Tag Archives: legislative powers

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.

Bulgaria – President Plevneliev’s second bid for a voting rules referendum

The Bulgarian president’s power to propose referenda is relatively weak. This, however, did not stop President Plevneliev from seeking a referendum on voting rules in 2014. The opposing Socialist-led majority in parliament eventually defeated his campaign. The president has nevertheless pledged to resume his efforts to trigger a national poll in 2015, following last year’s snap election and the formation of the centre-right coalition government led by PM Borissov’s GERB.

The head of state has a rather marginal involvement in the procedure for the calling of national referenda. While he or she has the right to put forward a proposal for a popular poll, the constitutional power to decide on the holding of a national referendum belongs entirely to the National Assembly (article 84). Under the new referendum law, which limits considerably the subject matters that can be put to a popular vote, one-fifth of all MPs, the government, one-fifth of all municipal councils, or a citizens’ initiative committee that gathered at least 200,000 signatures can also ask the Parliament to consider a referendum proposal. Additionally, a national referendum must be held if so demanded by a petition signed by at least 500,000 citizens (article 10).

If the parliament votes to hold the referendum, then the president must schedule the poll on a date that is not earlier than two months and not later than three months from the parliament’s decision (article 14). To be valid, a referendum also requires a higher turnout than that registered at the previous general election and the support of at least half of the voting participants (article 23). This means that any referendum held before the next general election needs a higher turnout than 51.05 per cent, which was recorded at the October 2014 election. If both conditions are met, then the Parliament must amend the law accordingly. However, if the turnout is lower than this threshold, but higher than 20 per cent of registered voters, then the Parliament only needs to discuss and vote on the referendum matter (articles 23-24).

President Plevneliev has taken different approaches to introduce his two bids for a voting rules referendum. He first brought this proposal into public debate in January 2014, following many months of street protests against the ruling Socialist-led coalition and just a few weeks ahead of a parliamentary vote on a new election law.

In a televised address to the nation, the head of state proposed a referendum on three aspects that were meant to increase the accountability of politicians and restore public trust in political institutions: the direct election of at least some of the 240 MPs who are currently chosen from semi-open party lists, and the introduction of compulsory voting and e-voting. Given the president’s opposition to the government’s new Election Code, which he also vetoed several weeks later, the referendum proposal was interpreted as routine infighting between the government and the head of state.

Shortly after the National Assembly overturned the president’s veto and turned down his referendum proposal, a petition supported by more than 560,000 signatures was brought to the parliament. The petition called for a poll on the same three questions and the signatures had been gathered with support from GERB, the main opposition party. Eventually, the number of valid signatures fell short of the 500,000 threshold that would have made it mandatory for MPs to call a referendum, but was still large enough to require a debate in the parliament. However, given that GERB was the only party to support the president’s call, the citizen initiative was easily rejected by the ruling parties in June 2014.

The president’s second attempt to trigger a voting rules referendum is currently on-going under different circumstances. The October 2014 snap election brought to office a new centre-right coalition government led by GERB, the party that supported president Plevneliev’s candidacy in 2011. This political change allowed the head of state to take a more conciliatory route to re-introduce the referendum on the political agenda.

Voting rules featured as one of the five major themes proposed for discussion during the President’s “Month of Political Consultations” with parliamentary parties. This consensual framework of discussion has allowed the president to re-launch the referendum initiative as an all-party agreement, even if the Socialist party is still opposing vehemently this idea. Thus, addressing the parliament following the conclusion of political talks, President Plevneliev underlined not only his firm intention to propose a new referendum, but also the all-party consensus to have this poll held alongside local elections, which are scheduled for the next October or November.

The details of the procedure to be followed – whether a parliamentary vote on the president’s referendum proposal will suffice or if the route of a citizen initiative needs to be taken again – will be determined in the coming weeks. In the meantime, small parties are also trying to take advantage of this process to initiate further changes that could end the big parties’ monopoly over the initiation of referenda. For example, a bill tabled by the left-wing ABV, one of GERB’s small coalition partners, proposes that 150,000 signatures should be enough for the parliament to consider a referendum initiative, while the number of signatures required for calling a referendum should be reduced to 300,000. Additionally, ABV argues that the participation threshold should be lowered to 40 per cent of the eligible voters and supports the introduction of a mixed-member proportional system.