Tag Archives: President Iohannis

Romania – The politics of the fourth cohabitation

Less than a month after the general election held on December 11, a new government formally took office in Romania. As anticipated, a two-party coalition was formed between the Social Democratic Party (PSD), represented by 221 MPs in the 465-seats bicameral parliament, and the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), which holds 29 seats. The Hungarian minority party (UDMR), which won 30 seats in the election, signed a parliamentary support agreement with the ruling coalition but decided to stay out of government. Counting in the support of the 17 representatives of the national minorities, the government majority is only 13 seats shy of the two-thirds majority required for a constitutional amendment. The two ruling parties also seized the top legislative posts: PSD’s chairman Liviu Dragnea claimed the leadership of the Chamber of Deputies, while the Senate presidency went to the ALDE leader and former prime minister Călin Popescu-Tăriceanu.

While little time was spent on PSD-ALDE coalition negotiations, President Iohannis’ involvement in government formation delayed the appointment of a new prime minister and came close to triggering a new constitutional crisis. The Constitution grants the head of state some discretion in identifying a prime minister candidate, but the final decision on the approval of a new government rests with the parliament. The president’s actual influence on who gets the PM post depends on political context and is usually limited to situations when either a presidential majority exists in parliament or a deep political crisis opens a window of opportunity for the head of state to put together a “crisis-solving” government. The latter scenario took place in November 2015, when President Iohannis appointed a technocratic government led by former European Commissioner for Agriculture Dacian Cioloş after the then PSD government led by PM Ponta stepped down amid country-wide anti-corruption protests. As the National Liberal Party (PNL) together with the other centre-right groupings barely control 36% of the parliamentary seats in the current legislature, the head of state seemed to have hardly any leeway in the exercise of his PM appointment powers.  However, President Iohannis found a way to hinder PSD’s efforts to dictate the formation of the post-election government.

First, he used a 2001 law that forbids convicted persons to be appointed to government as a legal ground to bar PSD’s leader Liviu Dragnea from becoming prime minister on account of a two-year probation sentence for electoral fraud he received in 2015. Dragnea admitted he was unable to claim the PM post for himself “for the time being”,  but made it clear he had a free hand from the party to make appointments to cabinet and hold the executive accountable for its actions. Consequently, his first nomination for the PM post was Sevil Shhaideh, a PSD member without a personal power base in the party but one of his longstanding collaborators and loyal supporters. President Iohannis rejected Shhaideh’s nomination without formally motivating his decision. Her Syrian husband’s ties with President Bashar al-Assad’s regime was however seen as the main reason for the president’s unprecedented move to turn down a PM nomination. The PSD-ALDE coalition reacted with threats to initiate the proceedings for the president’s impeachment. This episode ended with President Iohannis’ acceptance of the Social Democrats’ second proposal for prime minister. Sorin Grindeanu, a relatively unfamiliar figure for the general public despite having been a minister in the PSD government ousted in November 2015, presented his cabinet and won the parliament’s investiture vote held on January 4 with 295 votes against 133.

PM Grindeanu’s cabinet profile: “politics is made elsewhere”

 Ministerial portfolios in PM Grindeanu’s cabinet are distributed among the two parties in strict proportion with their legislative seat-shares.

While most members in PM Grindeanu’s cabinet have some experience in national or local politics, few of them are high-profile politicians. About half of the ministers, including PM Grindeanu and deputy PM Sevil Shhaideh, have held posts in previous PSD cabinets. They occupy more or less the same portfolios they held before, despite having left few notable traces in their respective domains. Some of them come from local public administration (Sorin Grindeanu and Sevil Shhaideh fit this profile as well). Only half of the ministers were selected from among the sitting parliamentarians and not many of them have been key figures in their party’s national or local organizations. Moreover, despite PSD’s heavy criticism of the previous government’s technocratic nature, three of the cabinet members have no formal political affiliation. Additionally, several ministers are involved in corruption investigations or other controversies. As a matter of fact, PSD’s governing programme does not contain any references to continuing the fight against corruption.

