Tag Archives: PM Ciolos

2016 Romanian Parliamentary Election: Pre-Election Report

 

Romania is almost mid-way through the electoral campaign leading up to the parliamentary election due on 11 December. Although the results are unlikely to take anybody by surprise, especially if last summer’s local election is anything to go by, the general election brings several novelties.

First, there is a change in electoral rules, as the mixed-member system used in the 2008 and 2012 elections has been replaced by the closed-list proportional system, which was employed until 2004. Second, while the left-wing Social Democrats (PSD) and the centre-right National Liberal Party (PNL) are expected to top the polls, probably in this order, neither looks likely to win an outright majority. As a result, the composition of the next government will be decided by the performance of several small parties that are hoping to pass the 5% national threshold. Third, this electoral campaign is one of the least personalised in the history of Romanian post-communist elections, as all party leaders have refrained from throwing their hats into the ring for the prime minister post. While the centre-right parties have coalesced around Dacian Cioloş, the independent Prime Minister who took office one year ago, the social democrats are refusing to make any nominations for a prime minister candidate. So far, President Iohannis has refrained from getting involved in the electoral campaign.

Return of the closed-list proportional system

 After experimenting with a mixed electoral system in the 2008 and 2012 elections, 2016 marks the return to the closed-list proportional system that was used for general elections until 2004. Romania’s version of a mixed electoral system combined a single round of voting in single-member constituencies with a complicated system of seat allocation for parties that surpassed an electoral threshold of 5%. Candidates who won over 50% of the votes in single-member constituencies were automatically elected and the remaining seats were distributed among the political parties first at the county level and then at the national level. The complex rules of the redistribution of seats had two key effects that rendered the system highly unpopular.

First, candidates who were ranked third or even fourth in a constituency were elected at the expense of candidates who were ranked second in the same constituency, depending on the quota that their parties reached in the respective counties. Second, in the 2012 election, the success of the PSD-PNL coalition in the single-member constituencies generated 118 overhang seats, bringing the total number of MPs to 588. The increase in the number of parliamentarians was all the more negatively perceived as in a referendum passed in 2009 the vast majority of voters opted to reduce the number of parliamentarians to 300.

Overall, voting in single-member districts did not seem to increase the quality of representation as it had been hoped. The Romanian parliament continued to be hit by corruption scandals; party switching in parliament did not slow down and remained as serious a threat to government stability as it had been before 2008; the ties between citizens and their representatives showed no signs of strengthening; and the MPs’ involvement in legislative activities did not increase. Under these circumstances, the parliamentary parties decided to return to the closed-list proportional system that had been used until 2008. The new electoral law was passed by parliament in June 2015.

Under the new law, 312 deputies and 136 senators will be elected in a two-tier system. The country is divided in 42 administrative counties, with a 43rd constituency dedicated to Romanian citizens living abroad. Additionally, 18 seats are reserved for ethnic minorities. Similar to 2004, the size of district magnitude in the lower chamber ranges from 2 to 29 in capital Bucharest, with an average of around 7. The electoral thresholds are kept to the 2000-2004 level, with a 5% national threshold for single parties and 8%-10% for alliances. A party failing the 5% national threshold may still get into the parliament if it obtains 20% of all votes cast in at least 4 counties. The alternative threshold might favour the party representing ethnic Hungarians in Romania, UDMR, whose support is concentrated in Transylvania.

Post-electoral coalitions

Over the last year, the country has been governed by a technocratic cabinet led by former European Commissioner Dacian Cioloş. The previous PSD government resigned in November 2015 amid country-wide protests against corruption in central and local administration. However, the unprecedented wave of protests that swept Romania just one year ago fell short of shaking the party system. The old parties still hold the monopoly over the political system and the composition of the next parliament is unlikely to look very different from the present one. The results of the local elections held in June have confirmed the clear domination of the two biggest parties. PSD topped the polls across the country with almost 38%, including an unprecedented victory in the race for Bucharest mayor, while President Iohannis’ centre-right PNL scored nearly 32% of the vote nationally.

