Tag Archives: Romania

Romania: the strategic use of referendums. Power to the people (later)!

by Veronica Anghel, Johns Hopkins University – SAIS Europe and Institute for Central Europe, Vienna

Spontaneous anti-government protest followed the result of EU elections and referendum on justice  under the eye of the gendarmerie. Bucharest has witnessed several large scale  protests that resulted in clashes with police forces  ©Marius Tudor

In broad strokes, we may identify the purpose of referendums as a useful tool to enhance democracy and citizen participation in policy outcome ( e.g. Bowler et al. 2007) or a populist weapon to mobilize supporters for electoral gains (e.g.Nemčok and Spáč 2019). Considering the increase of the use of referendums during the past decades (Qvortrup 2018), we are further motivated to better understand elite incentives to resort to this tool. In this text, I introduce the case of Romania as a study into the strategic use of this electoral institution by the executive branch– whether government or presidency. The Romanian case comes in support of the latter strand of scholarship and emphasizes how a referendum reveals its main use for the initiating actors to spread their message and gain popularity while the actual act of popular vote is irrelevant and has rather limited ability to shape policy outcome.  

During the past legislative year (2018 – 2019), the tool of referendum was used twice. In October 2018, Romanians voted to narrow the constitutional definition of family from a ‘marriage based on the union of spouses’ to ‘marriage between man and woman’. The governing Social Democrat Party (PSD) and coalition partner Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (ALDE) organised the referendum faced with a petition in favour of the constitutional change signed by 3 million citizens and supported by the Orthodox Church. Turn-out did not reach the 30% quorum needed. From the 21,1% of voters who turned –out for the referendum, over 90% supported the change.  This figure represents about 3,5 million Romanians. The referendum was boycotted by the opposition in a display of anti-government protest. This strategy was less as a show of solidarity with the human rights demands of the LGBTQ community than an oppositional stance.  President Klaus Iohannis, the most vocal contender of the government, nevertheless turned out to vote in the referendum. In a largely conservative country, it is of little worth to antagonise potential voters.   (see European Values Study and The Romanian Group for the Study of Social Values for useful data-bases). In this case, the motivation to organise the referendum lacked on all political sides, but mitigating potential loses not to have it became paramount.

The lack of interest in this issue was evident from the start. The PSD led cabinet set up a helpful legal context for the referendum to pass (lower threshold, two day voting process) and counted on the conservative values of the electorate and the involvement of the Orthodox Church to take effect. However, in a country where voter turn-out has constantly decreased in the last 30 years – averaging 40% – main parties’ ability to mobilise their active electorate is key for any election outcome. This requires willingness to invest significant financial and human resources and see potential gains out of such a feat. The dominant PSD calculated a lower investment return for this referendum and had no incentives for party activism compared to their usual display of organisational force during local and legislative elections. However, not organising it was a risk the government was not willing to take. The Orthodox Church has always served as an ally for the PSD. As in many Eastern European countries, politics and religion have an interdependent relationship. Incumbent politicians who associated their image with the church benefit from public acclaim and a positive standing with the well organised ecclesiastical network. The referendum had no actual effects over policy outcome and it did not lead to greater debate regarding same-sex marriage.

The second referendum was triggered by President Klaus Iohannis and organised on May 26th together with elections for the European Parliament. According to the Romanian semi-presidential constitutional system, the president has little formal powers to constrain the government or the parliament (see a previous blog post). Mr. Iohannis decided to use one of his prerogatives in response to what he considered ‘an assault through emergency ordinances on the justice system’ led by the PSD – ALDE governing coalition. In a country which witnessed massive anti-corruption and anti-justice reform protests, all association with this issue is electorally beneficial.  

Citizens were asked two yes/no questions: whether they agree to prohibit granting amnesty and pardons for sentences of corruption and whether they agree to outlaw issuing emergency ordinances regulating crimes, punishments and the reorganization of the judiciary. The results showed great support in favour of limitations to government led justice reform. Despite the complexity of the questions, their actual meaning was less debated. The underlying message was rather understood as a separation between those in favour of ‘tough justice’ vs. ‘lenience for corruption’. The referendum results are thus mostly symbolic. It is highly unlikely to see written into law the outcome of the vote.  They reconfirm the anti-corruption sentiment of Romanians who in recent years have often mobilized in protest to stop the governing elite from delivering self-serving justice reforms. 

The electoral gains of anti-government parties were far greater. With six month to go before the presidential elections in December 2019, front-runner and incumbent Klaus Iohannis benefited from an early electoral platform. Calling for this referendum gave him the opportunity to participate in rallies for the EU elections organised by his party, the National Liberal Party (PNL), despite the constitutional ban for the president to engage in partisan politics. The ‘anti-corruption’ rhetoric primarily benefited newcomer Save Romania Union (USR) – PLUS 2020 Alliance and their leader and presidential hopeful Dacian Ciolos. USR – PLUS received 22% of the vote, a significant feat for a new comer. Mr. Ciolos is now also in the run for the same anti-government votes of enraged citizens. Similar to Mr. Iohannis, he will also employ an anti-corruption, anti-establishment strategy in the upcoming elections.

