Election preview: Romania (president)

Romania also goes to the polls tomorrow, with president Klaus Iohannis seeking a second five-year term against a field of 13 opponents – one of them his recent prime minister, Viorica Dăncilă. If no-one wins an outright majority, a second round will be held two weeks later, on 24 November.

Romania has a semi-presidential system, roughly on the French model. The prime minister, who is responsible to parliament, is head of government, but the president is more than just a ceremonial figurehead. And Romania’s recent experience carries distinct echoes of twenty or thirty years ago in France.

Iohannis won the job, in 2014, by beating then prime minister Victor Ponta, winning with 54.4% in the second round. Ponta, from the centre-left Social Democrats, had been in office since 2012, when he had won elections in coalition with the centre-right National Liberal Party (PNL) and some smaller parties.

After two years the Ponta government was already beset by allegations of corruption. The PNL walked out of the coalition, and with other centre and centre-right forces nominated Iohannis for the presidency to run against Ponta, who was making the rather common move in the region of attempting to move upwards.

Having failed in that attempt, Ponta continued as prime minister in a period of “cohabitation”. That was nothing new, since Iohannis’s predecessor, Traian Băsescu, was also from the centre-right, although from a different party, the Democratic Party (it has since merged into the PNL).

Ponta and Iohannis seemed to manage the relationship without any major drama, but Ponta was ultimately indicted on corruption charges (he was later acquitted) and in Novewmber 2015 he resigned after a deadly nightclub fire in Bucharest had sparked popular protests.

Dacian Cioloș, an independent technocrat, replaced him, and parliamentary elections were held a year later. The Social Democrats won a large plurality, falling just short of a majority in their own right, and formed government with the support of a small centrist party, ALDE.

But factional infighting and a string of scandals plagued the government, which went through three prime ministers in as many years. Last month Dăncilă, the third of them  (and Romania’s first female prime minister), was ousted in a vote of no confidence. Iohannis nominated PNL leader Ludovic Orban to replace her, and this week the new government was approved by parliament.

Opinion polls show Iohannis with a big lead on the first round, but probably not enough to avoid a runoff. Dăncilă is his most likely second-round opponent, but there is also significant support for centrist candidates Dan Barna and Mircea Diaconu. None of them are close to beating Iohannis in the runoff, although such hypothetical polls are often unreliable.

So if Orban’s numbers in parliament hold up, it looks as if president and prime minister will be politically aligned for the immediate future. For now, the PNL is well placed for parliamentary elections due at the end of next year, but if the recent past is any guide, a lot could happen in Romania before then.

France went through three periods of cohabitation between 1986 and 2002. There have been none since, because a constitutional amendment shortened the term of the presidency to bring it into alignment with the legislature; with the two elected close together, it’s unlikely that a parliamentary majority will support a prime minister hostile to the president.

At some point Romania’s political class may be driven to a similar expedient.

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