BALKAN BLOG: Romania heads for another year of political turbulence

BALKAN BLOG: Romania heads for another year of political turbulence
Romania's political instability is the result of PSD party leader Dragnea's desire to become prime minister or at least control the PM.
By Clare Nuttall in Bucharest January 19, 2018

Fears of a lengthy battle over who would become Romania’s next prime minister were allayed when President Klaus Iohannis agreed to nominate Viorica Dancila, the first choice of the ruling Social Democratic Party (PSD). But Dancila’s appointment sets Romania up for a hot spring of anti-corruption protests and more political infighting as she is almost certain to continue the efforts of her predecessors to undermine the anti-corruption fight.

Dancila, currently a member of the European parliament, is set to be endorsed as the country’s first female prime minister by the end of this month, given the PSD and its coalition partner hold a comfortable majority in both houses of parliament. She will also be the third prime minister appointed since the PSD romped back to power in the December 2016 elections — both her predecessors, Sorin Grindeanu and Mihai Tudose – were forced into a speedy exit from the post when they fell out with the powerful leader of the PSD, Liviu Dragnea.

Both politicians were seen as proxies for Dragnea, who cannot take up the prime minister position himself since he has a suspended sentence for voter manipulation; Romanians with criminal convictions are forbidden from holding office. However, after coming to office both made a bid to emerge from Dragnea’s influence, precipitating power struggles within the PSD.

Dancila is a different prospect, being a long-time protege of the PSD leader. Dancila and Dragnea both hail from the southern Romanian county of Teleorman, which lies on the northern side of the Danube that separates Romania from Bulgaria. Dancila worked as a high school teacher in Videle, a small town in Teleorman county where another Dragnea loyalist, acting interior minister Carmen Dan, was a school secretary. Later, both Dancila and Dan worked for Teleorman county council, which was headed by Dragnea.

The new prime minister is therefore seen as less likely than her predecessors to challenge Dragnea for supremacy in the party, removing one potential source of political instability. However, her loyalty to the PSD leader means she is virtually certain to continue with the efforts to undermine Romania’s anti-corruption fight.

Repeated attempts to amend legislation and overhaul the judiciary have been launched since the PSD came back to power, and are widely seen as aimed at helping Dragnea and other top officials avoid prosecution and potential jail sentences for corruption. Despite a series of protests, reforms to the judiciary are very close to being adopted.

Once Dancila comes to power, Teneo Intelligence’s senior vice president Otilia Dhand writes in an analyst note, “Dragnea will focus on the speedy passage of the judicial reform and brace for a new round of public protests.”

As well as Romanian anti-corruption protesters — who came out on the streets in their hundreds of thousands in early 2017 — this won’t go down well with the international community. The European Commission, as well as EU and US diplomats have been strong critics of efforts to weaken the fight against corruption and neuter the National Anti-Corruption Directorate (DNA). In its latest report on Romania, the Council of Europe’s anti-corruption body (GRECO) also criticised Romania’s very limited progress in preventing and fighting corruption.

And while the PSD is focussing on the corruption issue and infighting among its leadership, there has been less attention to actually governing and carrying out the pre-election promises made in 2016. For a party that scored a convincing victory over the divided centre-right in 2016, the PSD hasn’t been able to achieve very much because it has been so many times derailed by internal politics.

“Things could have been so much easier,” writes Commerzbank analyst Alexandra Bechtel in a note, pointing to the comfortable majority held by the PSD and its coalition partner. She describes the prime minister position as “something of an ejector seat”. “The crux lies with the ambition of PSD party leader Dragnea to assume the power of prime minister. According to current legislation, he cannot assume this position because of a prior conviction for manipulating elections. That’s why Dragnea rules by proxy using his followers — and he abandons them as soon as they don't follow his instructions.”

So far Dragnea has been successful in seeing off his challengers, not only Grindeanu and Tudose but also other former PSD heavyweights such as former prime minister Victor Ponta, revealed by local media earlier this month to have taken Serbian citizenship and a new role as adviser to Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic.

And according to Dhand, the drama is set to continue; “It is unlikely that [the ousting of Tudose] will end the turmoil within the party, as Dragnea will be on the lookout for any possible challengers. These are likely to emerge, because Dragnea cannot take political power directly, opening the space for competition within his fragmented party.

However, there may be an end in sight. Two critical processes are underway; the judicial reforms and Dragnea’s trial in a case concerning suspected abuse of office.

“Dragnea’s potential conviction in the ongoing trial for abuse of office, which might send him to jail, may put an end to this internal infighting,” writes Dhand. On the other hand, she adds, “the second part of the controversial judicial reform that would redefine some abuse of office offences and may let Dragnea loose is currently being considered by parliament and will probably be passed in February.”

Not only would this let Dragnea off the hook in the abuse of office trial, it could also reopen his political horizons. “If the reform of the judiciary comes into force, Dragnea will probably sooner or later become prime minister himself,” writes Bechtel. “This would be a democratic step back, but the government could at least become more stable. The source of the fire is therefore only temporarily extinguished — the underlying political quarrels will continue to simmer in the background.”