Conclusion

In the first case, the exercise of the referendum was a way to fend off unwanted criticism and mostly employed a ‘nothing to lose strategy’. It failed as a result of lack of party mobilization in its favour, despite a favourable social values milieu. The second referendum benefited from heavy mobilisation on a salient issue. Regardless of the technicality of the questions, the mobilising message was perceived. Electoral gains were at the core of both of these decisions, while neither referendum will shape policy outcomes.

Romania – The President’s ‘Breaking Bad’: When Does Negative Campaigning Work?

President Klaus Iohannis during a visit at a Romanian military base that was a PR success.  Source: digi24.ro

With one year to go until he stands for re-election, Romanian president Klaus Iohannis appears willing to go outside his defining detachment and become a fire – starter in the already tense framework of cohabitation.

The conventional wisdom that negative political campaigning works has been largely dismissed by research results. Scholars found no evidence of its success (see Lau, Sigelman and Rovner, 2007 for a literature review) or even claimed that the choice of negativity is disadvantageous, in contrast to the effects of positive messaging (Malloy and Pearson-Merkowitz , 2016; Claibourn 2012) and in particular for incumbents (Blackwell 2013).  We then continue to ask why candidates and political consultants believe in the effectiveness of attacking opponents. Most research on this topic focused on the US political system, but throughout the next year of presidential campaigning, Romania may provide a novel experimental setting to answer the same question: is political ‘breaking bad’ a good strategy to win presidential elections?

The Mobilizing Effect of Conflict Framing

Most recently, President Iohannis (National Liberal Party – PNL candidate) concerned the EU by declaring that, (mostly) because of the incompetence of the social – democrat led government, Romania is unprepared to take over the EU’s rotating presidency on January 1, 2019 (NY Times reports). A declaration that was intended to win him points in national politics quickly escalated internationally when the Finnish PM, Juha Sipila, declared they are ready to take over earlier should Romania default on its obligations. This prompted the Romanian Minister of Foreign Affairs to issue an official statement denying the presidential claims and ‘stressing the importance of handling with responsibility information that is not founded on concrete endeavours (sic) and which may affect the image of Romania (…)’. Since this exchange, Romanian diplomats in Brussels have to publicly defend the on-going preparations.  Following this statement, the president suffered a backlash from his usual supporters, motivating him to soften his position by stating it was still possible to be reasonably prepared.

Given the usual dispassion of president Iohannis for political conflict coupled with the positive nature of his discourse in the first campaign (2014) and the first 4 years of mandate, his recent preparedness to lash out with negative attacks on the government can provide the counterpoint in a comparative test of what makes successful campaign strategies. Iohannis’s reactions are motivated by the criticism he endures for not being active on the public stage (I previously reported on this blog on the preference of president Iohannis to use formal powers and overlook informal ones). And in spite of the apparent uselessness of negative discourse, in the absence of a constructive policy agenda and constraining tools, there is one important effect of conflict framing and negativity that can be relied on for electoral success in the Romanian context.

Research results found (conditioned!) effects of negativity on increasing voter turnout. Krupnikov (2012) showed that negativity increases the likelihood that an individual will make a candidate selection. And conflict framing in campaign news mobilized voters to vote even in the less electorally engaging European Parliament elections (Schuck, Vliegenthart and DeVreese, 2014). This factor becomes increasingly important given that voter mobilisation is a substantial concern for presidential candidates in Romania and usually tilts the balance between winners and losers.

Framing the Presidential Run

Conflict framing has been at the base of Romanian elections since the early 1990s (see Anghel 2017 for a review of Romanian ‘anti-’ campaigns). In this broad agenda type of political contests, technical superiority, emotional voting and political calculations have a substantial importance. The position of a non – Social – Democrat Party (PSD) presidential candidate is naturally advantageous. Opposition parties can compensate their organisational weaknesses by unifying non-PSD voters, while the PSD is stuck at approx. 20% in voter preference.  A constant dwindling of turnout to less than 50% has secured PSD (partial) legislative victories, since their approx. 20% supporters also show up at the polls. The higher turnout in presidential elections has failed to deliver the PSD a victory in the past three runs (15 years).

Consequently, the effect of predominant conflict framing may be a mobilizing factor once again and increase the chances of president Iohannis for re-election. But this is highly context-dependent and not all researchers agree that the effect of negative campaigning is substantial on voter turnout (Garramone et al. 2009). It therefore may not be worth pursuing this strategy alone, as it can easily backfire. Other studies show that negative political campaigning evokes negative affect toward both the targeted opponent and the sponsor (e.g. Merritt 2013).

Increasingly aware of his electoral weaknesses, Iohannis also made an appearance at the yearly PNL Congress (August 4, 2018), showing his support for the PNL leadership and program and lobbying for their organisational support in the elections.  Having political proxies (or lobby groups) to deliver negative messages for the candidate is also better than when the candidate delivers them. According to Dowling and Wichowsky (AJPS, 2014), “candidates can benefit from having a party or group ‘do their dirty work’”.  However, the current relation of PNL with the president is jaded and many strong local party leaders lack the incentives to engage in the hard presidential elections for another win for Iohannis, who has not collaborated with them in the last four years.