That said, anti-system feelings did fuel the emergence of a new political party that condemns the endemic corruption of traditional parties. In the local election held this summer, Union Save Bucharest came second in the battle for the mayor of Bucharest. The party will run in the general election as Save Romania Union (USR) and is expected it to win around 10% of the votes according to opinion polls. USR has continued to play the anti-system card that paid off in the local election and has refused to engage in pre-electoral talks. The party is nevertheless expected to join PNL in a coalition government if it enters the parliament. Several ministers stepped down from the PM Cioloş’ cabinet to run on USR lists in the general election. The Hungarian minority party, UDMR, which could contribute 5% of legislative seats, might also join the PNL-USR coalition. Another potential coalition partner for the PNL could be former President Băsescu’s Popular Movement Party (PMP), which broke away from the Liberal Democratic Party (PDL) in 2013. The other PDL faction merged with PNL in 2014 and supported Klaus Iohannis as a common candidate in the 2014 presidential election. Thus, PMP would not be the most unnatural of partners for the PNL, despite President Băsescu’s bellicose attitude towards his former allies. The former president tops the Senate list in Bucharest, but his party is currently trailing below the 5% threshold.

In comparison to the National Liberals, the Social Democrats have fewer options for a post-electoral coalition. In fact, the party has ruled out any coalition partner except for the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), a merger between a PNL faction and the Conservative Party (PC), which won 6% in the local election. Given that PSD is expected to poll around 35-40% and it should also benefit from the redistribution of mandates at national level, a PSD-ALDE coalition might suffice for a parliamentary majority. While no other parties are expected to pass the electoral threshold, minority governments have previously been formed in Romania with support from the ethnic minorities, who hold 18 seats, and independent MPs.

Prospective prime ministers

So far, the electoral campaign has been one of the least personalised in the history of Romanian post-communist elections. For different reasons, the two big parties, PNL and PSD, have refrained from nominating their leaders as frontrunners for the PM position.

The PNL is still in search of leaders for top national positions and the party once again had to look outside for a candidate for the PM post. Although the technocratic government experienced its fair share of mishaps, PM Cioloş is still seen as one of the most effective players in the anti-corruption fight. At first, President Iohannis and the PNL tried to condition their support for the independent PM on his formally joining the party if he wished to continue in office after the election. USR also courted the incumbent PM. However, a few weeks before the electoral campaign started, PM Cioloş launched a political platform outlining the basic principles of his governing program and pledged not to stand in the elections and not to join a political party. Moreover, Cioloş ruled out entering a PNL-PSD government or any government that would include PSD. Under these circumstances, both PNL and USR rushed to endorse the “Romania 100” platform and nominate Cioloş for the top government post. The prime minister accepted the two parties’ nomination, despite his initial reluctance to be associated with any political party during the campaign.

The Social-Democrats strongly oppose PM Cioloş’ political platform but have so far refused to nominate their own candidate. In this way, the party hopes to avoid losing the election due to the mobilization of voters against unpopular or corrupt politicians, as it was the case in 2014, when former PM Ponta lost the presidential election to PNL’s Klaus Iohannis (it is worth remembering, though, that Iohannis was also seen by many as an outsider to the PNL, just like PM Cioloş). In fact, Liviu Dragnea, the current PSD leader, is largely expected to take up the PM position if the PSD and ALDE obtain a majority of seats. As Dragnea received a two-year probation sentence for electoral fraud earlier this year, his nomination ahead of the election would be an easy target for the PNL-USR campaign, which have committed to support PM Cioloş’ national anticorruption strategy.

To sum up, in the 2016 general election Romanians are faced with a choice between two options. On the one hand, a heterogenous, unbalanced, and potentially unstable centre-right coalition, which has nevertheless found common ground in supporting an independent prime minister who is committed to continue the anti-corruption fight. On the other hand, a return to the PSD administration, whose former prime minister was indicted on corruption charges and would probably not hesitate to place another leader sentenced for vote-rigging in the prime minister office.

 

Romania – Local elections results and the road to the November general election

Romania held local elections on Sunday June 5th. The results show the clear domination of the two biggest parties. Left-wing Social Democrats (PSD) topped the polls across the country with almost 38%, including an unprecedented victory in Bucharest. President Iohannis’ centre-right National Liberal Party (PNL) scored nearly 32% of the vote nationally but experienced a humiliating defeat in Bucharest, where it was not only defeated by PSD, but also outperformed by a new anti-establishment party. Other parties that came close to the 5% national threshold were ALDE, a small PSD ally, which scored 6.31%, the Hungarian minority party (UDMR) with 5.33% and former President Băsescu’s People’s Movement Party (PMP) with 4.27%.

