By Veronica Anghel (University of Bucharest)
The durability of a cabinet is the standard indicator used by researchers of governments to measure stability. Non-specialists intuitively make the same choice. Now counting its 30th cabinet of the last 28 years, Romania reconfirms its traditional pattern of cabinet instability. However, the case also shows the limitations of ‘duration’ alone as an indicator for a stable government. The following text discusses why the nomination of a third Romanian PM in less than a year is no cause for alarm in matters of governance continuity. It also shows that the types of conflicts that lead to early cabinet termination are telling of the problems incurred by a party system.
An Unsurprising Early Termination
On 15 January 2018, the Romanian PM, Mihai Tudose announced his resignation following a meeting of the National Executive Committee of the Social Democrat Party (PSD). A longstanding PSD member, Tudose had only recently been named Prime Minister on 29 June 2017. As anticipated by this blog, his mandate was destined to be short-lived should he challenge in any way the party line and show lack of unity with the PSD chairman, Liviu Dragnea. Tudose felt incentivized by the PM position to confront the PSD chairman with demands to reshuffle his cabinet. In particular, the PM wanted the interior minister, Carmen Dan, to resign following a public conflict. Dan is one of Dragnea’s most loyal collaborators and the chairman took her side in the conflict. In addition, PM Tudose made some disturbing statements about the Hungarian minority living in Romania, which brought tensions in the relations between the PSD and the Democratic Union of Hungarians (UDMR). UDMR is a valued parliamentary collaborator for the PSD and has a legislative support agreement signed with the executive coalition.
Dragnea was quick to identify the seeds of unacceptable unruliness. Consequently, the PSD leadership voted for the withdrawal of support for the Tudose government with near unanimity (60 votes in favour, 4 abstentions and 4 votes against).
The French Fourth Republic (1946 – 1958) was described in a popular 1956 Foreign Affairs article to be in a state of ‘stable instability’. In this text, Andre Siegfried claims that while France had some form of yearly change of government administration, it did not lack continuity and was one of the most stable countries in the post – WWII world. While I cannot make the same claim for the Eastern European new EU member, important similarities can be identified. The change of PM did not interrupt the daily administration of the country. The minister of defence took over as interim and proceeded to solve the conflicts that brought about the resignation of the PM. The governing program incurred some changes in nuances and timeline but remained basically the same. The Romanian president, Klaus Iohannis, announced that the major concern that influences his constitutional involvement in the PM nomination procedure is governance continuity. As it happened in the previous change of PM, important cabinet members keep their positions. The ministers of interior, justice, labour, agriculture continue their mandate under their third PM.
Most importantly, the coalition remained solid as the larger party, the PSD, continued to rely on a loyal junior coalition partner, the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (ALDE). The ALDE Executive Committee unanimously approved the PM nomination a day after she was proposed by PSD and the two parties attended the consultations hosted by the president as a united front. As a result of coalition stability, civil servants continued daily activities without fear of dismissal. Consequently, while on the surface we are inclined to think there is governance disequilibrium, in fact, all slight displacements appear to be temporary. So far, the system is in a stable equilibrium.
Unstable Cabinets, Stable Policy
The French Fourth Republic also incurred a period of great economic growth. This continues to be considered a paradox. The Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in Romania expanded 2.60 percent in the third quarter of 2017 over the previous quarter. Compared to the same period of the previous year, this was an expansion of 8.6, the biggest growth in an EU member state. And while controversy abounds whether the growth is sustainable, so far, the facts remain that under the policies of the current coalition government, income and living conditions have improved according to the EU official statistics. The coalition is set to continue their economic policies to increase wages and pensions. Time will tell if the economic boom will remain historical.
Policy stability also means the pursuit of changes to the justice laws that have had considerable contestation from the Romanian public, NGOs and international monitoring bodies, including the EU and other member states. The new PM Dăncilă has famously written an email explaining all MEPs why a government emergency decree decriminalizing some forms of corruption was good for the country’s legal system. Following heavy protests, the decree was withdrawn but similar laws are now being discussed in parliament and would easily pass with a majority of votes. The PM is a likely partner of the parliament in continuing these reforms.
A Concrete Leadership (in more ways than one)
In his handling of a third PM nomination, PSD Chairman Dragnea showed once more his preference for complete party subordination by the government. As he is unable to hold the prime-ministership himself, due to a provision of the law that does not allow sentenced law offenders to be members of the cabinet, he is decided to govern through proxies. After two nominations that went astray, Dragnea is no longer taking any risks. The new PM nomination, Viorica Dăncilă, is expected to be entirely obedient. The MEP turned PM is a longstanding collaborator who started her political career in the same county as Dragnea. All she would have to do in order to complete her mandate is to ignore all major suggestions that are not ‘Dragnea approved’ and become oblivious to outside pressures. Already, the new PM has received unflattering press reviews concerning her level of English as a foreign language, her modest origins, her sense of fashion, her lacklustre activity in the European Parliament etc. The fact that she is the first female PM in a highly misogynistic society adds considerable fuel to criticism.
In addition to securing the presence of a proxy as the PM, Dragnea’s strategy to keep a tight grip over the party will also have to anticipate all potential dissent. He is very careful to have all his moves approved by internal PSD decision making bodies. He explains conflicts with PMs or ministers through outside interference (mainly blaming manipulations from the Romanian Secret Service) so as not to confirm or fuel internal disunity. He keeps his potential enemies close. PM Tudose’s predecessor, Sorin Grindeanu, who was ousted through a motion of no confidence once he refused to tender his resignation, also received an informal ‘pardon’ for his rebelliousness with a new (highly-paid) state office. Tudose will now resume his MP position with guarantees that his relationship to Dragnea and the party will not change. In his last day as PM, Tudose had the support of the PSD to oversee the signing of a contract for the development of one of the most important projects of infrastructure in his native county: a new bridge over the Danube which might give him everlasting political capital over his future competitors in the region. In addition, Dragnea is careful not to antagonise the president who, in turn, responds in kind to what he perceives as political civility.
With an uninspired and fragmented opposition in the parliament and a president who chooses not to participate in the erosion of PSD’s political capital (leaving it all to the effect of incumbency), the PSD looks like a one-man-show. Neither president nor opposition parties had anything to do with the change of government. The types of conflicts that we have seen leading to early cabinet termination continue to show that the party system is missing an opposition and that the politics of the main party continue to be highly personalized.
The Romanian case throughout its democratic experience qualifies for an in-depth study of policy continuity in spite of frequent cabinet changes. The changes during the last year are a good starting point.
Notes:  The majority in parliament voted him president of the National Authority for the Administration and Regulation of Communications (ANCOM).
Photo source: https://www.irishtimes.com/news/world/europe/romanians-set-to-rally-against-reforms-as-instability-continues-1.3361642