Conclusion: ‘Breaking bad’ badly is…not good

For a political attack to work, it must raise a credible issue. This is not difficult for the incumbent president, as the PSD led government has gone through a series of unpopular controversies related to justice system reforms. Yet the decision to ‘go negative’ to benefit from increased voter turnout appears counterproductive on all other accounts or, at best, difficult to manage. Should president Iohannis decide to continue on this path, the 2019 elections will provide the conditions for a comparative within case study of presidential political campaign strategies.

Romania – How much ‘deep state’ and where to find it

Social Democrat Party (PSD) chairman Liviu Dragnea delivered the most important speech of 2018 at a party rally in June. The ‘parallel state’ featured most prominently among his choice of words. ©presidential – power.com / Veronica Anghel

In the 2013 novel ‘A Delicate Truth’, former MI5/6 spy and novelist John le Carré presents the ‘deep state’ as ‘the ever-expanding circle of non-governmental insiders from banking, industry and commerce who were cleared for highly classified information denied to large swathes of Whitehall and Westminster.’ The popular writer has constantly known how to position his plots in the palm of contemporaneity. Increasingly, politicians use the scare of the secrecy of the ‘deep state’ for a useful one-dimensional identification of an enemy and conspiracy theorists are slithering from the margins towards the mainstream on the waves of social media. At the same time, political scientists increasingly acknowledge the existence of unquantifiable intervening factors that may alter the predictable outcomes of formal institutions. How much is the balance between democratic institutions affected by the existence of a ‘deep state’ and is there a use to professionally trace its attributes without falling in the traps of literally mystery or legitimize populist discourse?

The ‘deep state’ by any other name…. and where to find it

The most common place to find the ‘deep state’ is in the results of discourse analysis. While politicians can use different names for what it is, they rely heavily on its power to be all encompassing and mobilize electoral sensibilities. In the US, Stephen Bannon announced the White House’s war against the ‘administrative state’, a conception of the ‘deep state’ that pits President Trump not against an economic privileged class, but against clerks and civil servants who are perceived as obstacles against the success of his political platform. Republican Ron Paul referred to such obscure interests as ‘the shadow government’.  This understanding of detrimental networks of authority for representative governance finds its adherents further back in US history. President Theodor Roosevelt announced his own belief in the existence of an ‘invisible government’ that cannot be held accountable by the people.

In Central European politics, reproving the ‘colonizing interests’ of the West – via Western corporations or enabled through Brussels and its EU civil servants – and/or chastising the secret services as enablers for hidden undefined interests are increasingly more common elements of political rhetoric. Such discourses use the logic of a Manichean zero sum game approach – the ‘good’ us against the ‘evil’ others – and incentivize emotional societal division. The Polish Kaczyński administration actively pursued the re-investigation and promotion of the Smolensk tragedy not as a result of faulty rational decisions as shown by a previous report, but of treacherous intrigues sponsored by Russia and other perpetrators that remained nameless. In Hungary, a useful name was at hand, as George Soros was identified as the social – liberal Western capitalist who is an obstacle against the state sponsored return to conservative values and nationalist economy. Consequently, the ‘deep state’ became known as the ‘Soros Army’. Contenders of the Orban regime use the term ‘mafia state’ to identify the structures that run parallel with state institutions and which are run through oligarch proxies of PM Orban and the FIDESZ party. Bulgarian PM Boiko Borisov announced during his first mandate in 2009 his own fight with what he considered is a deep infiltration of organised crime inside the government, working for personal economic interests. Similarly, his contenders claim (ex. here or here) it is PM Borisov and other government leaders with long running ties in the Bulgarian Communist Party who chair networks that result in a ‘state capture’. In other hybrid democracies, such as Turkey, the military is an unaccountable power group that more blatantly and more frequently curbs the power of elected civilians.

In Romania, this inner core of the establishment able to conduct in secret a blurring of public and private interests is branded as the ‘parallel state’. The ‘parallel state’ allegedly represents a consortium of unidentified interests of secret services, foreign – connected NGOs and representatives of different branches of the judicial system linked to former president Traian Băsescu who use state resources for their aims. A quantitative analysis of the most important political speech of the year 2018, delivered by the chairperson of the governing Social Democrat Party (PSD), Liviu Dragnea, at an assembly of over 150 000 PSD supporters shows that the ‘parallel state’ is at the core of his concerns. At the same political assembly, another PSD leader delivered a speech in English, cheering president Trump’s fight against the ‘deep state’. Mr. Dragnea considers it the main obstacle standing in the way of PSD fulfilling its policy program, while also having the ability to change election outcomes and intimidate state officials through prosecutions. Similar analyses show comparative frequencies of references to the ‘parallel state’ in public discourses of other leaders of the governing coalition. Such concerns are reinforced by junior partner ALDE and senate chairperson, Călin Popescu Tăriceanu. This phrase has become so common use in Romanian politics that even in internal fighting of PSD members, members accuse each other of ‘using the means common to the “parallel state”’. By these, they mean illegal phone – tapping or other types of interception of communications using state resources. This is usually a cause for escalation of tensions and media speculation.

