“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.