office, the competence to appoint an interim Prime Minister, the competence to appoint ministers, the competence to demand criminal proceedings for the members of the Government, the competence to consult the population of the country via referendum, the competence to appoint civil servants for public offices, the competence to grant individual pardons are all relevant arguments to qualify the political regime regulated by the Romanian Constitution as semi-presidential.

Following this logic, the Court ruled in favor of the chief of state, recognizing his essential role for conducting and engaging the State`s foreign affairs policies. Art. 80 (1) of the Constitution enables the President to design the main guidelines for the State`s foreign policy, thus determining the general direction of the foreign relations, always taking into consideration the national interest. Such an interpretation was based on the representative character of the presidential office, the chief of state being elected by the citizens via universal, equal, direct and freely expressed vote.

The Prime Minister, as representative of the Government, has the right to implement the country’s foreign policy, meaning that the Government will adequately implement the obligations engaged at state level. Therefore, the role of the Government in such matters is more technical than strategic.

Moreover, in regard to the participation at European Council meetings, the Court stated that the President could delegate the representation of the state to the Prime Minister when the former finds it necessary.

In two recent decisions, the Court tries to develop this argument and states that the President`s discretionary power to delegate the representation of the state to the Prime Minister is not unlimited and arbitrary; the chief of state has to take into consideration from case to case the following objective criteria: (i) which is the public authority better equipped to understand the topics debated in the European Council`s meeting; (ii) the opinion of the President or of the Prime Minister regarding such topics should be legitimized by a point of view of the Parliament consistent with the one expressed by the executive authorities; (iii) the difficulties generated by the obligation to implement the decisions of the European Council. Therefore, the President’s decision to delegate the representation of the state to the Prime Minister has to take into consideration all these criteria in order to construct a consensus among the authorities and also to take into consideration the constitutional principle of loyalty (see also Decision no. 441/2014).

Moreover, following Duverger’s definition of the semi-presidential system of government, the Court stated also that its previous jurisprudence has favored the recognition of significant powers for the President:

  • Decision no. 375/2005: the Court recognizes that the President could refuse only once, by reasoned decision, the appointment of a magistrate at the proposal of the Superior Council of Magistracy; otherwise, the presidential power to appoint a judge or a prosecutor would have been symbolic, void of any content, and this was not the intention of the constitutional legislator.
  • Decision no. 384/2006: the Court states that the President grants the ranks of Marshall, General and Admiral without any constraint or limitation provisioned by the law (see art. 94 of the Constitution).
  • Decision no. 98/2008: the Court states that the President could refuse once, by reasoned decision, the proposal of the Prime Minister to appoint a person for a vacant ministerial office. The Prime Minister is constrained to nominate another person and the President cannot refuse his/hers appointment as minister.
  • Decision no. 799/2011: the Court recognizes the need to amend the current constitutional provision of art. 85 (2) so that the Prime Minister could consult with the President before the former asks the latter to appoint or revoke one the Government’s members.

3.2 Other decisions favouring the president

In the Advisory opinions nos. 1/2007 and 1/2012, the Court states that not any acts infringing upon constitutional provisions are “grave acts” triggering the suspension of the President’s mandate. The seriousness of an act infringing upon constitutional provisions is appreciated by taking into consideration couple of factors: (i) the social value which was harmed, (ii) the already established or potential damages, (iii) the person of the offender, (iv) the scope of the action. The Court considers that “grave acts infringing upon constitutional provisions” refers only to the President`s avoidance of carrying out certain mandatory decisions, hence preventing the good functioning of the state authorities, restricting the rights and liberties of the citizens, disturbing the constitutional order or pursuing the changing of the constitutional order and other acts generating similar effects. Such an argument aims at restraining the discretionary power of the Parliament when deciding upon the suspension of the President`s mandate.

