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Presidents vs. Parliaments: now playing in Romania

by DoDo Thu Oct 22nd, 2009 at 09:07:55 AM EST

In the middle of plunging into the Global Financial Crisis, this month, there has been a government crisis in Romania. But what may seem petty squabbles on the surface is part of a longer-term struggle for dominance between Romania's elected President on one hand, and on the other, the parties in parliament that are supposed to form government majorities.

At the core, this struggle in Romania is a manifestation of the conflict and contrast between the two basic models of modern representative democracy: Presidential and Parliamentarian. A debate we also have in the EU: after all, the attempt of the Blair (and Sarkozy) faction to re-interpret the President of the European Council as a President of the EU (which seemed entirely successful in the British media) would move the EU towards the former.

The current crisis

The current government crisis in Romania started at the end of September, when President Traian Băsescu signed the dismissal of the interior minister.

Since the 2008 elections, Romania's government was formed by a grand coalition of the Democrat-Liberals (PD-L; conservative-liberals, Băsescu's party) and the Social Democrats (PSD; ex-reformed-communists), led by PM Emil Boc (PD-L). The interior minister was from the PSD -- which reacted to the President's decision by pulling out of the coalition on 1 October.

PSD and the opposition parties -- that is the national liberals (PNL), the Hungarian minority party (UDMR/RMDSz), and the special representatives of smaller ethnic minorities -- managed to agree on joint action, and on 13 October, they passed a vote of no confidence against Boc's minority government.

However, they don't get to decide. Whether a government is to truly fall, and if yes, who shall form the next one, is the President's decision. And Băsescu, who is up for re-election next month, had no intention to play ball. He wants a government firmly under his control.

Precedents: a strengthening President

After the 1989 Revolution, Romania got a dual system modelled more or less after France: the country had both a (bicameral) Parliament (the lower house of) which elected a government headed by a prime minister, and a popularly elected President, who, beyond the ceremonial role, had some real powers in foreign policy.

The previous Presidents, master of the dark arts Ion Iliescu (PSD; twice) and Emil Constantinescu (PNL; between Iliescu I and II) already did much to extend their powers, exploiting the weak position of some PMs. A 2003 constitutional reform was supposed to clip the President's wings.

However, then came Băsescu. He used to be the populist (to demagogue) mayor of the capital Bucharest, and came with the image of an outsider to the political elite. In office, he continued his populism (including attacks on Roma) -- and relied on his popularity when intervening in day-to-day politics.

Băsescu did not start his battle for control of the parliament-elected government in the current crisis.

From 2004, Romania had a right-wing tax-cutter government formed by a coalition of PNL and PD-L. The PM, Călin Popescu-Tăriceanu, was from the PNL, and had his own ambitions -- conflict between the two strongmen was pre-programmed. There was open disagreement on policy, nominations, and there were personal attacks. (The two conservative liberal parties also tried to differentiate ideologically, with PD-L opting for American neoconservativism and PNL for anti Iraq War sentiments; though this is now past.)

Eventually, PD-L left the coalition, and PM Popescu-Tăriceanu continued his open warfare against President Băsescu as the leader of a minority government. Eventually, the PM lost that battle thoroughly, and the President successfully directed all the blame for problems in the country towards the government.

In the 2008 parliamentary elections, his PD-L became the biggest party -- and a government much friendlier to the President was formed. And when the coalition partner didn't want to dance according to the President's tune, it got punished.

Games played

As I wrote above, it's the President's decision to actually dismiss a government voted down in a no-confidence vote, and he can also pick the next PM. In addition, one should note that it happened more than once that a thin parliamentary majority was formed by buyingsplitting off some MPs from other parties. With all the cards in Băsescu's hands, all the opposition can do is to signal that its members won't budge, and undermine the possible rhetorical justifications of the President's decisions.

Thus PSD and the opposition first agreed to endorse a joint candidate for PM: Klaus Johannis, the ethnic-German mayor of Transsylvanian city Sibiu (German: Hermannstadt, Hungarian: Nagyszeben, Serbian: Сибињ).

It was widely expected that Băsescu will ignore the no-confidence vote until his (expected) re-election, and use that one month to gather a parliamentary majority. But instead, he accepted Boc's resignation -- and chose former IMF adviser Lucian Croitoru as his PM candidate. He argued that an economist is needed in times of the GFC.

This move provided for two options: splitters would have an easier excuse in supporting an "expert PM" rather than a partisan PN-L one; and, if that fails, the current parliament can be branded unwilling to deal with Romania's economic crisis for petty political reasons, and be dissolved.

As I reported on Monday and Tuesday, Croitoru held his pointless talks with the parties. All the parties played nice, but remained firm in rejecting Croitoru's offers.

Then, yesterday morning, came the opposition's counter-strike: a motion was tabled declaring support for Klaus Johannis as PM, and lack of support for Croitoru, which was passed by a comfortable majority of 252 to 2 (out of 334 MPs, with Băsescu's PD-L abstaining). The opposition wants to reinforce the point that there is a working majority behind a candidate and no splitters for the President's by having all the MPs signing the printed version handed to the President.

Reactions have been high-pitched: the PD-L accused the others of ignoring the Constitution and the President's popular mandate, while the PSD leader had visions about the end of the Republic and compared Băsescu to Nero.

