By Veronica Anghel (University of Bucharest)
Following yet another electoral fortune, the Social Democratic Party of Romania (PSD) successfully formed the Grindeanu cabinet with support party the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (ALDE) in December 2016. As the first year in the life of the Grindeanu cabinet unfolded, there was little change in the distribution of party strength or voter preferences: the coalition partners alone provided a stable legislative majority for the cabinet while benefiting from added legislative support from the Democratic Union of Hungarians (UDMR); the main opposition parties the National Liberals (PNL) and the Save Romania Union (USR) continued to have a discreet presence on the parliament floor and in public debates; president Klaus Iohannis was habitually unshaken in limiting his actions to the institutional, rather representative requirements of the office. Nevertheless, before the inaugural year of the electoral cycle was completed, PM Sorin Grindeanu was taken down through a motion of no confidence (June 21st) initiated by his own executive coalition. He was replaced with Mihai Tudose (June 29th), the outgoing Minister of Economy. While inter-party competition remains quite dreary, the sounding dismissal of PM Grindeanu by his own party is a sign that Romania’s largest party, the PSD, is in competition with itself, a good piece of news for a potential reformation from within of this unchallenged political giant. This is a short guide on how to interpret this midsummer government termination, on what is new and what is business as usual in Romanian party politics.
Coalition formation patterns continue as usual in Romania. The most common, one dominant party coalition type that the PSD is used to being a part of remains their first and most stable choice. Are we to consider parties as unitary actors, the PSD – ALDE executive coalition is, for the time being, in equilibrium. The short lived crisis initiated by the refusal of the former PM to resign at the request of the PSD chairman Liviu Dragnea, approved by the extended party leadership and their coalition partner, is an unforeseeable personal reaction. This is not a reflection of conflict within the coalition and has not had this effect. The PSD – ALDE parliamentary discipline as well as the coherent messages the two party leaders have expressed through this situation and in its aftermath proved their coordination mechanisms are functioning. To understand potential causes and effects for this cabinet termination, we have to investigate a level deeper, within parties and at the individual level.
The average lifespan of a Romanian cabinet is of one year. The duration of the Grindeanu cabinet was little over half a year. Once more, this underpins the known and expected Romanian government instability. In its 28th year of democratic regime, the country now counts its 29th cabinet (and still no early elections!). However, so far, governments formed in the aftermath of elections have always lasted longer. The present one met all the standard attributes for a longer life. The situation of a stable coalition ousting its ‘rebellious’ PM is explained by the lack of union between the position of chairman of the largest party and that of the PM. Considering that the PSD chairman, Liviu Dragnea, cannot hold the premiership as the current legislation does not allow sentenced law offenders to be members of the cabinet, we can expect a reiteration of this tension should the new PM Tudose also cross the party lines.
Policy seeking elites? Not yet
The introduction of a motion of no – confidence requires a written motivation presented to the parliament. This is seen as a technicality, a smoke screen behind which party discipline and bargaining for votes takes place. The PSD and ALDE justified the withdrawal of confidence in the PM with an unfulfilled governing program. The claim was unsubstantiated as Romania experienced the highest economic growth in the EU. The proof of the ceremonial aspects of this text came shortly after with the nomination of the Minister of the Economy, one of the most criticized ministerial performances, as the new PM. Many ministers, close to the PSD chairman also remained in the cabinet. In short, policy and economic performance was not the coalition’s priority in reshuffling the cabinet and dismissing the PM.
The strength of parties and party leaders
The motion of no confidence that the parliamentary majority successfully introduced against the PM reconfirms that party leaders are the most powerful reservoirs of political power. It also brings back into question the fundamental role of parliamentary parties for good governance. The rules of multi-party parliamentary systems make parties the pillars of political life, irrespective of the growing attention to technocrats, independents and the powers of those holding executive offices (i.e. the PM or the president). In short, although Dragnea and Grindeanu initially proved to have a working relationship in which Grindeanu followed the party line, the PM position personally gave him the incentives to break his subordination. Although the exact reasons escaped the public knowledge, in a highly personalized political environment, the feud worsened in a couple of days, once the PM refused to take a step back and accept the position of deputy-PM. This fall – out is not the result of significant fragmentation within the PSD. However, it could contribute in the longer run to claims of more internal democracy which the current chairman strongly discourages.
The future of the PSD? It’s all good
The PSD continues to be one of the most successful successor parties in the post-communist space. In terms of government experience and structural strength it remains unequalled. One of its splinters and potential competitor, the Liberal –Democrat Party (PDL) merged with the National Liberal Party (PNL) in 2014, a merger that continues to leave the now largest opposition party confused and confusing. The PSD is therefore not hindered from the outside, which provides some space for internal challenges should considerable discontent against the current leadership appear. However, when faced with mass anti-corruption protests in early 2017, the PSD and the PSD led cabinet took a step back and did not pursue their initial contested changes to the law, changes that would have clearly benefited the party leader and many others. This proved that Dragnea is aware of more than his personal immediate gain in leading the party and was responsive to confrontations, which also came from more or less prominent members within the PSD. Taking into account the mass electoral support they had just won, the weakness of the opposition and the unobtrusive reactions of the European community when faced with authoritative slides by member states, the hundreds of thousands gathered in the streets of Bucharest could have been ignored. This was a sign that within the PSD there could be competing trends that the party leader did not want to ignore and has to work to appease. While Dragnea’s future is less predictable, as he still has on-going lawsuits that could end unfavourably, the PSD remains the most proficient political actor. Nevertheless, it is highly susceptible to how its voter base economically perceives government performance.
The future of the party system? Something’s missing
Ideologically, the PSD has mostly centre-left inclinations and a steady electoral pool, extended through the use of nationalist, ethnic and protectionist accents. The PNL has also become more and more conservative in their public speech and strayed further away to the right appealing to a more traditionalist voter base, paradoxically overlapping the PSD. The debate on policy remains in a stalemate. The more progressive voters have a reason to feel underrepresented as their social concerns remain without response. Parliamentary beginner USR is also split in covering these needs and has lost momentum.
For the time being, any future challenge to cabinet stability can only come from irrational acts or strategic mistakes within the PSD.
Photo source: http://www.romaniajournal.ro/mihai-tudose-cabinet-sworn-in-at-cotroceni-palace-president-iohannis-put-an-end-to-the-fiscal-budgetary-hopping/