In the Advisory opinion no. 1/2007 the Court shows that the constitutional provisions as also the democratic legitimacy bestowed by the direct elections of the people “impose” an active role for the President, a vivid presence in the political life. His activity cannot resume to a symbolic role. Therefore, the President can express political opinions and options, criticize the performance of the public authorities and their representatives, and propose specific reforms and measures relevant for the national interest. Nevertheless, the President`s opinions, observations or demands do not have a decisional character; hence they do not produce legal effects. The public authorities are free to acquire or reject the President`s opinions. In any case, according to the Constitutional Court`s jurisprudence, “[…] the practicing of an active role by the President in the political and social life of the state cannot be characterized as a behavior contrary to the Constitution”. The same arguments are also used in Decision no. 53/2005 and in Decision no. 284/2014. In fact, in the latter, the Court states that the President`s right to express political opinions in accordance with his political program or to militate in order to materialize these opinions is not contrary to the constitutional interdiction regarding the membership of a political party.

In the Decision no. 682/2012, the Court considers that a referendum, regardless of its decisional or facultative nature, represents a mechanism through which national sovereignty is expressed. Therefore, even though the law does not specify a procedure for implementing the results of a consultative referendum, this type of referendum produces effects. In a democratic society, it should not be acceptable for the popular will expressed with a vast majority to be ignored by the elected representatives. The will of the people expressed both in consultative and decisional referendums cannot be ignored by the elected representatives, mainly because the referendum is the expression of the national sovereignty.

In Decision no. 80/2014, the Court rejects as unconstitutional the amendment modifying art. 103 of the Constitution, regarding the appointment procedure of the Government. According to the constitutional draft law adopted by the Special Committee for the revision of the Constitution in February 2014, the discretionary power of the President to nominate a candidate for the Prime Minister`s office was eliminated, hence cutting off the most important prerogative of the chief of state. In the Court’s opinion, the President does not play the role of a decision-maker within the procedure of appointing a new Government, but the role of a moderator between the parliamentary political forces. Nevertheless, the Court says nothing about the influence that a President could have on the outcome of the political negotiations between the parliamentary parties due to the fact that the decision to nominate a candidate for the Prime Minister`s office remains within the fully discretionary power of the chief of state.

3.3 Decisions limiting the influence of the president

Even though in its previous jurisprudence the Court established a quorum of participation of at least 50% plus one of the total number of the electors in order to validate a referendum for the dismissal of the President, the same Court agreed in 2013 that a quorum of participation of 30% of the total number of electors for all referendums (including the one for the President’s dismissal) was constitutional, but the law on referendum would enter into force one year from the date of its publication in the Official Journal (see Decision no. 471/2013). The Decision no. 471/2013 sets up the basis for a new relation between future Presidents and parliamentary political majorities; as it would be easier for an anti-presidential parliamentary majority to suspend the President and force his dismissal by referendum.

This is a clear case of politically contextualized judgment on behalf of the Court. I do not address here the issue of rightness or wrongness from a political point of view. I just say that the Court should be clearer and more decisive in its judgments. This totally different judgments of the Court offers no predictability and makes no service to the Court`s credibility.

In the Decision no. 270/2008, the Court makes it clear that the General Prosecutor will address the President to demand criminal proceedings to be taken only against those members of the Government which are not members of the Parliament. The General Prosecutor will address the Chamber of Deputy or the Senate to demand criminal proceedings to be taken only against those members of the Government which are also members of the Parliament. Such a decision diminished one of the most important prerogatives of the President, as most of the members of the Government are also deputies or senators.

At last but not least, in the Decision no. 285/2014, the Court establishes that the Prime Minister can refuse to countersign the presidential decrees conferring decorations and titles of honor. The countersignature engages the political responsibility of the Prime Minister as chief of the Government in front of the Parliament for the content of the presidential decree. According to the Court, in the absence of the Prime Minister`s countersignature, these presidential decrees cannot generate legal effects.

