The Iron Laws of Romanian Politics After the European elections
The 26th of May European elections have produced a mixed picture across the European Union, where Eurosceptic, populist or non-mainstream parties have consolidated their gains in some of the largest Member States (such as France, Italy and, for what it is worth, the UK), while suffering losses in some medium sized and small states (such as Romania, the Netherlands and Austria), with no notable change occurring in most countries (such as Poland, Hungary, Sweden or Germany). Still, even a country now hailed as a bulwark against right wing populism, such as Spain, will feature a far-right party in the European Parliament for the first time.
The other notable aspect of the recent elections has been the increased voter turnout, which is now at a 25 years record of 50.95% of the total European electorate, with 20 out of the 28 current Member States experiencing an increase in the voters’ rate of participation, in some cases by more than 50%. This is particularly the situation in Romania, where the turnout rate jumped by no less than 63.5%, from 32.44% in the 2014 European elections to 51.07% in 2019, exceeding the pre-election poll estimates and setting the country on course for a change in power in next year’s National parliamentary elections. In these circumstances, it is important to emphasize that – despite this surprising and very significant rebound in the Romanian turnout rate – what I shall call the “iron laws of Romanian post-Communist politics” still apply.
The Law of Incumbent Advantage
The first of these “laws”, extracted from almost 30 years of Romanian post-Communist political experience, is “the law of incumbent advantage”. In other words, the regime’s founding political force, which is ultimately the current Social Democratic Party (PSD), usually conserves the largest single number of votes, even when it loses an electoral competition against a coalition of political forces, and remains the single largest party. This law knows only two exceptions, the 2007 European elections and the 2019 European elections, when, in both cases, PSD came in second place, a situation which the subsequent laws shall explain. The 2008 National legislative elections and the 2009 European elections do not constitute an exception. PSD, in alliance with PC (the so-called Conservative Party), won the largest number of votes in both elections, but due to extraordinary peculiarities of the so-called mixed proportional uninominal electoral system in place at the time, its main competitor, but also one-year government partner, PDL (Democratic-Liberal Party), obtained the largest number of seats.
The Law of Economic Fortunes
The second “iron law” of Romanian post-Communist politics is that the business cycle not only trumps the political cycle, but actually makes or breaks the political cycle altogether! For simplicity, I shall call it “the law of economic fortunes”. No Romanian political force in power has so far survived an election during severe economic turmoil. This law knows no exception, although the 1992 National parliamentary and presidential elections as well as the 2008 and the 2009 parliamentary, European and presidential elections might at first glance indicate otherwise. Such a conclusion is however based on an inattentive reading of events, since the 1992 re-election of Ion Iliescu and the victory of the newly made Democratic National Salvation Front (FDSN) was based, to a large extent, on a cunning and highly consequential game of shifting the blame for the economic turmoil that followed the decision to liberalise prices, away from the Iliescu Presidency and onto the ousted Petre Roman Government. The economic reform and restructuring program was consequently frozen before really having the chance to take off and the National Salvation Front (FSN) – the government-party up to then, which replaced the Romanian Communist Party (PCR) – broke in two as a result of the crisis: the conservative Iliescu wing, which will become what is now PSD, the bastion of the Romanian post-Communist left, and the more reformist Roman wing, which will become known as PD (the Democratic Party) and gradually move from the left to the right.
Equally misleading to an inattentive observer are the 2008 legislative elections and especially the 2009 European and presidential elections, all three officially won by PDL – a party created in late 2007 through the merger of PD and PLD (Liberal-Democratic Party), a break-away PNL group. This is not only due to the already mentioned peculiarities of a voting system which was neither proportional nor majoritarian, but more importantly because the impact of the economic crisis was not really felt by the Romanian public until around the middle of 2009. The personalised political squabbles between former President Traian Băsescu and his opposing critics kept it more or less hidden from the centre stage of political debate until the eve of the autumn 2009 presidential elections. However, by spring 2012, several months before the next legislative election, PDL’s erosion became evident and it became the first party in power to lose the executive through a parliamentary motion of non-confidence.
To sum-up, in Romania, as a rule, the upside of the business cycle favours “reformist”, centre-right electoral victories, while the downside of the business cycle favours “conservative”, centre-left electoral victories.
The Law of Team Splitting
The third “iron law” of Romanian post-communist politics is “the law of team splitting”. By reverse analogy with some of the most successful organisations’ culture of “team building”, this law pertains to the fact that governmental political coalitions in post-communist Romania start out by generating high expectations, but in the end prove to be highly unstable, dysfunctional and ineffectual. The only coalition government Prime Minister that served a full 4 year term during the last 29 years was Călin Popescu-Tăriceanu between 2004-2008, but that only happened because – after the March 2007 exclusion of PD (Democratic Party) ministers from the government, which effectively put an end to the D.A. (“Justice and Truth”) 2004 coalition – he got the informal parliamentary support of PSD and unleashed an institutional conflict between the Presidency and the Government which still echoes to this day.