The wide spread use of the scare of an almighty  ‘parallel state’ that reminds of the communist security service is a source of citizens’ erosion of confidence in state institutions and the progress made towards the independence of the judiciary and in the anti-corruption fight. Electorally, this translates into support for the government’s program to reform the justice system. It also leads to steady decrease in voter turn – out as citizens increasingly believe politics is a murky territory their vote cannot affect either way. Lower voter turn –out is a technical advantage for the PSD who relies on a captive electorate.

President Băsescu, the main actor accused of chaperoning this complex system of  interests during his mandate, declared there is no such thing as a ‘deep state’, but affirmed the existence of prosecutors, judges and other persons, from within institutions, but not representing those institutions, who abused and misused power. President Klaus Iohannis altogether denied the existence of anything similar to what the PSD leaders claim exists in Romania.  The identification of this useful enemy that is everywhere and nowhere is a useful campaign tool. But is there anything that can be taken out of the shadows and systematically researched for a better understanding of weaknesses of formal institutions?

The aristocracy of pull or how much ‘deep state’ ?

The study of ‘interest groups’ and the need for their judicial review has been a long running preoccupation of political science (ex. here and here). More recently, post-communist transition theory identified that informal powers and networks that political elites use to their benefit is as an important factor in limiting democratic state building (see Grzymala – Busse and Jones Luong 2002). In such evaluations, the extent of the use of parallel networks of authority and power personalisation make the difference between ‘democratic’, ‘autocratic’ and ‘personalistic’ states. Other researchers claim the tension between formal and informal institutions precedes communist times (see Ekiert and Ziblatt 2012). Disaggregating the state analytically into actors at various levels of the decision-making process and state administration provides insight into the struggle between formal and informal institutions and permits a categorisation that can be used irrespective of time and space:

”In the formal democratic state, informal institutions are largely in accord with formal democratic institutions. In the semiformal state, dual domination signals the deep state’s existence. In the informal state, deep state is converted into the state, the rule, and the norm.” (Soyler 2013)

The countries of Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) increasingly prove to have multiple centres of informal authority with fluctuating degrees of influence on the process of democratization and state institutionalization. The introduction of democratic institutions – and their intrinsic formalisation of elite relationships -clashes with persistent informal practices. In other words, the formal changes introduced from above met significant resistance from patterns of informal norm systems, which are also the source of clientelism, corruption and networks of political patronage. The widespread acceptance of these informal norm systems caters for whichever presiding force finds its way into loci of state power. By circumventing predictability, their effect is anticompetitive and antimeritocratic, favouring those who are ‘in-the-know’ and have privileged access to politicians. This eases the appearance of one – party state forms of political organisations, regardless of ideological inclinations.

Conclusion: the ‘deep state’ is a puzzle, not the Leviathan    

Consequently, the Romanian ‘deep state’ is much less the conspirator centralized system chaired by any one interest group at any one time, but a fabric of relationships that uses different types of barter as a source of maintaining power among an established political and economic elite. The extent to which this is a part of the decision making process affects the state of democracy as a whole, but cannot controllably and substantially satisfy the interests of any one centralized interest group in the longer run. The ‘deep state’ is not in itself the all-powerful Leviathan, but resembles the timeless aristocracy of pull. It is a complex puzzle of unwritten, informal norms and relations that requires empirical research for a better understanding of power dispersion and agenda setting.

Romania – Intra-executive conflict and confusion about patterns of hierarchical control

President Klaus Iohannis clashes with Justice Minister Tudorel Toader Source: b1.ro

In recent months, the semi-presidential republic of Romania saw the unravelling of a new episode of intra-executive conflict in the context of cohabitation.  A dispute over the procedure to dismiss the chief prosecutor of the Anti-Corruption National Directorate (DNA) confirmed the inherent confusion in semi-presidential constitutions about the chains of accountability and responsibility of political decision makers and the patterns of hierarchical control. The conflict between the president and the government was mediated by the Constitutional Court in favour of the government. The president accused the ruling majority of being determined to reduce his powers.

 No breathing space for the president

The current minimum-winning ruling coalition is composed of the Social Democrat Party (PSD) and the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (ALDE). They have a stable legislative majority on their own, but also count on a formalised legislative support agreement with the Democratic Union of Hungarians in Romania (UDMR). The main opposition party, the National Liberal Party (PNL) and first-time parliamentary party, Save Romania Union (USR), only have half of the voting size of the majority supporting the coalition. The other newcomer parliamentary party, the Popular Movement Party (PMP), is slowly being dismantled due to party switching to the side of the government. Consequently, it is safe to say that the government and the parliament are united and stable. The lack of incentives for a united parliament and government to collaborate with the president – as a whole or individually – leads to the increased isolation and irrelevance of the head of state.

The Constitutional Court has recently increased the political resources available to the government with a decision that considerably limits the president’s role in the dismissal of the chief prosecutor of the DNA. This blog has previously reported on the role of the president in the justice system, emphasizing his limited formal powers, while also mentioning his non-negligible informal powers stemming from his legitimacy as an elected official.  However, the use of informal and veto powers can only come willingly, as shown in the case of Poland. In addition to a highly hostile political environment, the only marginally combative attitude of the Romanian president Klaus Iohannis, coupled with his decision not to politically coordinate with his own party, the PNL, has led to further accentuation of the peripheral nature of his activity.