4. Conclusions

The practice of semi-presidentialism strayed from the initial intentions of the 1991 and 2003 constitutional legislator. From a normative perspective, the Romanian Constitution established a mild semi-presidential system of government. From an institutional practice perspective, the Romanian system of government is a classical semi-presidentialism, with a strong and influent President.

One key factor to fully understand the dynamics of the power relations between the Parliament, President and Government is the Constitutional Court`s jurisprudence. The Court was influenced by the political pressures within specific contexts, and also by the French doctrine regarding the Fifth Republic`s semi-presidentialism. As a result, our constitutional judges recognized and legitimized an influential role for the Romanian President within the constitutional architecture; hence enforcing the presidential features of an otherwise mild semi-presidentialism.

Due to the fact that the President`s role was enforced by the Court, a more rigid separation of powers was generated between the President, on one hand, the Parliament and the Government, on the other hand. Basically, no political institution gathered all the political and state power in its hands. Metaphorically speaking, the Romanian system of government looks like a broken mirror, so that no political actor could see the full reflection of his face.

[i] Mihai Constantinescu, Ion Deleanu, Antonie Iorgovan, Ioan Muraru, Florin Vasilescu, Ioan Vida, Constituţia României – comentată şi adnotată [The Romanian Constitution – analyzed and annotated] (Bucureşti: Regia Autonomă Monitorul Oficial, 1992), p. 184.

[ii] Antonie Iorgovan, Tratat de drept administrativ, vol. I [Treaty of Administrative Law, vol. I] (Bucureşti: All Beck, 2005), p. 295.

[iii]Tudor Drăganu, Drept constituțional și instituții politice, vol. I [Constitutional Law and Political Institutions, vol. I] (București: Lumina Lex, 1998), p. 228.

Bogdan Dima is a Doctor of Law of the Faculty of Law, University of Bucharest, where he is also teaching Administrative Law since 2007. He is a graduate of the same Faculty and has Bachelor and Master Degrees in European Law from Collège Juridique Franco-Roumain d’Etudes Européennes de Bucarest, Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne. His extra-academic background and expertise are highly diversified focusing mainly on strategic communication, political and electoral strategies, legislative analysis and institutional building processes. He is currently working as a counselor for the Presidential Administration in Romania, within the Institutional and Constitutional Reform Department.

Romania’s third cohabitation: old habits die hard

“If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change” – the famous line in Giovanni di Lampedusa’s celebrated novel seems to illustrate well political practices in Romania’s successive periods of cohabitation.

The election of Klaus Iohannis, the leader of the National Liberal Party (PNL), as Romania’s new president in November 2014 meant that the cohabitation between a centre-right head of state and the centre-left coalition government led by PM Ponta of the Social Democratic Party (PSD) could continue at least until the 2016 general election.

Following the high level of institutional conflict that characterized the relations between the head of state, the government, and the parliament during the two periods of cohabitation that occurred during outgoing President Băsescu’s time in office, the onset of the third cohabitation was met with high hopes for a smoother relationship between state institutions. A constitutional reform has also been suggested as a necessary step for the clarification of the roles and powers that the two members of the Romanian executive possess.

So far, though, apart from a different style of communication, few changes seem to have marked the relationship between political actors and their use of constitutional powers and political strategies. Three aspects related to the head of state’s relationship with the prime minister and his party, and the practice of variable parliamentary majorities lend support to this early conclusion.

President-prime minister relations

First, President Iohannis’ account of intra-executive relations bears out his preoccupation for the institutionalization of communication channels between the presidency and the government during cohabitation. In a recent interview, he underlined quite thoroughly the administrative boundaries which separate the institutional collaboration between the presidency and the government during cohabitation from the political role that the head of state is called on to play when a new majority forms in the parliament.

