By Luciana Alexandra Ghica (University of Bucharest)
Rarely present in international news and hardly ever for its achievements, Romania has gained, however, positive international fame during the last decade for two seemingly unrelated success stories. The slightly more entertaining one is its new wave of cinema which often reflects on the country’s recent communist past and democratic transition in a specific style that came to be known as realist dramedy – plots showing mostly ordinary people often in comedic situations but who essentially experience bitter dramas largely due to inappropriate decision-making. The other trigger for appreciative international headlines is its anti-corruption agency (Direcția Națională Anticorupție / National Anticorruption Directorate – DNA), whose accomplishments include the prosecution and subsequent imprisonment of high-profile politicians, most famously of former prime minister Adrian Năstase (2000-2004).
Like its cinema, the country’s post-communist politics has often shown a penchant towards dramedy but of a slightly different flavour. Its cast is made of mostly ordinary people in inappropriate decision-making positions, a fact which frequently produces comedic situations but also reveals deeper personal and collective dramas. In the many overlapping plots of Romanian political life, the anti-corruption agency has been increasingly instrumentalized as the main positive antagonist but its investigations have also uncovered a darker stratum of complex tragedies. The most notorious one in recent times – an accidental fire in a Bucharest night club that left dead or mutilated for life several dozens of predominantly young people during a Halloween party in late October 2015 – has revealed multiple layers of corruption and institutional incapacity involving state authorities at all levels. “Corruption kills” and the hashtag #Colectiv (the name of the night club) became the catchphrases that in November 2015 mobilized thousands to take the street for expressing their anger and angst in relation with public authorities and political leadership. The protests led to several removals from office, including the rather surprising and quick resignation of social-democrat PM Victor Ponta (2012-2015), a former doctoral student and protégé of the imprisoned former PM Adrian Năstase. The surprise came particularly since Ponta had resisted heavily criticism for not having stepped down several years earlier, when his doctoral thesis had been publicly revealed as grossly plagiarized.
Without prompting anticipated elections, these events led to the appointment of a technocratic government under the leadership of Dacian Cioloș (2015-2016), former European Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development (2010-2014) with no formal political party affiliation but with open support from the current Romanian President’s party of origin – PNL (Partidul Național Liberal / National Liberal Party, centre-right). Although many of the de-bureaucratization and reformist actions of this government have been highly popular, especially among the younger, urban, educated population, this did not also reflect in votes for PNL, whose electorate partly migrated to the newly formed anti-establishment party Uniunea Salvați România (Save Romania Union, USR). Coagulated around various civil society initiatives connected to the Colectiv movement in spring 2016, USR largely formed around a recent local party (Uniunea Salvați Bucureștiul / Save Bucharest Union – USB) who has gathered mostly young professionals of various ideologies and more cosmopolitan vibes but without a clear political agenda. For the social-democrats (Partidul Social Democrat / Social Democratic Party – PSD) and for the recently isolated but well-known politicians such as former President Traian Băsescu (Partidul Mișcarea Populară / Popular Movement Party – PMP) and fomer PM Călin Popescu Tăriceanu (Partidul Alianța Liberalilor și Democraților / Alliance of Liberals and Democrats Party – ALDE), the technocratic government also proved beneficial for electoral scores as it provided the opportunity to focus on the electoral campaign.
Within the framework of a revised electoral law aimed at opening the political space to new parties and with a turnout of cca. 39%, the December 2016 elections produced a Parliament dominated by PSD (who failed to achieve the majority but gained a comfortable 45% of the votes), followed by PNL (20%), USR (9% – the only new party to pass the electoral threshold), UDMR (Uniunea Democrată a Maghiarilor din România / Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania, 6%), ALDE (5%) and PMP (5%). About 10% of the votes was split among a couple of dozens of mostly new parties who failed to achieve the electoral threshold, with cca. a third of these votes belonging to Partidul România Unită (United Romania Party – PRU), a new party with highly xenophobic tones created by a former PSD member, occasionally supported by former PM Victor Ponta and led by media mogul Sebastian Ghiță, who until December 2016 was also member of the parliamentary commission for the control of the Romanian Intelligence Service (SRI). Disappeared shortly after elections and currently with a police warrant on his name yet capable of sending recordings with various denouncements of high profile political opponents to be broadcasted by his media outlets, Ghiță is currently prosecuted in several high-level corruption scandals, most famously for allegedly having bought his deputy seat through PM Victor Ponta to whom he would have given for this purpose money to organize a conference with former British PM Tony Blair.