An all men’s game: the justice system

For years, the fight against political corruption has dominated the Romanian system. Revising the powers of the judicial branch – to strengthen or constrain them – has also remained high on political agenda across the political spectrum. Revisions were voted by the current ruling coalition only two years after other revisions had been made by a technocrat government in 2016. In addition, the incumbent majority also sought to clarify the chains of command in the absence of any government/president consensus on key appointments and dismissals in the judiciary. The president’s ability to refuse only once the proposal of the justice minister for the general prosecutor, the chief prosecutor of the National Anti-corruption Directorate (DNA) and that of the Organised Crime and Terrorism Investigation Agency (DIICOT) was introduced in the legislation to clarify the procedure and was deemed constitutional by the Constitutional Court. The Constitutional Court also ruled that the president has no powers to oppose the decision of the justice minister to dismiss the head of the DNA, emphasizing an article of the Constitution which states that ‘prosecutors carry out their activity (…) under the authority of the minister of justice’. Consequently, the highly popular DNA chief prosecutor, Laura Kovesi, will now have to be dismissed by the president to conclude a procedure of removal that was initiated by the ministry of justice.

The politics of the Constitutional Court

The role of the Constitutional Court in mediating inter-institutional conflict is pivotal. Less easy to disentangle are its politics. The nine judges are changed in cohorts of three, every three years. A balance of representation between the Chamber of Deputies, the Senate and the Presidency has to be maintained, each having the right to nominate one judge in the changing group. The shifting majority in parliament and a period of cohabitation under two presidents that goes back to 2012 also leads to fluctuating majorities in the Court. Some correlation can be found between the agenda of the current president and the decision of the judges nominated by the presidency, but the overlap is not complete. Equally, the agenda of the opposition (PNL) is not fully endorsed by the judges they once nominated. The PSD-nominated judges are the ones that mostly correlate with a PSD agenda. Under the current composition of the court, the ruling coalition has a majority of at least 5 to 4. This adds strength to the coalition’s agenda to increase the power of the government.

Conclusion

Recent rulings of the Constitutional Court have led to a clarification of some procedures and the hierarchical control within the executive. They have also increased the power of executive control over the judiciary branch to the impairment of judicial self-regulation through their own institutions, such as the Supreme Council of the Magistracy. Collaterally, they have also diminished the formal impact of the president on these matters in periods of cohabitation.

Romania – Constitutional Revision May Follow. LGBT Rights under scrutiny

Source: Adevarul.ro / Gay Pride at the Romanian Arch of Triumph. Number of attendees has usually been in the hundreds since the first manifestation of 2004.

In recent years, Romanian political elites and electorate have engaged in a debate over the right of sexual minorities to establish a legally recognized family. This is a tense subject in a country with traditionalist social values. The matter has involved in different ways large parts of the public, the governing coalition, the presidency and the Constitutional Court and is on its way to becoming the subject of a national referendum. It has also been used as a political tool by the governing Social Democrat Party (PSD) and junior coalition partners, the Alliance of Liberal Democrats (ALDE) to pursue a diminished involvement of the president in the organisation of referenda and to substantiate their place as conservatives on the social dimension of ideological positioning. In the present text, I explain the context in which the prospect of ‘same-sex’ marriage has gathered more attention than ever before, some effects it has had on party life and its potential side-effect in diminishing some powers of the president.

3 million citizens and a gay couple

Two contrasting events have challenged Romanians’ social values in the last decade. A gay couple comprised of American and Romanian citizens married in Belgium and requested the recognition of their marital status in Romania together with all the ensuing legal rights. This would include residence rights for the American citizen. The couple started their quest for recognition in 2013 and has still not received a decision from the Romanian authorities. The matter has currently been submitted by the Romanian Constitutional Court to the European Court for Human Rights. An opinion is expected on how to deal with a marriage that is not accepted according to organic law in Romania without breaching the right for free movement on EU territory and the right to family life and privacy of all citizens according to Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

During this debate, it has become apparent that the constitutional provision defining a family as being ‘founded on the mutually agreed marriage between husbands’ (Romanian Constitution, Art. 48) is a source for conflicting interpretations on who the husbands could be. Consequently, an NGO named ‘The Coalition for the Family’ gathered 3 million signatures to initiate a referendum to change the understanding of family into ‘mutually agreed marriage between a woman and a man’. In their quest, they had the support of the state wide network of Orthodox churches. This latter initiative was endorsed by 2/3 of the members of the Chamber of Deputies and the governing coalition who announced that a referendum on this issue will be organised in the spring of 2018. Considering the large scope of disapproval for LGBT rights in Romania, chances are that the popular vote will lead to a change of the Constitution. The movement to change the Constitution has now become synonymous with ‘anti- LGBT rights’.