The interview followed shortly the president’s decision to nominate a political ally and PNL MEP as the new chief of the Romanian Intelligence Service (SRI). While the proposal still needs to be formally approved by the parliament, Klaus Iohannis used it as an example of the compromises, negotiations, and formal approval that such appointments require from both the President and the Prime Minister. In this context, he emphasised the purely administrative character of this kind of institutional relations, excluding any political collaboration with PM Ponta because of their different ideological differences.

President Iohannis’ careful distinction between the administrative and political nuances of the president-prime minister relationship may be explained by the failure of previous mechanisms designed to foster intra-executive cooperation during cohabitation.

The “Agreement of Institutional Collaboration between the President of Romania and the Prime Minister of the Government”, signed by President Băsescu and PM Ponta after the 2012 general election, is a case in point. More details about this unusual document can be found here and here. While lacking any constitutional or legal basis, this agreement represented the two parties’ commitment to respect the rule of law and safeguard their institutional collaboration following the 2007 and 2012 constitutional crisis that resulted in the president’s suspension by the parliament. One of the reasons why the “cohabitation pact” failed to take root and was condemned by allies of both parties alike had to do with its perception as a tool of political bargain that threatened to blur the lines of political and ideological rivalry. Hence the new head of state’s distinction between administrative channels of communication within the dual executive and the political role that the President can resume playing as soon as he has the parliamentary majority on his side.

President-own party relations

Second, President Iohannis seems in a good position to maintain control over his former party. Following his resignation as PNL leader, Klaus Iohannis successfully promoted his preferred successor to the leadership of the National Liberals. Afterwards, he has been able to designate political allies to key positions in state institutions, such as the Romanian Intelligence Service (SRI). Recently, the president criticised in no ambiguous terms the upper chamber for refusing to grant anti-corruption prosecutors permission to officially indict a PNL senator.

Changing parliamentary majorities outside general elections

Third, unlike the first two periods of cohabitation, which began as a result of changing parliamentary majorities outside general elections, the latest cohabitation started with an election but looks certain to conclude before the end of the legislature.

The sequence of cohabitation periods in Romania illustrates the impact that presidential elections may have on the balance of forces in parliament, despite their disconnection following the 2003 constitutional revision.

In 2004, the pre-electoral coalition formed by the ruling PSD and the Conservative Party won a plurality of votes and seats. However, the Conservatives switched sides to participate in a centre-right coalition after Traian Băsescu won the presidential race and nominated the leader of the National Liberals as prime minister.

President Băsescu’s time in office was marked by the occurrence of two periods of cohabitation that were triggered by changing majorities outside general elections: first in 2007, when President Băsescu’s Democratic Party walked out of the coalition government with the National Liberals; and second in 2012, when the ruling coalition, which included the president’s party, lost a no-confidence vote and was replaced by a PSD-PNL coalition government.

Finally, 2015 looks likely to see a social-democratic splinter group supporting a no confidence motion against the incumbent PSD-led cabinet in exchange for participation in the next coalition government with the National Liberals and the Hungarian minority party (UDMR). These are the circumstances President Iohannis referred to when he highlighted the political role the head of state is called on to play when a new majority is formed in the parliament. When these conditions are met, the President noted, he will be ready to appoint his government, led by the National Liberal Party.

Therefore, despite differences in time sequencing, the practice of changing legislative majorities outside general elections remains the driving force behind the alternation of unified government and cohabitation in Romania. Moreover, despite changing the style of institutional collaboration within the dual executive, President Iohannis seems well adapted to the practice of manufacturing ideologically heterogeneous parliamentary majorities outside elections. Overall, taking into account his current authority over the PNL, there is little to suggest a decrease in the Romanian president’s influence over the political system in the short run.

Thomas Sedelius – Semi-Presidentialism and Intra-Executive Conflict

This is a guest post by Thomas Sedelius, Dalarna University, Sweden.

Thomas Sedelius

The journal East European Politics (EEP) has awarded the 2013 EEP prize  to Thomas Sedelius & Olga Mashtaler for their article “Two Decades of Semi-Presidentialism: Issues of Intra-Executive Conflict in Central and Eastern Europe 1991-2011” as “the most outstanding article in the field of study from the previous year’s volume”. This post summarises the argument in the article. 

