Tag Archives: president and government formation

Romania – Social Democrats’ landslide victory in parliamentary election brings about another spell of cohabitation


One year after country-wide anti-corruption protests forced Victor Ponta’s Social-Democratic government out of office, the PSD won a landslide victory in the general election held on December 11. The Social-Democrats have topped the polls in each general election held since 1990 and formed the government each time a centre-right coalition was too weak or too divided to coalesce around a common leader. This time, though, their historic 46% of the vote might bring along an outright parliamentary majority – a first in Romania’s post-communist electoral history – after the redistribution of unallocated mandates. However, despite the clear election results, a political crisis might still be looming on the horizon. During the electoral campaign, President Iohannis vowed not to nominate a convicted politician as prime minister, a situation which includes the PSD leader, Liviu Dragnea, who received a two-year probation sentence for electoral fraud earlier this year.

Election results

The Social-Democrats are followed by President Iohannis’ National Liberal Party (PNL) with a distant 20%. Since the local elections held in June, the party has lost about 10% of the voters’ preferences. The election outcome is all the more disappointing for the PNL, as one year ago the party could count on 35% of the public support according to opinion polls. However, instead of calling early election when the PSD government was ousted, President Iohannis chose to appoint a technocratic government led by former commissioner Dacian Cioloş. Some of the PNL’s eroding support was captured by the Save Romania Union (USR), a new anti-corruption party set up only six months ago, which won around 9% of the vote.

Apart from the Hungarian minority party (UDMR), two new parties also managed to cross the 5% national threshold: the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), which is the merger between a PNL faction and the Conservative Party (PC) led by former prime minister Călin Popescu Tăriceanu; and former President Băsescu’s Popular Movement Party (PMP), which broke away from the Liberal Democratic Party (PDL) in 2013 (the other PDL faction merged with PNL in 2014 and supported Klaus Iohannis as a common candidate in the 2014 presidential election).

None of the 44 independent candidates who stood for election across the country’s 42 constituencies managed to obtain an electoral mandate. A couple of newly-formed ethno-nationalist parties also run unsuccessfully, proving that xenophobia and far-right extremism have not found fertile ground in Romania. That said, the election winners were able to capitalise on growing anti-EU sentiments. Turnout to vote was just 39.5%, the lowest on record since 1990. The full allocation of seats in the two parliamentary chambers is yet to be determined.

Chamber of Deputies (330 seats)
Party % Vote share %Vote change
Social Democratic Party (PSD) 45.55 +9.14
National Liberal Party (PNL) 20.04 -4.23
Union Save Romania (USR) 8.83 New
Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania (UDMR) 6.19 +1.82
Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (ALDE) 5.62 New
People’s Movement Party (PMP) 5.34 New
United Romania Party (PRU) 2.79 New
Greater Romania Party (PRM) 1.05 -0.2
Ecology Party 0.91 +0.12
Our Alliance Romania (ANR) 0.87 New
Senate (136 seats)
Party % Vote share % Vote change
Social Democratic Party (PSD) 45.71 +12.19
National Liberal Party (PNL) 20.42 -7.99
Union Save Romania (USR) 8.88 New
Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania (UDMR) 6.25 +1.14
Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (ALDE) 6.0 New
People’s Movement Party (PMP) 5.64 New
United Romania Party (PRU) 2.95 New
Greater Romania Party (PRM) 1.18 -0.29
Ecology Party 1.1 +0.31
Our Alliance Romania (ANR) 0.95 New

The electoral campaign

Several factors contributed to the PSD’s stunning victory. The new electoral legislation, as well as the laws on political parties and campaign financing adopted by the parliament in 2015 played a significant role. A previous post discussed the change in electoral rules, from the mixed-member system used in the 2008 and 2012 elections to the closed-list proportional system with moderately low-magnitude districts, which was employed until 2004. The new law on party financing capped campaign budgets for individual candidates to 60 gross average salaries, severely restricted the range of electioneering activities – such as street advertising and the dissemination of electoral gifts – and increased the parties’ dependence on state budget for campaign spending. These regulations favoured the two big parties, the PSD and the PNL, and limited the ability of newer parties to make themselves known outside the big cities. Under these circumstances, door-to-door canvassing and online campaigning became an essential part of campaign strategies. These techniques were also skilfully used by USR, due to its strong ties with civil society and its popularity among educated voters who are more likely to use the internet for political information.

The depersonalisation of the electoral campaign was another factor that enhanced the Social-Democrats’ chances (or at least prevented them from haemorrhaging support as in 2014, when the centre-right electorate mobilised against Victor Ponta and handed over the presidency to Klaus Iohannis). The campaign lacked the usual debates between party leaders and PM candidates and the clash of political programmes and policy proposals. Learning the lesson of the 2014 presidential election, the PSD refrained from making any nominations for prime minister, although everything pointed to its current leader, Liviu Dragnea, as the party’s first choice for the PM post. As Dragnea received a two-year probation sentence for electoral fraud earlier this year, his endorsement for the prime ministership ahead of the election would have been an easy target for the centre-right parties, which campaigned on an anti-corruption platform.