Meanwhile, the sides were also battling on another front: Băsescu found another option to de-fang parliament, namely a constitutional reform to turn it into a unicameral one. He wants a referendum on it on the same day as the presidential election. (Note: Băsescu failed with the referendum route on a previous occasion.) Parliament again issued a symbolic counter-strike by voting to not endorse it; while PNL prepared a counter-proposal that would only reduce the number of the unloved MPs.

What next? President Băsescu announced a press conference for 17h local time (16h CET).

Presidentialism vs. Parliamentarism

Who could win this battle? Well, popular support might have an influence on it. For an indication, let's have a look at the turnouts in the last elections:

  • 2004 Presidential election: 58.5% first round (55.2% second round)
  • 2008 parliamentary elections: 39.2%

A disillusioned electorate, but it appears more so regarding the parties than the President. It seems people are more likely to blame the parties for the problems than the President.

It is a speciality of dual systems that Presidents can hide behind the government and direct the blame on them for unpopular policies and failures, and step to the forefront when there are successes -- we know that from France too. A situation that, at creeping speed or faster, can be used to extend presidential powers. One could say, the worst of both worlds.

But, in my opinion, a pure Presidential system aint' better, either. While there is no PM to hide behind anymore, I think there is a fundamental conflict between the representative and executive roles of the President: it is much easier for a voter to put likeability ahead of policies, and thereby give carte blanche to the executive, and even if not, issues are reduced to the views of a single (wo)man.

As for plunging into the GFC,

Forbes: IMF calmed fears in Romania but electoral ambitions and the economic reality might postpone the loan - Regional Europe - HotNews.ro

The IMF announced last Thursday that they will postpone the evaluation visit at Bucharest until the clarification of the political situation and until the new government is formed. 

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Thu Oct 22nd, 2009 at 09:38:54 AM EST
I wrote:

What next? President Băsescu announced a press conference for 17h local time (16h CET).

He announced the referendum on the reform of parliament held alongside the presidential election. He reacted to the PNL's last-minute attempt to address the same issue by adding a second question:

  1. Do you agree with the shift to a unicameral parliament in Romania?
  2. Do you agree with reducing the number of MPs below 300?

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Thu Oct 22nd, 2009 at 10:23:40 AM EST
A situation where constitutional roles are unclearly defined seems to be the worst of both worlds...

notes from no w here
by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Thu Oct 22nd, 2009 at 12:10:56 PM EST
Constitutional roles are always unclearly defined. There is no perfect constitution :-)

What the roles will actually be, is decided in practice. People in decades-old democracies may forget that, nevertheless, even in old democracies, current practice can change the constitutional roles -- see the change in the relative weight of the US Presidency from McKinley (rise of the imperial President with foreign policy dominance) and FDR (dominance in interior policy too), or Bliar's change of the weight of the PM, or indeed as you mention in your diary, Mary Robinson's re-definition of the Irish Presidency.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Thu Oct 22nd, 2009 at 02:05:37 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The only real path for the opposition is to unite behind one presidential candidate.  Single-winner systems almost require two parties, or at least two blocs of smaller parties.  Otherwise, the candidate with the largest party or personal following wins easily, even in French-style two round systems.
by FoolsErrand on Thu Oct 22nd, 2009 at 04:07:19 PM EST
[ Parent ]
This reminds me of:

Courtyard Crisis - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The Courtyard Crisis (Swedish: Borggårdskrisen) was a significant event in Swedish 20th century history, marking the last time the Monarch of Sweden intervened directly in parliamentary politics.

In early 1914 tensions ran high in Sweden over the issue of defense spending, with World War I approaching in Europe. On February 6 1914 Conservative opponents of the Liberal government of Karl Staaff summoned a 32,000-person demonstration of farmers demanding higher defense spending. The king Gustav V, who was in continual conflict with the government, declared to the crowd gathered in the courtyard of the Stockholm Palace that he shared their concerns.

When Staaff approached the king to remind him that parliamentary rule meant he should stay out of politics, Gustav V refused and said he would "not give up the right to communicate freely with the Swedish people". The government promptly resigned, and 136 Liberal members of both chambers of parliament issued a statement saying the system of government was in jeopardy, urging the Swedish people to defend its right to rule itself. Their opponents in the parliament (the Conservatives and the Farmers' party) in turn accused them of putting parliamentarism over national security, and called on the people to put every effort into solving the defense issue.

The king appointed a conservative government, but tensions continued in the debate on spending. The second chamber of parliament was dissolved and new elections called for. In June, the conflict abruptly ended with the breakout of war in Europe, which in effect decided the argument in favor of the conservatives; however, some reforms and budget amendments were implemented to appease the Liberals. In the end, only the Social Democrats voted against the defense program, although 24 Liberal parliamentarians discarded their votes in protest.

It was an attempt at power-grab by the king and the conservatives and though victorious in 1914 it in the end contributed the outbreak of strict parliamentarian rule. For liberals and socialists it marked the danger of having a king with real powers. Through compromises the king held on to formal powers (though no real ones) until the 70ies change in constitution. (And after that only representative functions.)

It could have gone another way though, the Russian revolution scared the conservative establishment and contributed to compromises. Without that, who knows?

Sweden's finest (and perhaps only) collaborative, leftist e-newspaper Synapze.se

by A swedish kind of death on Fri Oct 23rd, 2009 at 07:26:35 AM EST

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