As semi-presidentialism has become a very popular form of government worldwide and has appeared as the most common one in Central and Eastern Europe, there are strong reasons for the academic community to go further into analysing the operation of semi-presidentialism and its sub-types.

A built-in risk of semipresidentialism is the occurrence of intra-executive conflict between the president and the prime minister. Although there are few empirically oriented studies substantiating the assumed risks associated with intra-executive conflict, there is a belief in the literature that intra-executive conflict is a “peril” of semi-presidentialism. With few exceptions (e.g. Protsyk 2005, 2006; Sedelius and Ekman 2010) the phenomenon of intra-executive conflict in semi-presidential regimes remains underexplored. From Eastern Europe there are a number of cases where we can observe that intra-executive conflict has been present and has resulted in negative effects such as political instability and stalemate policy situations, e.g. between President Walesa and several prime ministers in Poland 1991–95, between President Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yanukovych in Ukraine 2006–07, and between President Basescu and Prime Minister Ponta in Romania 2012, just to mention a few.

Our article systematically examines intra-executive conflict in eight semi-presidential countries in Central and Eastern Europe from 1991-2011. We ask: To what extent is intra-executive conflict a persistent phenomenon in post-communist semi-presidential regimes? How does the type of semi-presidentialism matter to the frequency of conflict? Has the nature of conflict shifted over the course of the post-communist period in terms of issue and character? Do intra-executive conflicts primarily include differing policy orientations between the president and the cabinet, or do they predominantly reflect power struggles over constitutional prerogatives and domains of influence? Our premier–presidential cases are Bulgaria 1991–2011, Croatia 2000–2011, Lithuania 1991–2011, Moldova 1991–2000,3 Poland 1991–2011, Romania 1991–2011, and Ukraine 2006–10.The president–parliamentary cases are Croatia 1992–2000, Russia 1991–2011, Ukraine 1991–2006, and 2010–2011.

We adhere to the standard academic definition that semi-presidentialism is where the constitution includes both a popularly elected president and a prime minister and cabinet accountable to the parliament (Elgie 1999). In addition, we separate premier-presidentialism, where the prime minister and cabinet are collectively responsible solely to the legislature, from president-parliamentarism, where both the prime minister and cabinet are collectively responsible to both the legislature and the president (Shugart and Carey 1992). Intra-executive conflict is defined by us as struggles between the president and the prime minister/cabinet over the control of the executive branch. In order to have a more operational definition, the relationship between the president and the cabinet is considered as conflict-ridden when there has been an observable clash between the president and the prime minister and/or between the president and other government ministers, manifested through obstructive or antagonistic behaviour from either side, directed towards the other. The level of intra-executive conflict is then compressed into ordinal estimations of low and high conflict.

Initially we formulated some theoretically derived propositions regarding the trend and issues of conflict. We expected:

1) more frequent occurrences of intra-executive conflict under premier–presidentialism than under president–parliamentary systems,

2) more frequent occurrences of intra-executive conflict under cohabitation (premier-presidentialism only) than under a united executive.

3) more frequent occurrences of intra-executive conflicts in the earliest period following the transition and then a gradual decrease as the institutionalisation process continued.

4) conflicts emanating from confrontations over formal rules of the game to be most frequent in the earliest period following the transition and then a gradual decrease as the institutionalisation process continued.

Based on expert survey data as well as indicators derived from documents and literature analysis, 76 instances of intra-executive relations between 1991 and 2011 were examined.

Strong support was provided only for the second proposition above, i.e. intra-executive conflict has clearly been more frequent under periods of cohabitation than under united executives. The remaining three propositions found weak or no support in our data. Intra-executive conflict has occurred frequently under both types of semi-presidentialism, and has persisted at similar levels throughout the post-communist era. In addition, we found that over time the character of conflicts have only slightly changed from being predominantly power struggles over formal rules and competences to being more issue-specific and policy-oriented.