On their side, PNL and USR chose to associate themselves with the record of the technocratic government, praising its efficiency in the reform of central and local public administration. Both parties tried to lure PM Cioloş into their ranks. When the premier turned down their offer, the two parties ended up endorsing his political platform and nominating him for a second term as head of government. The move backfired for two reasons. On the one hand, it showed that PNL is still in search of leaders for top national positions, a weakness that also cost the party the defeat in the race for the mayor of Bucharest in the June contest. In fact, PM Cioloş was reluctant to even take part actively in the campaign. On the other hand, it allowed the PSD to associate the centre-right parties with the mishaps of the Cioloş government and its refusal to consent to populist public spending measures passed by the PSD parliamentarians in the eve of the electoral campaign. Moreover, just a few days before the general election, PSD presented plans for next year’s budget, which included proposals for a national reindustrialisation programme and consistent wage increases for public sector employees. This generous stance on boosting social spending and tax cuts was contrasted with PM Cioloş’ firm position on containing the budget deficit, despite Romania’s GDP growth by 6% this year.

Although President Iohannis refrained from getting too involved in the campaign, he did make three notable interventions. First, he tried to force PM Cioloş into joining the PNL ranks by announcing that he would not appoint an independent prime minister after the December poll. Faced with the premier’s refusal to join a political party, the president backed down saying that Cioloş could in fact continue in office if political parties endorsed him for a second mandate. The second time President Iohannis showed off his constitutional role in PM appointment, he ruled out designating a criminally prosecuted or convicted politician, regardless of that person’s parliamentary support. Then, less than a fortnight before the election, he prohibited officials with a criminal record to take party in the formal celebrations organised for Romania’s National Day on December 1. As a result, several high-ranking PSD and ALDE politicians, including Liviu Dragnea and former PM Popescu-Tăriceanu, were denied access to high-visibility events organised by the Presidency. Arguably, these interventions anticipated the President’s intention to make active use of his formal powers in government formation and to prevent the PSD leader from taking over as prime minister.

Towards a new government and another period of cohabitation

Although the allocation of seats has not been officially announced yet, the Social-Democrats and their smaller ally ALDE are likely to reach a sizeable majority. Consequently, the PSD will be granted the first chance in nominating a new prime minister candidate. While so far no official proposals have been made, senior PSD figures have strongly endorsed their party leader for this role. However, not only has President Iohannis vowed to deny appointment to convicted politicians, but a 2001 law also forbids convicted persons to be appointed to government posts. Nevertheless, PSD insists that constitutional provisions, according to which the president must appoint a candidate for the PM post following consultations with the party holding the absolute majority in Parliament, should take precedence in this case. As Liviu Dragnea is unlikely to allow a political rival to capitalise on his electoral success, the conditions for a new constitutional crisis seem in place. Its resolution might once again depend on the decision of the Constitutional Court, or, as several PSD members suggested, could lead to another attempt to impeach the president.

Either way, Romania seems headed towards a new period of cohabitation. It will be interesting to see what role President Iohannis will choose to play in this situation. Will he attempt to become the leader of the opposition, like Traian Băsescu in 2007 and 2012? So far there have been few signs of the president’s willingness to take an active role in the confrontation with political parties. That said, the presidential elections scheduled for 2017 could provide a strong enough incentive to capitalise on the eventual eroding popularity of the centre-left government.

Bonnie N. Field – Forming a government in Spain: The influence of Spain’s first experience with mass democracy

This is a guest post by Bonnie N. Field, Professor & Chair, Department of Global Studies, Bentley University

Field-Bonnie Left lr-1

Spain has been struggling to form a government since the December 2015 parliamentary elections transformed its party system from one that had been dominated by the center-left Socialist Party (PSOE) and conservative Popular Party (PP) to one in which there are four significant national parties, including newcomers Podemos and Ciudadanos, along with a variety of regionally-based parties, none of which has a majority of seats in parliament. After failing to form a government, new elections took place in June 2016, which, to date, have not produced a new government. The difficulty of forming a government is related to the parties’ calculations about the likely costs and benefits—in terms of political support from voters, achieving their policy priorities and attaining political offices—of supporting or not distinct governments. The rules for government formation and censure affect this calculation.

The rules that Spain adopted in its 1978 constitution are dramatically different than those in place during its first mass democracy, the second republic (1931-36), a coup against which led to a brutal civil war and decades of authoritarian rule under Francisco Franco. The current constitution, adopted during its transition to democracy, gives parliament a significant role in government formation, while simultaneously making it difficult for parliament to remove the government. In contrast, the 1931 constitution gave the president of the republic a critical role in government formation and censure. At the same time, parliament did not have a formal role in government formation yet it could more easily remove the government. Spain’s current rules are in part a reaction to the experience of governmental instability during the second republic.