The new government who was appointed Wednesday 4th of January 2017 after almost two weeks of negotiations during the winter holidays reflects a fragile majority coalition (PSD-ALDE) issued by these latest elections. At first sight, this is very similar to USL – the PSD-PNL coalition created after the previous parliamentary elections, which made Victor Ponta prime minister in 2012. ALDE is in fact the inheritor of an internal PNL split after USL itself broke in 2014 and after mainstream PNL shifted the European affiliation from the Alliance for Liberals and Democrats for Europe Party (ALDE) to the European Popular Party (EPP). Like in most other Romanian post-communist governments, UDMR is also an official partner of the ruling coalition/party, having signed a protocol of collaboration for this purpose but, unlike on other occasions, it has not received yet any governmental position. Most importantly, however, unlike in previous similar circumstances, both ALDE and UDMR are in a much weaker position in relation to PSD.
Paradoxically, with one of its best electoral scores yet and acting as the dominant political force, PSD is also at a turning point in its history, with the newly appointment government revealing many of its internal weaknesses and transformations. Since its creation, PSD has been characterized by strong leadership from Bucharest but it relied heavily on its local chapters to mobilize the electorate, influence public administration and access public resources. As inheritor of the former communist party, it already had access and control of a large part of the local and central authorities, and during the last two decades it largely maintained it, especially in rural or more socially vulnerable areas. Since the resignation of Victor Ponta in late 2015, the party’s central leadership was assumed for the first time by a member from a local chapter and strongly associated to local politics, while being nonetheless highly influential at central level – Liviu Dragnea. Since his appointment, the party won as members and candidates for the parliamentary elections new young and credible professionals, a fact that attracted some of the urban educated electorate. Like Ponta, he is also relatively young compared to the traditional PSD leaders but he has a longer experience in politics, having been between 1996 and 2000 a member of the Democratic Party (Partidul Democrat – PD, currently extinct after subsequent mergers that eventually incorporated it into PNL). However, also like the previous generations of PSD party leaders, Dragnea could not shake off the strong association between social-democrats and corruption scandals, himself refusing to resign from party leadership after a very public and legally proven wrong-doing, in his case being convicted for electoral fraud. After the elections, this placed him in the very uncomfortable position of having led his party to a significant victory but not being able to assume the function of prime minister, as the law does not allow convicted persons to be part of the government, and because the President of Romania emphasized publicly that he would not appoint as head of government a person who violated the law.
And this is how a new chapter of an already long saga opens, revealing several unexpected twists that made international headlines, with older and newer corruption scandals, cameo appearances of the intelligence services, the long shadow of the #Colectiv movement and commentators giving few chances of survival to the cabinet. The scene was set when Liviu Dragnea announced right before Christmas the surprising nomination of Sevil Shaiddeh (former Sumanariu) for the PM position. A former civil servant with close connections to PSD barons in a local stronghold of the party but a virtually unknown national face although she had recently led the electorally strategic Ministry of Regional Development and Administration during the last months of Ponta’s government (a position she had inherited from Liviu Dragnea himself), she was not only the first female PM nomination in Romanian politics but had she been appointed she could have been the first Muslim prime minister in the European Union, a piece of news that did not escape international media outlets during the Christmas holidays. In a country where the respect for minorities is recent, limited and highly differentiated (with poorer and non-Christian dominations being particularly targeted by hate speech), where women are still hardly visible in politics, and where socially conservative attitudes are on rise, Shaiddeh’s gender and religious affiliation triggered a significant amount of bullying, even if she did not appear publicly after the announcement. At the same time, quoting sources related to the Romanian Intelligence Service, Romanian media published the information that her husband (whom she recently married in a ceremony were Dragnea himself was present in an important role) is a Syrian national who posted on his Facebook page messages in Arabic and in support of the Assad regime, as Mr. Shaiddeh himself was a previous employee of the Syrian government before becoming an employee of the Romanian government and a Romanian citizen. More embarrassingly, Mr. Shaiddeh’s brothers would allegedly continue to work for the Assad regime, with one of them even having interdiction of entrance in the European Union. After these revelations, the Romanian President announced the rejection of the proposal without, however, providing public reasons for the decision, a fact which was speculated politically by his opponents.