No country for gay (wo)men

From right to left, political elites have been united in their defence of what is now being called ‘the traditional family’, blurring already confused ideological identities even further. PSD chairman, Liviu Dragnea, declared from the initial stages of this debate that his party would back the proposal to change the Constitution. In early April, he also announced that PSD will organise a large march of support for this proposal. Junior coalition partner ALDE is also in support of this change, similar to center – right legislative partners, the Democratic Union of Hungarians In Romania (UDMR). The main opposition party, the National Liberal Party (PNL) declared itself in favour of a restrictive definition of the family. The quest of the ‘Coalition for the Family’ was also endorsed by the parliamentary Popular Movement Party (PMP) as the preferred Christian-Orthodox path to society building.

The smaller opposition party, centre – left newcomers Save Romania Union (USR), went through its own internal struggle on what side to choose. Following a decision not to support the change of constitution – an exclusive choice among parliamentary parties – the USR founding chairman resigned in protest. The Romanian president, Klaus Iohannis, had a reserved position on the matter. He declared himself in favour of supporting the rights of all minorities, making more acceptable references to religious and ethnic minorities, thus allowing ambiguous interpretations.

In short, all parliamentary parties, except (most of the) USR, support the elimination of a possible interpretation of the Constitution that marriage between same – sex partners is acceptable. The referendum is a safe bet for the governing coalition and a platform for self-promotion. In the short and medium run, the ‘same-sex marriage’ debate serves to further dilute the identification of an opposition to the current government’s policies. A more progressive stance on this matter has not been actively picked up by any party.(1) No politician seems willing to risk the estrangement of a largely conservative electorate.

Organising referenda, the fast – forward way

To organise the referendum to change the Constitution, decision – makers have to overcome another legalistic hurdle. The current legislative majority passed an amendment to the ‘Referendum Law’ that would allow it to arrange such proceedings without any potential contestation and delays from the presidency.  The Constitution (Art. 150) states that the power to call for referenda lies with the president at the government’s proposal, 1/4 of MPs or 500 000 citizens. However, the current ‘Referendum Law’ calls for an individual new law for every such instance, providing the date and scope of a plebiscite. As do all laws, this would reach the president for promulgation. S/he could then contest it once or send it for revision with the Constitutional Court, thus delaying the process. The amended law would no longer demand a new piece of legislation for the organisation of a referendum, thus circumventing the intervention of the president and expediting the process. The possibility to so change the ‘Referendum Law’ is now being analysed by the Constitutional Court.

Conclusion

PSD chairman Dragnea announced that the ‘referendum on the definition of family’ would be carried under the amended ‘Referendum Law’. Eliminating the president from the organisation of a referendum can be read as a depletion of his institutional leverages of power.  Apart from its immediate effect on delivering a faster resolution to the demands of traditionalists, this change to the law would bring PSD another point in its battle with the president.

All in all, the foci of conservatism will receive long term satisfaction. With this pragmatic move, PSD has underwired its collaboration with the Orthodox Church, while keeping opposition parties in silent approval and the president disarmed.


  1. The small non- parliamentary Green Party is the sole to endorse rights for the LGBT community.

Romania – An Underused Presidency?

Can the president of a semi-presidential republic build a politically independent and effective check-and-balance on government and parliament? The question continues to instil both scholarly and general interest debates. Recent political developments in Romania have once again brought to the public eye the matter of whether a president can actively and constructively contribute to government formation, the policy making process and agenda setting. And should s/he do so? In the present text I discuss what tools the current president has chosen to use from his ‘toolbox’, and what he stays away from.

  1. The Newest Government Formation

On 29 January 2018, Iohannis nominated his third prime-minister from the Social Democrat Party (PSD) in the course of approximately one year. The exclusive prerogative of nominating the prime-minister shines a spotlight on the president. The government was once again formed without his own National Liberal Party (PNL), prolonging a period of cohabitation. His supportive part of the public expected the president to lead the opposition in extensive negotiations for an alternative government formation. However, he quickly accepted the proposal of the parliamentary majority. Bargaining duration was of one day only. Consequently, he not only contradicted public expectations, but also some of the most recent empirical studies claiming that presidents have an interest in seeing their parties succeed and are willing to act to facilitate their success (Savage, 2017; Anghel, 2017). For the time being, the president has chosen not to instrumentalize his constitutionally prescribed role in cabinet formation to influence its outcome.

Iohannis shows a loose connection to his party (PNL), from whose ranks expectations of support and leadership have always existed. The PNL itself has a weak performance in the role of the main opposition party, which could incentivize the president’s doubts regarding its coalition potential or ability to assume governance.  Coupled with what his supporters perceive as a disengagement from public life, this might bring into question the interest of the president in pursuing a second mandate.

  1. Veto Power

The president of Romania has the right to veto legislation on constitutional grounds by reference to the Constitutional Court or for any other grounds by returning the bill to parliament. MPs may repass a bill through ordinary majority, and the president cannot veto it a second time. The table below shows the number of times president Iohannis made use of this prerogative (see Koker, 2017 for a comparison with the veto use in other countries in Central and Eastern Europe). The third column shows how many laws passed with his consent. When comparing figures, we could infer a working relationship between parliament and president, and a consensus oriented elite. Most of the laws sent back to parliament have actually undergone a process of re-examination and have not been repassed in their exact initial form.