Spain’s Parliamentary Monarchy: Government Selection and Termination

According to the 1978 constitution, to form a government, the monarch nominates a candidate for prime minister after a round of consultations with the political parties in parliament. Following a parliamentary debate, the candidate is subject to a formal investiture vote in the Congress of Deputies, the lower and more significant chamber of the bi-cameral parliament. The prime ministerial candidate, and it is only the candidate that is voted upon, must receive the absolute-majority support of the total number of deputies (≥ 50% + 1 yes votes) in a first-round vote. If an absolute majority is not attained, a simple majority of more yes than no votes suffices in a second-round vote forty-eight hours later. This means that a sufficient number of parliamentarians must cast their vote in favor of the candidate or abstain, which favors the candidate in the second-round, in a highly visible, public vote, if a government is to form. In other words, parties must clearly reveal their positions, and face the positive or negative consequences of their choices.

But, it is not only the formation rules that matter. Parliaments in parliamentary democracies can remove governments in a vote of no confidence. Yet Spain, in adopting a constructive vote of no confidence in its 1978 constitution, established a high threshold for removing the government. The constructive vote of no confidence requires that an absolute majority of parliamentarians vote to remove the government and simultaneously agree on a new prime minister. Therefore, in selecting the government, parliamentarians are cognizant that the existing rules make it very difficult to remove a government once it is formed.

Spain’s Second Republic: The President’s Role in Government Selection and Termination

Unlike in the parliamentary monarchy today, the president was the head of state during the second republic. The 1931 constitution stipulated that parliament would elect the first president through an absolute majority (first round) or plurality (second round) vote. Subsequently, the president would be elected jointly by parliament and by electors—equal in number to the members of parliament—who are popularly elected. The latter provision, which occurred in practice only in 1936, makes it an interesting hybrid between a parliament-selected and a popularly-elected president.

The second republic parliament did not give itself a formal role in government formation. According to the constitution, the president of the republic “freely names and removes” the prime minister, and, on the latter’s instructions, the government ministers. While many of the governments that formed between the approval of the constitution and the outbreak of the civil war called a confidence vote to demonstrate they had parliamentary support, legally the government was presumed to have the confidence of parliament unless or until it formally withdrew it (Vintró Castels 2007). With a highly fragmented parliament, and more parties than in Spain’s parliament today, the president in practice had great influence over the composition of the government. The rules also eased government formation because parliamentarians did not need to agree before the government formed.

Once formed, governments of the second republic could be removed more easily than is the case today. The constitution gave the president the power to “freely” dismiss the prime minister, and stipulated that the president must dismiss the government if parliament withdrew its confidence in it, making the government separately responsible to both institutions. The unicameral parliament could censure the government or one of its ministers with the support of an absolute majority of its members, in contrast to today’s constructive vote of no confidence.

After the approval of the 1931 constitution, the parliament selected Niceto Alcalá Zamora to be president of the republic. The role of the president in the selection and dismissal of the government was often controversial (Juliá 1995; Linz 1978; Villaroya 1975). Amongst others, he has been criticized for engaging in extensive consultations prior to selecting the prime minister, which extended far beyond the individuals and parties in parliament; yet he refused to consult with anti-Republican political forces. He fostered the formation of governments that included his friends and excluded key party leaders. He withdrew his confidence in Prime Minister Azaña when Azaña still had the confidence of parliament in 1933. He very broadly interpreted his constitutional authority to include making nominations that differed from the preferences of the majority of parliament, especially after the 1933 elections produced a victory of the political right. Additionally, after 1933, he attempted to shape the government’s objectives through “presidential notes” that accompanied the nomination of the government.

President Alcalá Zamora also dismissed parliament on two occasions during his term. While constitutional, the constitution also stipulated that the new parliament would assess the necessity of a second dissolution during a president’s six-year term. If parliament found the president’s dissolution unnecessary, the president would be removed from office. In April 1936, parliament removed President Alcalá Zamora from office after it deemed the second dissolution unnecessary. After a brief interim presidency, Manuel Azaña was elected president in May. Shortly thereafter, in July, the civil war began.

The experience of the second republic shaped numerous aspects of Spain’s current democracy. Government instability, as indicated by the 17 governments that existed between the approval of the 1931 constitution and the outbreak of the civil war in 1936, led the designers of Spain’s current constitution to adopt institutions that they believed would foster government stability. These provisions included a parliamentary investiture vote to select the government and a constructive vote of no confidence. Yet, combined with the new party system, these rules have made it more difficult to form a government.


Julía, Santos. 1995. “Sistema de partidos y problemas de consolidación de la democracia,” Ayer 20: 111-139.

Linz, Juan J. 1978. “From Great Hopes to Civil War: The Breakdown of Democracy in Spain.” In The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes, eds. Juan J. Linz and Alfred Stepan (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP).

Villaroya, Joaquín Tomás. 1975. “La formación de Gobierno durante la Segunda República,” Revista de Estudios Políticos 204: 49-94.

Vintró Castells, Joan. 2007. La investidura parlamentaria del Gobierno: perspectiva comparada y Constitución española (Madrid: Congreso de los Diputados).