PM’s Ouster Could Prompt Rare Romanian Reshuffle

PM’s Ouster Could Prompt Rare Romanian Reshuffle

Snap elections would be the first for Romania since independence and would likely benefit far-right political forces.

WHAT’S HAPPENING?

Romanian Prime Minister Florin Citu was ousted in a vote of no confidence on October 5 after less than a year in power. President Klaus Iohannis first appointed former Prime Minister and chair of the center-right Save Romania Union (USR) party Dacian Cioloş as a candidate to replace Citu. After Cioloş’ government was rejected by parliament, Iohannis appointed fellow National Liberal Party (PNL) member and former Defense Minister Nicolae Ciuca.

KEY INSIGHTS

– As a PNL candidate and perceived Iohannis loyalist, Ciuca cannot rely on votes from Romania’s major parties.
– It is entirely possible that a PNL-UDMR government will not be approved, and snap elections will be held.
– Far-right party AUR will have the most to gain with new elections and would likely push Romania in a Eurosceptic direction and further hinder Schengen integration efforts.

THE FALL OF A GOVERNMENT

The vote to oust Prime Minister Citu was only the sixth such censure motion to be passed in the past three decades and did so with a record number of votes. 281 of 330 deputies voted in favor of the measure, far more than the 234 that were needed. The country’s first-ever snap elections could be triggered if the parliament fails twice to confirm a new Prime Minister. Cioloş proposed his new cabinet on October 18, and his government was rejected by parliament two days later, leaving one confirmation attempt remaining.

The October 5 vote of no confidence was sparked by the USR-PLUS coalition bloc’s withdrawal from the ruling coalition. The shift followed Citu’s dismissal of Justice Minister and USR member Stelian Ion from the cabinet. Citu and his National Liberal Party (PNL) faced criticism from USR for stymied reforms, alleged corruption and abuse of power at the party congress, and the failed vaccination campaign. The measure comes in the context of widespread public discontent with the recent spike in COVID-19 cases, multiple hospital fires and decades of corruption in the health system and government structures.

Indeed, PNL party deputy Cosmin Sandru and the director of a transportation company are currently being prosecuted for bribing an Alliance for the Union of Romanians (AUR) party deputy to abstain from the no-confidence vote. Sandru later suspended himself from the party.

PROSPECTS FOR A NEW PM

Domestic observers had long viewed Cioloş’ chances of being approved as Prime Minister as slim. Cioloş’ party currently has a mere 80 seats in parliament and won just over 10% in the previous elections. His USR party could also not rely on the support of many of the parties with whom Cioloş intended to form a government. With many dismissing Cioloş’ Prime Minister bid as merely an attempt by Iohannis to pave the way for a new PNL candidate, politicians and observers alike were looking toward the next nominee even before Cioloş’ government failed to garner the necessary votes. Many believed that Iohannis would reappoint Citu, his political protegee; however, Citu would have needed approval from the same parliament that voted in unprecedented numbers to oust him. Iohannis had also been under pressure from USR and others to nominate a candidate from the Social Democrat Party (PSD), which won 29% of the vote in 2020 compared to PNL’s 25%.

The decision to propose another PNL Prime Minister, Ciuca, in spite of these calls could further erode support for the president’s latest appointee. What’s more, there is discontent with Ciuca among the PNL party itself: PNL’s first deputy president had previously stated that his party would propose Citu, and domestic observers suggest that Ciuca was Iohannis’ personal pick to help consolidate power within the party.

Ciuca briefly served as interim prime minister after the resignation of one of the most prominent PNL actors: major Citu rival and former prime minister Ludovic Orban. During that time, Ciuca gutted Orban’s cabinet. Despite his significant support within the party, Orban stepped down from the President of the Chamber post on October 13, citing an unwillingness to be complicit in the actions of the “demolition group that supported Citu, led by Klaus Iohannis…[that] trampled on the PNL.” Orban also announced his intention to resign from the PNL parliamentary group and that he would not vote for a Ciuca government. PNL leadership has admitted that Orban’s departure could perhaps cause a dozen or so representatives to leave PNL, but other observers believe that number could be much higher.

Given these divisions within the party, it is unclear if Ciuca could garner the necessary support within parliament. PNL intends to form a minority government with the ethnic minority party Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania (UDMR). Following Ciuca’s official appointment, PSD was rumored to have reached an unexpected agreement to support his proposed coalition. Orban had denounced the arrangement, characterizing PSD as the longtime rivals of PNL and highlighting policy differences. However, negotiations between PSD and PNL later fell apart after the latter rejected conditions such as limiting Ciuca’s mandate. USR is notably absent from the proposed configuration, which is unlikely to curry that party’s favor. Despite PSD’s initial backing, Ciuca and his proposed government now lack the support of that crucial party as well as from UDMR and within the PNL. It is also unlikely to garner the votes of the major seat-holders in parliament. As much as analysts believe the PNL, PSD and the USR would prefer to avoid campaigning during the current COVID-19 spike and economic woes to avoid losses at the polls, a snap election is not improbable at this juncture.

ELECTIONS AND EUROSCEPTICISM

The far-right AUR may be the only major Romanian political actor that would stand to gain from snap elections. In 2020, AUR levied popular discontent with those in power to win 9% of the vote, and observers believe they could improve that showing should new elections be held in the current climate. Indeed, one of the major narratives currently dominating on AUR-linked news sites and social media is criticism of the government’s approach to combatting COVID-19, which is especially relevant given the record number of daily cases that the country reached late last month.

AUR also promotes narratives that leverage the stereotype of the “decadent West” to question the worth of EU and NATO membership. With an even greater voice in parliament post-elections, a Eurosceptic AUR would further disincentivize and erode decade-long efforts to bring Romania into the Schengen Zone, which are particularly relevant in the midst of the country’s current economic crisis. Joining the agreement for unrestricted cross-border movement and trade could facilitate goods transit, bolster the economy, and even encourage foreign direct investment. Citu had hoped to launch new talks on Schengen integration following the release of a report on corruption in the country and had spoken with Netherlands Prime Minister Mark Rutte about Romania’s willingness to join. Rutte had openly opposed this step on the grounds of a lack of progress on corruption and rule of law, and Dutch support would be necessary for the required unanimous vote of all member states. With Citu out of power, a stronger AUR presence in parliament and the all-too-recent corruption scandal involving PNL, it is unlikely that meaningful progress on this issue will occur in the near term.

Barring an unforeseen agreement between PNL and another major party in the coming weeks, it is probable that snap elections will go forward in the near future and that a new parliament will push the country in a more Eurosceptic direction.

Any views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Internews.