The major source of tension between the president and the parliament is the set of laws on justice reform supported by the government and the majority of MPs. In the proposed bills, the president’s own institutional role in the anti-corruption fight has been watered down. Iohannis has constantly shown a different approach to the government’s plans and even joined street-protests against a government ordinance that would have decriminalised some forms of public office abuse. He is expected to use this ‘tool’ and veto the justice laws once they reach him for promulgation. This prospect, coupled with some anticipation of a severe societal backlash, has so far influenced the government’s actions and is delaying a resolution.

President Klaus Iohannis and PM Sorin Grindeanu (18/01/2017) Iohannis appeared unexpectedly during a cabinet meeting where an emergency decree to pardon certain detainees and amend the Penal Code was to be discussed. PhotoSource: A3 Press

The same issue related to anti-corruption prompted the president to use two more of his executive attributions: calling for national referenda and taking part in the cabinet sessions when matters related to national security or foreign policy are discussed. Iohannis successfully prevented the government’s first attempt to pass the draft emergency decree to pardon certain detainees and amend the Penal Code by unexpectedly attending a would be decisive cabinet meeting in January 2017. He also announced his (unfulfilled) intention to call for a national referendum concerning this amnesty bill, should it not be withdrawn. Iohannis’s use of formal presidential ‘tools’, in the context of recurring mass street protests, has so far delayed the government’s plans to reform the justice laws.

  1. Informal Powers

Most investigations on the powers of the president in multi-party systems agree that the president has a formally more or less limited role, in accordance to the Constitution.  Scholars have so far provided few inquiries into the informal aspects of presidential authority. The few studies that exist are focused on the USA and showed how presidents rely on their electoral legitimacy and visibility to influence the policy process via their public positions and symbolic actions (Strauss and Sunstein, 1986; Ashley and Jarmer, 2016). We should expect it to be the case for any directly elected president, and expand our research agenda.

In the case of Romania, the president’s public appearances are an underused tool. He is reactive in his (e.g) public statements, does not engage in unscripted dialogue with media representatives and mostly limits his activities to technical or ceremonial appearances. His priorities appear locked in preserving the status quo in the justice system, and does not appear willing to set other directions to the public agenda and use his own electoral legitimacy to get people to think about new issues or believe in particular actions. Three years in his (five year) mandate, we could conclude that informal powers are not among his preferred tools of action.

Conclusion

When compared to years of presidential activism by former president Traian Băsescu (2004 – 2014) and the symbiotic relationship he had with his Liberal-Democrat Party (PDL), we can conclude that the mandate of president Klaus Iohannis turned Romania away from a path of increased presidentialization (Samuels, Shugart 2010) and party presidentialization (Passarelli, 2015).

The present text acknowledges that formally, a major effect of the president on the political life is conditional on the inclusion of his or her own parliamentary party in the cabinet. Institutionally, he or she has a limited number of tools to use as effective check-and-balance on government and parliament. Nevertheless, the question remains whether the willingness of presidents to use informal powers (symbolic actions, visibility, leadership abilities, electoral legitimacy, and a working relation with their own party) may not also condition the final output. The use of informal powers by popularly elected presidents in presidential and semi-presidential systems[i] to affect government formation, policy making and agenda setting would benefit from further empirical research.


[i] This blog also suggested that even presidents who are not directly elected can make a constructive contribution in government formation. See the case of Germany.

Semi-presidentialism – Can presidents influence coalition outcomes?

This post is based on my article ’Why Can’t We Be Friends?’ The Coalition Potential of Presidents in Semi-Presidential Republics—Insights from Romania” in East European Politics and Societies.

The research article published by East European Politics and Societies sought to investigate the basis of the power of presidents to shape coalitions in semi-presidential systems, using the case of Romania. The findings put forward by the article contribute to the weakening of the theory that semi-presidential systems are inherently affected by a process of growing presidentialization.

Throughout my study of coalition governments more generally, the question about the potential systematic influence of presidents in their formation and evolution has often risen. To know who has the upper hand and the final say in the process of government formation is of chief importance to the students of political institutions. However, previous research on coalitions rarely addressed the topic related to the powers of the president, with recent findings claiming that in European democracies presidents have a substantial ability to induce their preferred governments. The case of Romania disputes these claims and shows that the mechanisms of a multiparty regime mostly limit the president’s exclusive bargaining advantage to nominating the prime minister and then, much as in a parliamentary democracy, render him or her dependent on the coalition potential of his or her own party.

President Klaus Iohannis, prime minister Mihai Tudose and Liviu Dragnea, chairman of the dominant party in the coalition, the Social Democrat Party (PSD) (2017). Although a ‘friendly’ government is not always in the president’s cards, more often than not, he finds himself dancing to their tune.