The impression that Dragnea aims to orchestrate a puppet government through obedient party members was further consolidated with the second nomination. The nominee, Sorin Grindeanu, like Dragnea, entered central politics as leader of another local chapter of PSD but for the national public he is just another virtually unknown former minister (of telecommunications) in Ponta’s government. Right before New Year, the Romanian President announced the acceptance of this candidature and in less than a week, which included New Year celebrations and two bank holidays, the list of ministers was drafted and the new government got Parliament’s vote of confidence by the evening of the 4th of January, unsurprisingly fast given the comfortable PSD-ALDE-UDMR majority. As for Sevil Shaiddeh, she got back the Ministry of Regional Development and the bonus position of vice prime minister. In 2015, Grindeanu was the one who announced to the press the nomination of Shaiddeh as minister for regional development when she was appointed as Dragnea’s successor at the ministry but this time Dragnea was the master of ceremony. In fact, not only it was Dragnea who announced the cabinet after the designation of the PM but he was also the one who answered all questions from the press, with Grindeanu only declaring that he understands well that “politics is elsewhere”. Unhelpfully for his yet to emerge leadership image, Grindeanu was then photographed smoking in Dragnea’s office at the Parliament, smoking being forbidden by Romanian law in public spaces. He later declared that he was only vaping but police is currently investigating the incident.
The other government members are also rather unknown, with those who already have some national visibility being mostly problematic political figures, linked to older or ongoing corruption cases, and/or characterized by blatant political opportunism. For some of the voters of PNL and USR, who will be forced to collaborate in order to counter some of the already controversial measures announced by Dragnea as governing programme (such as revising plagiarism and amnesty laws in favour of the convicted, or cutting taxes while increasing the minimum wage), the componence of the new government is particularly alienating on many different fronts. Emotionally, probably the most painful is the fact that the first decision-maker dismissed after the Colectiv fire is now Minister of Sport and Youth, while the minister for Romanian diaspora is a former ambassador to Israel who was accused for not having been involved enough in supporting the families of those who were injured in the Colectiv fire and were then moved to Israel for medical purposes. Several of the new ministers are also currently investigated for corruption or integrity offences, one being recently quoted as witness in the already mentioned Ghiță-Ponta-Blair trial. The Minister of Justice and the most heavy-weight PSD member of cabinet, is notorious for having tried in the past to force the adoption of laws that would have benefited those convicted for corruption crimes, while other members are suspected of accumulating wealth higher than their declared revenues. Not least, some of the ministers frequently changed political party membership before being affiliated to PSD or ALDE, most often having spent some time in the Conservative Party (Partidul Conservator – PD, now part of ALDE), controversially led by another media mogul Dan Voiculescu, now in jail for high corruption. But more significantly, even these have been close or long-time collaborators of Dragnea or PSD, even if some are now in ALDE.
Understandably, whether this government will have time to shake off the first negative impression and the many skeletons attached to it is a matter of hot debates these days with many commentators giving it less than half a year until its dismissal. The most popular view is that Dragnea will try to force the change of the law that prohibits convicted persons to be appointed PM or members of the government. This theory is particularly fuelled by the fact that the Constitutional Court just received a request for clarification in this sense from the Ombudsman, an institution led by former PM Victor Ciorbea who was appointed in this position with support from PSD during Ponta’s mandate (although he was PM in a party opposing PSD). Dragnea himself has dismissed the idea of him aiming to be prime minister several hours after the news went public on the 5th of January. However, his list of trusted collaborators seems to be short and largely exhausted with the appointment of this government. The internal opposition to Dragnea inside PSD is also growing and the historical records are not in his favour. For instance, in 2012 Ponta was considered by the PSD senior leaders as an obedient puppet leader who then usurped the power himself and removed the old leadership. At this moment, whether this will be the fate of the Dragnea-Grindeanu relations is anyone’s guess. Meanwhile, the tragi-dramedy continues.
Photo source: http://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/04/world/europe/romania-chooses-left-leaning-government.html?_r=0