The price for this broken PNL-PD (plus UDMR and, for a while, PC, then called Romanian Humanist Party) coalition was a stall in the pace of economic and institutional reforms, careless government spending and general unpreparedness when the world crisis hit Romania. The instability and ineffectiveness of governmental coalitions is most assuredly the reason why the two other Romanian post-communist Prime Ministers who served a full term, Nicolae Văcăroiu between 1992-1996 and Adrian Năstase between 2000 and 2004, governed without sharing power with other parties, even though PSD did not have a parliamentary majority in either case, preferring loose and variable issue-specific parliamentary coalitions instead of governmental coalitions.
The Law of Unanticipated Hopes
Last but not least, there is a fourth “iron law” of Romanian post-Communist politics which I shall call, poetically, “the law of unanticipated hopes”. This law basically states that whenever a politician, a party or a group of parties thinks it has the upper hand in the political game or the voters’ favours, it calls for unanticipated or before term elections. In the 29 years that have passed since the fall of Communism and the 28 years since the adoption of a – controversial and admittedly flawed – non-Communist Constitution, which was marginally revised in 2003, almost every political manoeuvre and scheme has been put into action in the tormented and messy Romanian politics, but never has there been an unanticipated or before term election! Still, the day after the 2019 European elections, when in the eyes of many, and to the horror of some, poetic justice was achieved as the Romanian Supreme Court upheld an appeal and sentenced PSD kingpin Liviu Dragnea to three and a half years in prison for graft, several high profile opposition leaders and even politically connected commentators were calling for early parliamentary elections. In this naive, emotional or self-interested reading of events, the fall of Dragnea – the PSD Party Chairman and President of the lower House of Parliament (the Chamber of Deputies) –, was considered a good enough reason to trigger early national elections, even though the constitutional procedure makes such an event unlikely and extremely cumbersome by requiring a vote of no confidence, or failure to gain parliamentary confidence, against three consecutive cabinets, which normally gives ample time for new parliamentary coalitions to emerge. It was Dragnea who, since 2016, has first and foremost championed a populist political discourse in the country and pushed for legislative measures undermining the rule of law. Coupled with the positive European elections results, which put PSD in second place with just 22.50% of the vote (4.10% behind its main contender PNL and only 0.14% above the USR-PLUS Alliance), the opposition thought that such a move is feasible.
The Shape of Things to Come
A coalition is theoretically the more stable and effective the smaller the number of partners involved, although these “negotiations costs” can be reduced in the case of political coalitions made up of many parties if the ideological distance between them is not very large. Assuming that the results of the European election in Romania will remain broadly the same after next year’s National legislative elections, the political configuration of the new Romanian Parliament will feature no less than 6 political parties – the same as the present Parliament – and a majority centre-right coalition government would have to encompass a minimum of 3 political parties, in other words half of the total number.
The prerequisite for a centre-right government coalition to emerge is an agreement between the two centre-right political forces which together make up a little less than 50% of the vote: PNL (National Liberal Party) and the electoral coalition between USR (Save Romania Union) and PLUS (The Party of Liberty, Unity and Solidarity), which up-to-now has acted as a single party without officially being one. A third, or fourth, party – chosen from among the +5% parties such as PMP (Party of the Popular Movement), the Pro Romania Party (which, in the European elections at least, replaced the ALDE party in the voters’ preferences) or UDMR (Democratic Union of Magyars in Romania) – might be or, in the end, might not be necessary for this centre-right governmental coalition to possess an absolute majority. This is either because the combined score of PNL and USR-PLUS will surpass the 50% threshold in 18 months’ time or, if it remains stable, because it can easily obtain the support of the 17 minorities’ parliamentary seats which the Romanian Constitution grants – rather exceptionally by international standards – ex-officio. In any case, as the experience of the DA coalition government has shown, even a governmental coalition made of 3 or 4, rather ideologically close, parties, will not necessarily be more stable or more effective than a highly complex governmental coalition made up of 6, or six-and-a-half, ideologically heterogeneous parties, as was the case with the Romanian Democratic Convention (CDR) coalition government between 1996-1999.
The “iron laws” of Romanian post-Communist politics do not provide a complete picture of Romanian politics, but they do encapsulate its most salient traits. These “laws” result from the parameters of the Romanian political system and the current Romanian political regime: political values and ideologies primarily shaped by the shadow that almost 50 years of totalitarian Communist politics have cast on the country; constitutional provisions which, interpreted in the extreme, leave unresolved tensions between the country’s main institutions; and electoral laws which favour partisan factionalism and are biased against majority government. No matter the enthusiasm – or despair – that a new electoral cycle brings, the four “laws” sketched above tend to reassert their validity in no time. A fifth – more “bronze” than “iron” – “law” could have been added to the list above: “the law of the locomotive President”, pertaining to the fact that presidential elections in a semi-presidential regime tend to be a driver of legislative elections, but I ultimately decided against it. True, Romania conserves some traits of a semi-presidential regime, and the presidential elections have tended to attract the highest turnout so far, but after the 2003 constitutional revision – a parameter change which expressly forbids the head of state to dismiss the head of government and, more importantly, extends the presidential mandate to 5 years – this law that governed Romanian politics up to 2004 tends to fade away. In any event, those who do or undo politics in Romania, or are just informed observers of Romanian politics, should be mindful of the implications of these “iron laws”.