The local election was the first national poll after the PSD government led by Victor Ponta resigned last November following a deadly night club fire in Bucharest that triggered massive street protests against corruption in central and local administration. Since then the country has been led by a technocratic government led by former European Commissioner Dacian Cioloş, who is expected to remain in office until the general election due in November.

A number of factors explain the success of the Social Democrats. To start with, the election rules, which combine a one-round majoritarian first-past-the-post system for the election of mayors with a proportional list system for the election of local and city councils, advantage incumbent mayors. As the largest party in Romania’s parliament throughout the post-communist period and the main governing party since 2012, PSD benefits from strong support among the poor and the elderly, strong local structures and access to state budget revenues. Consequently, as the local elections were approaching, city mayors and other officials were increasingly seen to switch sides and join the PSD ranks in an attempt to increase their re-election chances.

In spite of the anti-corruption mass demonstrations that triggered the PSD government’s fall last November, the party appears to have paid a small electoral price for its casualities in Romania’s ongoing crackdown on corruption. In 2015, PSD’s former leader and prime minister Victor Ponta was charged with tax evasion and money laundering. Liviu Dragnea, Ponta’s successor as PSD leader, received a two-year suspended jail sentence for electoral fraud less than two months before the June poll. Other local officials, including Bucharest’s general mayor and 5 other district mayors, were indicted for corruption in 2015. And yet, many of them ran for re-election and won, as the Romanian law allows anybody who has been indicted of corruption but not yet convicted to run for office. For example, one of PSD’s district mayors in Bucharest was re-elected with over 60% of the vote despite being under investigation on corruption charges. Thus, graft revelations do not seem to jeopardize the party’s chances to return to power after the November general contest. Instead, voters’ discontent with corrupt politicians may yet again translate into absenteeism (turnout in local elections was only 48%, one of the lowest in Romania’s post-communist electoral history).

Another factor explaining PSD’s success across the country and particularly in Bucharest is the fragmentation of the centre-right and the internal divisions in the National Liberal Party. In the race for the Bucharest mayor’s seat, PSD topped the polls with 43% of the votes, well above the country average, and also won all of the six district mayor seats in the capital. Nicuşor Dan, a civil society activist and leader of Save Bucharest Union (USB),  a new anti-system party that condemns the endemic corruption of traditional parties, won the second place in the race for the mayor seat scoring 30.5% of the vote. USB also came second in the election for Bucharest’s general council and in three of the six races for the capital districts. PNL won a distant third place, scoring 11% in the race for Bucharest mayor and 14.5% of the votes for the general council. Several other candidates from centre-right groupings totalled about 10% in the race for the mayor post. Thus, had the centre-right been able to rally around the best-placed candidate, the social democrats could have been defeated.

A common view is that PNL lost the Bucharest race because of obvious campaign mistakes but also due to the lack of strong central leadership and clear national strategies. In fact, the merger between the two centre-right groupings that came together ahead of the 2014 presidential election to support Klaus Iohannis as a joint candidate is still not complete. The party needed three unsuccessful nominations for the Bucharest mayor post before Cătălin Predoiu, a former justice minister and leader of the Bucharest organization, reluctantly accepted to enter the race. A strategy aimed at attracting new voters has also been lacking. The party proves unable to mobilize the wave of undecided voters who contributed to president Iohannis’ election in the 2014 runoff and the anti-corruption protesters who toppled PM Ponta’s government last year.

USB’s strong performance in Bucharest may change the two-party dynamics of the general election contest. Plans have already been announced for the party to run in the November general election as Save Romania Union (USR). A repeat of the Bucharest scenario in other major cities means that USR will be eroding PNL’s centre-right electorate. It remains to be seen whether USR intends to play the anti-system card in the general election and take advantage of the protest vote against the corrupt political elite, or if a centre-right alliance will be forged to prevent the PSD and its allies from securing an outright parliamentary majority. However, such an alliance will not take place without a leadership change in the PNL. Given the absence of a charismatic leader and an obvious party candidate for the prime minister post, many see PM Cioloş as an appropriate choice to lead the centre-right coalition in the general election. Indirectly, President Iohannis also seems to signal his preference for this scenario.

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.