Reservations regarding the limited number of cases are of course necessary, especially when separating between premier-presidentialism and president-parliamentarism.

Intra-executive conflict illustrates one of the main challenges of semipresidentialism, i.e. the often vaguely defined, and partly overlapping, competences between the president and the prime minister. Many conflicts are essentially a pure struggle for domination, power, and influence within the executive branch. Clashes over appointments, dismissals, policy reforms, and constitutional prerogatives are often logical expressions of the institutional competition embedded into the dual executive structure of semi-presidentialism. Apparently, intra-executive conflict has not led to the collapse of democratisation in the premier–presidential systems of Central and Eastern Europe. Periods of strong conflict may in fact demonstrate a normal and healthy sign of any maturing political system and the absence of such manifest conflicts (e.g. Putin’s Russia) could be a worrying sign of increasing authoritarianism. But intra-executive conflict poses considerable strains on transitional countries since it negatively affects cabinet stability and policy effectiveness. We need to know more about if, when, and under what conditions intra-executive conflict may also pose a serious threat to democratisation and regime stability.

References

Elgie, Robert, ed. 1999. Semi-Presidentialism in Europe. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Protsyk, Oleh. 2005. ”Politics of Intra-executive Conflict in Semi-presidential Regimes in Eastern Europe.” East European Politics and Society 18 (2): 1–20.

Protsyk, Oleh. 2006.”Intra-executive Competition between President and Prime Minister: Patterns of Institutional Conflict and Cooperation in Semi-presidential Regimes.” Political Studies 56 (2): 219–241.

Sedelius, Thomas & Joakim Ekman. 2010. “Intra-executive Conflict and Cabinet Instability: Effects of Semi-presidentialism in Central and Eastern Europe.” 45 (4): 505–530.

Sedelius, Thomas & Joakim Ekman. 2010. “Intra-executive Conflict and Cabinet Instability: Effects of Semi-presidentialism in Central and Eastern Europe.” Government and Opposition 45 (4): 505–530.

Shugart, M. S., and J. M. Carey. 1992. Presidents and Assemblies: Constitutional Design and Electoral Dynamics. New York: Cambridge University Press.

The full text article is free to download here [http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/21599165.2012.748662#.VNS56k10ylY]

Thomas Sedelius is Associate Professor in Political Science at Dalarna University, Sweden. His research covers semi-presidentialism, political institutions, transition, democratisation, and East European politics. In addition to a number of articles, his publications include The Tug-of-War between Presidents and Prime Ministers: Semi-Presidentialism in Central and Eastern Europe (Örebro Studies, 2006) and Demokratiseringsprocesser: nya perspektiv och utmaningar (Studentlitteratur, 2014, with Joakim Ekman & Jonas Linde). Thomas currently leads a research project (2015-2018) financed by the Swedish Research Council on semi-presidentialism and governability in transitional countries.

Olga Mashtaler is a researcher and PhD student at the National University of “Kyiv-Mohyla Academy”, Kiev. She currently (2014-15) holds a guest scholarship at Örebro University granted by the Swedish Institute. Her research covers political culture, political institutions, semi-presidentialism and East European politics.

…and a happy New Year! Christmas and New Year’s addresses by European heads of state

Every year millions of Britons gather in front of their ‘tellies’ to watch the Queen’s annual Christmas message. This year, over 7.8m viewers saw and heard her speak on the topic of reconciliation in the light of the WW I centenary and were delighted by references to her visit to the set of ‘Games of Thrones’, making it the UK’s Christmas TV highlight (it attracted 1.5m more viewers than the ‘Doctor Who’ Christmas special and 2m more viewers than the Christmas episode of the period drama ‘Downtown Abbey’). Given that this blog deals with presidents, i.e. non-hereditary heads of state, writing about the Queen’s Christmas message might be peculiar for some readers. Nevertheless, the tradition of addressing the nation has – in the European context – first been documented for monarchs, with presidents continuing this tradition.