Romania is a young, consolidating, semi-presidential European democracy and a fertile ground for the presidentialization of politics, according to the measures proposed by previous research. Samuels and Shugart use the Romanian presidential elections of 2004 to open their 2010 seminal volume and highlight influence of presidents on government formation in semi-presidential republics: “The results of the direct presidential election thus not only took government formation out of the hands of the largest parliamentary party and the largest parliamentary coalition, but also served to break a pre-election agreement, altering the partisan balance of forces that parliamentary coalitions and parliamentary elections had established.”(p.2)[1]

Nevertheless, an in-depth, qualitative investigation of the same case generated surprising insights by showing this outcome to be rather the exception than the rule and entails certain conditions to be met. Overall, the study shows that when the president and prime minister (or a plausible designate prime minister of a presidentially “unfriendly” majority) enter a competition to shape a coalition in this institutional format, they enter as equals. The weight of their supporting parties makes the difference in deciding the winner.

Methodologically, the article supports the need for more in-depth qualitative study of such matters, mostly since there are insufficient accounts for the informal aspects of presidential authority in government formation. Ignoring such aspects, which we can only uncover through elite interviews, could lead to incomplete results.  Although there are limitations linked to respondents’ subjectivity when asked about the direct involvement of the president in off-the-record negotiations for government formation, including accounts of first hand participants is a valuable addition to our understanding. The article relies heavily on semi-structured discussions with prime –ministers, ministers or important witnesses at sensitive moments linked to the role of the president in coalition formation.

Firstly, the article makes a distinction between cases when coalition cabinets and presidents were in a situation of partnership (whether the president and the prime minister were from the same party or not) and cases of coalition cabinets and presidents in a situation of conflict (Table 1). It proceeds with a selection of a case where the president played an important role in government formation and could make use of his prerogative to name the prime minister from his loyal party, which thus became a formateur, and compared it with one where he could not (Romania has only had male presidents). The conditions to induce a preferred government are highlighted with the case of the 2004 parliamentary elections and the active involvement of president Traian Băsescu in government formation. In contrast, while maintaining the same actors and the same institutional design, the analysis goes on to show a different situation following the 2012 elections.Finally, it emphasises how, all things considered, the coalition appeal of the party behind the president makes the final difference in government formation, regardless of his or her exclusive prerogative to name the prime minister.

The implications of this study go beyond uncovering the dynamics of coalition formation in Romania. The study shows that although a president could find within the semi-presidential system the institutional incentives to try to increase his or her influence in government formation, he or she remains firmly limited by the coalition potential of his or her party, regardless of context-driven peaks of increased informal authority. It also argues that in choosing cases for a comparative analysis of coalition formation and administration, there is reason to go beyond a differentiation between semi-presidential and parliamentary regimes.

Notes

[1] David Samuels and Matthew Shugart, Presidents, Parties and Prime Ministers: How the Separation of Power Affects Party Organization and Behaviour (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), p. 2

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.

 

President/Cabinet Conflict in Romania – The Results of an Expert Survey

I am currently working on a book project, part of which involves a study of president/cabinet conflict in Europe’s parliamentary and semi-presidential regimes. Following the example set by Sedelius and Ekman (2010) and Sedelius and Mashtaler (2013), I conducted an expert survey. The survey was conducted between the beginning of August and October 2015. I was lucky enough to receive replies from over 100 academics. I am very grateful and I will acknowledge the help of all the respondents personally in the book.

I asked academics to provide a judgment of the level of president/cabinet conflict in 235 cabinets in 21 countries from 1995-2015. The academics were all political scientists with country-level expertise. I asked them to judge the level of president/cabinet conflict for each cabinet in a particular country on a four-point ordinal scale: a High level was indicated as the situation where there was persistent and severe conflict between the president and the cabinet; a Low level was expressed as the situation where there was no significant conflict between the president and the cabinet; and two intermediate levels – a Low-Medium level, and a Medium-High level – where the level of conflict was unspecified. The number of returns per country ranged from 1 for Malta to 9 for France.

With expert surveys, inter-coder reliability is always an issue. Certainly, there was disagreement among country experts and for some countries the level of inter-coder reliability was surprisingly low. However, Romania was one of the countries where the level of inter-coder reliability was high. Here, I report the president/cabinet conflict scores for Romania. In subsequent posts, I will report scores for other countries.

For Romania, I was looking to record scores for 16 cabinet units. I did not ask for scores for non-partisan presidents or caretaker governments. I received seven expert replies.

If we assign a value of 0, 0.33, 0.67, and 1 for Low, Low-Medium, Medium-High, and High respectively, then we return the following levels of conflict. See Table below.

The periods of conflict will not come as a surprise to Romania experts, especially the seven experts who kindly returned the survey given the level of agreement was high. However, along with scores from the other countries, these results and those like them provide a first step in the process of explaining why president/cabinet conflict varies both across countries and across time in countries. This is the aim of the study in the book that will appear later in the year.

References

Sedelius, Thomas, and Ekman, Joakim (2010), ‘Intra-executive Conflict and Cabinet Instability: Effects of Semi-presidentialism in Central and Eastern Europe’, Government and Opposition, 45(4): 505–30.

Sedelius, Thomas, and Olga Mashtaler (2013), ‘Two Decades of Semi-presidentialism: Issues of Intra-executive Conflict in Central and Eastern Europe 1991–2011’, East European Politics, 29(2): 109-134.

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