Continuing themes of relations between the president in prime minister in Romania’s hybrid system (which I have followed off and on for some time), tensions and scandal could prompt elections as early as May for parliament.
The full text of the news item from the Southeast European Times:
BUCHAREST, Romania — A bitter row between the president and prime minister has brought Romania to the brink of early elections. Late Wednesday (January 17th), President Traian Basescu showed journalists a note Prime Minister Calin Popescu Tariceanu wrote him in 2005, asking Basescu to intercede with prosecutors on behalf of a prominent businessman accused of tax evasion and fraud. “The prime minister suggested a partnership with the oligarchs to lean on the justice system, which was unacceptable to me,” Basescu said.
Tariceanu in turn accused the president of lying and of being “surrounded by interest groups that control the public works”. He also accused the president of attempting to destroy Tariceanu’s government and party. Basescu’s Democrats are coalition partners with Tariceanu’s National Liberal Party. Experts now expect that an election could be scheduled to coincide with the European Parliament vote in May.
The opposition Social Democratic Party (PSD) is demanding that both the president and prime minister resign. It has threatened to launch impeachment proceedings against Basescu and a no-confidence vote against Tariceanu if they refuse. (Ziua, Adevarul, Cotidianul. – 19/01/07; BBC, AFP, Rompres, Mediafax – 18/01/07)
The back-story is more or less as follows (according to some research I did some time ago for another purpose):
The combination of semi-presidentialism (with the parliamentary component dominant in government formation), concurrent elections, and a two-round system for electing the president (but PR for parliament) has helped generate some interesting patterns of pre- and post-election coalition building, and ongoing intra-alliance tensions.
The presidential and parliamentary elections of late 2004 were contested by two major pre-election alliances. The PSD, in alliance with the Humanist Party, won a strong first-round plurality for its presidential candidate, Adrian Nastase, 40.9%, to the 33.9% won by Traian Basescu of the Justice and Truth Alliance. However, Basescu won the runoff, 51.2-48.8%.
The Romanian constitution gives the president some significant leverage in the initial proposal of a prime minister, but after that, the process is essentially parliamentary. Crucially, the government must win and maintain the confidence of the parliamentary majority. Despite the stronger parliamentary result for the center-left alliance backing Nastase–132 seats to the 113 won by the center-right Justice and Truth–the victory by the candidate of the latter alliance in the presidential runoff resulted in a changed dynamic of coalition building.
In fact, a “changed dynamic of coalition building” is putting it mildly. The president used his majority “mandate” to propose a government led by his own party, despite its being much smaller in parliament than the PSD. The Humanist Party broke with its pre-election partner, the PSD, changed its name to the Conservative Party, and joined the right-wing Justice and Truth Alliance to form the ruling coalition, along with the Hungarian Democratic Alliance.
On the one hand, this was a break with pre-election commitments, as voters could not split their preferences between the Social Democrats and the Humanists (Romania uses closed lists, so a pre-election alliance requires voters to accept or reject the coalition as a whole). On the other hand, the ultimate government outcome arguably reflects what the majority voted for, given the right-wing candidate’s runoff victory. Given the high degree of proportionality of the legislative electoral system* and the fact that Romania’s cabinet must command a majority in parliament, neither the pre-election alliances nor their post-election reshuffling would have been likely without the concurrent elections. That is, parties align themselves into presidential-contesting blocs, and the presidential runoff creates a voter-driven opportunity for realignment of the blocs.
I will leave it to the reader to decide whether this alliance-shifting is a good example of democratic accountability or not. And I wish I knew more about how the parties themselves are organized, and the extent to which they follow a more “presidential” logic (given the evident importance of being on the side that can win a majority in a presidential election) or a more “parliamentary” logic (given the necessity of having a parliamentary majority to form a cabinet).
In any event, the new alliance negotiated after the election has been close to breakdown–with early elections expected–several times in the last two years. The alliance may yet survive.
UPDATE at The Head Heeb: With the corruption scandal deepening, the Democratic Party, which is a component of the President’s Justice and Truth Alliance, may bolt the coalition and join the opposition’s no-confidence motion. (I would have expected the Conservatives, nee Humanists, to be the first partner out, given that they turned to the now-governing alliance only after the last election, as discussed above.)
*Romania has a nationwide proportional adjustment system (i.e., smaller regional districts, but national calculation of overall results) and a 5% threshold. Parties that are registered as ethnic or religious minority parties are eligible for representation, even if they miss the 5% threshold, but not at full proportionality (i.e., these are more akin to communal set-aside seats). There are 18 seats (of 332 total) held by such parties in the current Chamber of Deputies. The only explicitly minority-based party that cleared the regular threshold in 2004 is the Hungarian Democratic Alliance. It barely cleared, with 6.2%. The Hungarian Alliance is a member of the current coalition, but fears not being able to pass 5% in a new election. The Senate, which is also an important chamber, though not as powerful as the Chamber of Deputies, is also elected by PR (though it is slightly less proportional mainly because it is only about a third the size of the lower chamber, yet elected from the same multimember districts).