Queen Elizabeth's (left) Royal Christmas Message is one the most watched Christmas address by a head of state worldwide; German president Gauck (right) is one of only two presidents in Europe to deliver his holiday address on Christmas.

Queen Elizabeth’s (left) Royal Christmas Message is one the most watched Christmas addresses by a head of state worldwide; German president Gauck (right) is one of only three presidents in Europe to deliver his holiday address on Christmas Day.

British monarchs have only addressed the nation at Christmas since 1932 (on proposal of the BBC’s founding director). Earlier examples of public addresses to the nation on the occasion of Christmas or the New Year have been documented for Kings of Denmark and the German Emperor since the late 19th century. Starting with general well-wishes for the New Year and/or Christmas, holiday addresses have now developed into more elaborate speeches which are designed to reach a wide audience. Apart from general remarks about the holiday season and a short review of the last year, heads of state also often highlight specific themes in their message. Thereby, the degree to which the content is ‘political’ tends to vary with the constitutional position of the head of state. In the European monarchies the content is often coordinated with the government (although much this process – like so many interactions between constitutional monarchs and elected representatives – remains shrouded in secrecy) and themes or highlights tend to be rather uncontroversial. Likewise, indirectly elected presidents – with some exceptions – only rarely include strong political statements or use speeches to express entirely new opinions. In Switzerland, New Year’s Day coincides with the inauguration of a new Federal President (the head of the collegial executive), so that the president’s New Year’s Address is simultaneously an inaugural address and does not necessarily follow this pattern. Popularly elected presidents are generally more likely to use this annual tradition to talk about (specific) policy. For instance, French president Francois Hollande spoke about economic reforms (several of which take effect 1 January 2015) and Cypriot president Nikos Anastasiadis outlined plans for modernisation of the state.

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Apart from this divide, a less relevant albeit interesting division between presidents and monarchs appears in Europe. Apart from Germany, the Czech Republic and Malta, presidents address the nation on New Year’s Eve/New Year’s Day (the Irish president provides a combined message), while the majority of monarchs (with Norway, Denmark and Monaco being the exception) deliver their message on Christmas Day. Hereby, it needs to be noted that German presidents until 1970 delivered their speech on New Year’s Day (which means they switched with the Chancellor). Czech presidents also gave New Year’s addresses until president Zeman returned to the pre-1949 tradition of delivering his speech at Christmas after his inauguration in 2013. I have tried to find reasons for the divide between presidents and monarchs, yet have not found any palpable evidence. Monarchs’ tendency to deliver Christmas messages might be related to their role in national churches (although this does not explain the Danish and Norwegian exceptions). Presidents on the other hand, deliver messages on the relatively world-view-‘neutral’ New Year’s Eve/Day. In Central and Eastern Europe, Communist leaders naturally avoided giving speeches on or related to Christmas Day. After the fall of Communism, this tradition was retained by the new democratic leaders. The Lithuanian and Romanian president form the general exception from all other European heads of state. While both issue short press statements to wish their citizens a happy Christmas and New Year, neither gives a specific speech. The Prince of Liechtenstein does not even that.

Although Christmas and New Year’s messages rarely belong to the most important political speeches in European democracies. Nevertheless, they reflect – although in varying degrees – not only the institutional arrangements of European democracies. Furthermore, they shed light on how political traditions develop (be it formally or informally) and can carry on from one regime to another (monarchy to republic; autocracy to democracy).

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A list with links to this year’s Christmas and New Year’s Addresses can be found here (if available the link is to an English version) –> Links to speeches 2014-2015
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Should you know more about the history and practice of Chrismas/New Year’s messages by heads of state in the countries discussed above, please let us know in the comment section below.