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

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

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

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

The groundwork for a would be functional political marriage

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

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

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

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

Institutional conditionality and tamed cohabitation

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

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

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

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

Government stability, but to what end?

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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