By Sorina Soare (University of Florence)
At the end of 2014, ten months after the precedent reshuffle, the 4th cabinet led by Prime minister Victor Ponta was sworn in as one of Traian Băsescu’s last public actions as president. Victor Ciorbea, the incumbent Prime minister, has a longstanding career in Romanian politics. Close to the former Prime minister, Adrian Năstase, Victor Ponta rapidly progressed in the hierarchy of the Social Democratic Party (PSD). He was elected president of the Youth Department in 2002 and obtained a parliamentary mandate in 2004. By 2010, he became the president of the PSD. Sworn in as Prime minister in 2012, Victor Ponta became one of the most important players in the constitutional vicissitudes that brought Romania under international scrutiny in the summer of 2012. In the same period, his credibility was harshly challenged by allegations of plagiarism regarding his 2003 Ph.D. dissertation.
Considering that the parliamentary election is due in 2016, another reshuffling so late in the game is quite notable. In fact, the December 2014 reshuffle was the result of a rather tumultuous period for Prime Minister Victor Ponta, who was facing numerous challenges. First, he had to deal with the challenge of his unexpected defeat in the presidential elections held in November 2014. In light of the PSD’s outstanding results in the most recent European elections in May 2014, the race for the Romanian presidency had been initially described as an easy victory for the incumbent Prime Minister. Initial forecasts expected V. Ponta to benefit from his cabinets’ involvement in the softening of the austerity measures introduced in 2010 by the Boc cabinet (Liberal democratic Party, PDL). Still, the first round of the election would be marred by claims of civil rights infringement. More specifically, on November 2nd, numerous Romanians abroad were denied the right to vote due to extremely long queues outside voting stations. Following protests in the main cities of Romania and abroad, the foreign minister, Titus Corlăţean (PSD), was forced to resign although no official report was made addressing the allegations that the electoral rights were voluntarily hampered. Despite this last minute operation, widespread street protests directly challenged the government, blaming it for the poor organization of the elections, and openly calling for Prime Minister Ponta’s resignation. Other elements that account for Ponta’s failure range from his nationalist electoral campaign to the numerous corruption scandals that broke out during the presidential campaign period regarding high-ranking PSD members. All in all, on the eve of the second round of the presidential elections, Ponta’s initial advantage over his rival centre-right candidate, Klaus Iohannis (Liberal Christian Alliance – ACL) narrowed drastically. Eventually Klaus Iohannis (n.a. – mayor of Sibiu, a medium-sized city in Transylvania) took a decisive advantage and comfortably won the Presidency of Romania with 54,43% of the vote (V. Ponta scored 45,56%).
As a direct consequence of this defeat, V. Ponta’s position was particularly weakened. On the one side, various centre-right politicians asked for his resignation as Prime Minister, not only because he failed to properly organize the elections, but also as a direct consequence of his loss of legitimacy. On the other side, V. Ponta had to deal with the numerous contestations within his own party. Staying in government or resigning was a further challenge to deal with. The abrupt fall of the former PSD President, Mircea Geona, who was defeated by Traian Băsescu in the second round of the 2009 presidential elections, insistently haunted the PSD internal politics. There was also the delicate issue of the Liberal Reformist Party (PLR), a National Liberal Party’s splinter (PNL), led by the former Prime minister Călin Popescu-Tăriceanu. During the presidential campaign, in return for his support for V. Ponta, Călin Popescu Tăriceanu was supposed to be appointed as Prime Minister. Under the new circumstances, negotiations regarding the cabinet positions for the PLR were high on V. Ponta’s agenda. Moreover, on November 27th, in the boisterous aftermath of the presidential elections, the UDMR (the representative of the ethnic Hungarian minority) announced that it would quit the government after joining it in March 2014. Although the UDMR left the government, the Union still declared its support for the new cabinet. In addition to losing the UDMR, with their decision to withdraw from government, Ponta’s 3rd cabinet also lost the parliamentary support of Dan Diaconescu’s People’s Party.
Under these conditions V. Ponta counted on a new government formula, first validated by the joint Chambers of the Parliament with 377 votes in favour and 134 against on December 15. While the 3rd Ponta cabinet was seen as a cabinet of technocrats, the 4th one was ab origine depicted as being political. The Prime minister openly declared his intention to fortify the connection between the Parliament and the Government by appointing more members with a parliamentary mandate. Instead of the previous four Deputy Ministers, the new cabinet has a single Deputy Prime Minister – Gabriel Oprea (the National Union for the Progress of Romania – UNPR) who also holds the position of Minister of the Interior. Liviu Dragnea represents a peculiar case among the previous Deputy Prime Ministers. He is the current executive President of the PSD and, in the 4th cabinet, maintains the portfolio of Regional Development and Public Administration. The fact that he is no longer Deputy Prime Minister was justified by V. Ponta as a consequence of the PSD needing to focus more on internal affairs. Close to V. Ponta, Dragnea is supposed to control the discontent in the PSD. The Conservative Party (PC) also lost a Deputy Prime Minister position, receiving instead the Ministry of Education. The initial Deputy Prime Minister position in the 4th cabinet belonged to the UDMR, which is no longer part of the government.
Beside the PSD, which remains the largest group in the parliament and the main party in government, the cabinet included representatives from three other parties – the PLR, the PC and the UNPR; the last two parties being part of the previous governmental formula since 2012 (the PC since the 1st Ponta cabinet and the UNPR since the Ponta’s 2nd cabinet). Each of the governmental partners received two positions. The UNPR maintained the two previous positions: the Minister of the Interior and the Delegate Minister of Relations with the Parliament. The PC was granted the Ministry of Education and maintained the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development. The newcomer, the PLR, received the positions of Minister of the Environment and Small and Medium Enterprises and Business. Out of the 14 PSD ministers, 9 were part of the previous cabinet, although some switching of positions occurred. The content of several positions was modified, e.g. the Ministry of Finance integrated the function Budget with the aim to guarantee a smoother coordination of the state’s fiscal policy and budget. Among the other changes, the SMEs have been moved to the Ministry of Energy, Small and Medium Enterprises and Business from the previous position of Business, Environment and Tourism.
The longevity of the new cabinet is currently challenged by the PNL’s wary declarations and the PNL-led negotiations in the Parliament for organizing a no-confidence vote. In order to succeed, beside the current 171 MPs, the PNL needs the support not only of safe allies such as the People’s Movement party (PMP – 13 MPs) or the voluble group of representatives of national minorities at the Chamber (17 Mps), but also the endorsement of UDMR’s 26 MPs. Considering the current numbers in the parliament, the promoters of a no-confidence vote still need 64 MPs, part of which might come from the UNPR group, under the direct siege of PNL negotiations. A pool of endorsements might be granted by PSD dissidents gravitating around Mircea Geoana and Marian Vanghelie, expelled from the party in December 2014 after having criticized V. Ponta. The turmoil in the PSD is also fuelled by the decision to postpone the organization of a National Congress from the original date in March 2015 to a later period as yet to be decided.