Romania – The Judicial System and the Role of the President

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

 

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

 

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