Arguably, the ministers’ lack of personal notoriety makes them more susceptible to direct party control. The prime minister himself is better known as a local politician, due to his recent election as president of the Timiş City Council, despite having been a deputy in the 2012-2016 legislature and a minister in PM Ponta’s last cabinet. Although a longstanding PSD member, Sorin Grindeanu has never held a key position in the party’s national executive. That said, it is not unprecedented for a prime minister not to be a party leader as well. For example, PM Ponta stepped down as PSD leader in July 2015, after prosecutors from the National Anti-Corruption Directorate (DNA) opened a corruption investigation against him (ironically, he was succeeded as party leader by Liviu Dragnea, who had already received a one-year suspended jail sentence for electoral fraud). Even in the French Fifth Republic, where control over the party machinery is often thought a prerequisite for the exercise of key executive roles, Lionel Jospin willingly resigned as leader of the Socialist Party before taking office as prime minister in 1997 (also at the beginning of cohabitation with President Chirac). In these cases, though, the prime ministers’ political authority over their governments’ actions and even on their parties was not questioned. This is hardly the case with PM Grindeanu, who lacks a personal power base in the party. In fact, one might be hard pressed to find another example of a prime minister stating that his cabinet has a purely administrative role, as “politics is made elsewhere”.

All important decisions following the general election have been announced by PSD’s leader Liviu Dragnea, including the formal presentation of PM Grindeanu’s list of ministers. In fact, he repeatedly stated that the government is directly accountable on the party line and that he will personally monitor each minister’s performance. Dragnea has also taken over announcements concerning the steps taken by the government to fulfill the generous promises of the Social-Democratic programme, such as the swift elimination of the income tax for small pensions. Thus, as leader of the main governing party and president of the Chamber of Deputies, Liviu Dragnea possesses all essential tools to control and speed up executive actions, acting as the country’s most powerful politician.

President Iohannis’ role in the fourth cohabitation

Although this is Romania’s fourth spell of cohabitation, it is the first time that a general election brought it about. There are good chances it will also be Romania’s longest cohabitation to date, as the next presidential election is not due before late 2019. Therefore, one can only speculate about the role President Iohannis will choose to play from now on, especially if he intends to run for a second mandate. Granted, it is too early to tell if he will attempt to redefine his role as the leader of the opposition, like his predecessor did in 2007 and 2012. However, there are signs he might be willing to take a more active role in the confrontation with the ruling coalition.

For example, the head of state delivered a tough speech at the government’s swearing-in ceremony on January 4. On this occasion, he picked holes in the governing programme for not specifying how it will manage to keep the budgetary deficit under 3%, while making populist promises to increase salaries and pensions and cut down the VAT. He also hinted at the ministers’ inability to answer basic questions related to the governing programme during the parliamentary hearings, which were cut down to only 30 minutes for each minister.

Notable among the president’s latest actions were also his blasting comments on the Ombudsman’s decision to challenge the law banning convicted persons to join the government to the Constitutional Court. In fact, the Ombudsman’s action is generally seen as a blatant attempt to ease Liviu Dragnea’s future accession to the prime ministership. The president made similar harsh remarks several days later, when he warned the government against attempting to pass a law on amnesty and pardon of convicted or prosecuted politicians. He also pledged support to the DNA’s internationally recognised anti-corruption fight and vowed to use his veto powers against legislative and executive actions directed towards the weakening of anti-corruption legislation.

Whether such pledges can still pay off electorally – a view the latest polls did not seem to support – or have any political effects in the face of PSD’ solid parliamentary majority remains to be seen. For the time being, the PSD-ALDE majority has just engineered the government’s ability to govern through emergency ordinances that do not require the president’s approval while the parliament has convened for an extraordinary session.

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.