Romanian Jigsaw of Democracy

Charles Hamm || CC 3.0

The governing coalition of PSD and ALDE, elected in December 2016 and holding ~54% of parliamentary seats, seems indecisive in exercising executive power. The declining voter turnout, the street protests of February, and the curious change of prime minister in June raise legitimate questions about Romania’s flawed democracy (a governing coalition lasts, on average, under 15 months). Observers blame PSD and ALDE’s poor communication skills, but the coalition rather lacks clarity of purpose, as well as competency. Many political leaders, of the coalition and opposition alike, are investigated, indicted, or already sentenced for various crimes of corruption and/or abuse of power. The public is particularly suspicious of reforms in the justice system, as politicians may attempt to clear their criminal records.

The situation is further complicated by the president elected from the opposing political camp (November 2014, initially affiliated with PNL). Political parties undergo a third consecutive year of internal adjustments and reforms, mergers and splits, as well as re-affiliations to European political families. The electoral reforms of 2015 allowed the maverick USR to get into the Parliament (loose connections with technocrat ministers from 2016), but their political naïveté reinforces PNL’s collusion with PSD. PMP has astrong anti-PSD rhetoric, but often supports (discretely) PSD and ALDE’s judicial “reforms,” alongside UDMR. The opposition appears weak and confused, further alienating voters and possibly resulting in even lower turnout at the next elections.

Waiting for Mega-Elections

Yet, Romania fulfills its obligations with NATO and has a decent presence in international affairs, owing to the President’s constitutional role in foreign affairs. Dangers connected with terrorism, refugees, or Russian propaganda are rather low priorities on the public and political agendas. During the first half of 2019, Romania will hold the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union. Elections are expected again in June 2019 (EU Parliament), November 2019 (President), June 2020 (local authorities), December 2020 (national Parliament). Then, all rounds of elections will realign throughout 2024, raising concerns with both: the mega-elections of that year and the potential consolidation of power during 2020-28.

In spite of economic growth currently reported at 5%, the state budget suffers from structural deficiencies. Lack of infrastructure and public investments couple with ~40% of the population living below poverty level. Salaries increase artificially in the public sector (notably in health care and education), but fail to boost the pension and social assistance systems making itunsustainable for the coming decade. The economy is not competitive enough for the EU market, while absorption of EU funds is stalled for a third consecutive year, and accession to Schengen and Eurozone is constantly postponed. The resurgence of “traditions” pushes for a constitutional referendum against gay marriage, while nationalist movements may grow in the wake of the 100-year celebration of “Great Romania” (1 December 1918).

The governing coalition’s concern with budget revenues, including the pension system, reflects in the volume of legislative proposals during the first session of Parliament: more than ⅓ relate to fiscal and labor matters. The Cabinet fails to improve collection of indirect contributions, and hence attempts to close the gap of budget revenues while rolling out the structural deficiencies beyond 2020. While the economy tends towards individual entrepreneurship (no direct budget contributions aside from VAT), the coalition presses for labor contracts (with direct collection of income tax and social assistance contributions). An increasing number of labor contracts may yield additional votes in the next elections, but this strategy fails to prevent a severe financial crisis that may result from contradictions in employment.


Aside from severe democratic deficiencies in good governance, Romania also has problems with political representation. Most political parties seem to be tempted with the illiberal tendencies from Hungary and Poland, while none of them has an outspoken agenda on fundamental rights and freedoms. Most decision-makers have a poor (or willingly distorted) understanding of the interplay among human rights, rule of law, and separation of powers. The Constitutional Court and Ombudsman too often side with politicians, away from citizens. Politicians (in power or in opposition, at all levels of government) display a worrisome inability of opening to the public, of communicating their vision in plain language- most probably lacking a clear vision. As a result, public institutions tend to close their doors to public consultations and/or participation in decision-making, in spite of Romania faring quite well in the Open Government Partnership.

Alienated, the public turns back from democratic participation, either taking institutions to the courts (very rare), or resorting to anti-system rhetoric (still not too extremist), or simply bailing out in disgust (vast majority of non-voters). As long as an even newer political party fails to appear, the existing vote-seeking politicians manipulate the electoral laws in a way that ensures the appearance of democratic legitimacy, they play on fears during electoral campaigns, and collude with electoral competitors in order to preserve the benefits of their political clients. To wit, Romania’s local government is atomized in ~3,200 municipalities, owing to the mayors’ legal prerogative to organize the (logistics for) elections; bound by financial dependency to the central government, mayors are key to winning any electoral confrontation.

The organizational culture and promotion mechanisms within political parties rely on the ability to win elections (USR may be the exception). Campaign managers or top candidates focus on two strategies in elections: alienating the opponent’s voters and consolidating their own core of unconditional supporters. Thus, academics or experts in public management get marginalized from party ranks, and the parties no longer have the expertise or competency to manage either institutions or crisis. Consequently, parties cannot formulate a vision, offer purpose, nor propose meaningful reforms. Winning an election thus exposes political leaders to criticism from civil society; in turn, elected officials resort to opacity in decision-making, false accusations against NGOs, and populism in relation to voters, closing the vicious circle of political alienation.

The judiciary is under constant pressure from politicians, precisely due to electoral reasons (yet, magistrates also fail to address the public at large). In order to preserve the mayors’ dependency on the central government, several schemes for discretionary funding are created. Approval of such disbursements may result in crimes of abuse or even corruption. Politicians would therefore prefer a legal system that disregards accountability or dilutes the definitions of certain crimes, one that curbs the enthusiasm of anticorruption prosecutors, and/or at least one that subordinates magistrates to political will. In this respect, collusion among the Executive, the parliamentary, and Constitutional Court majorities faces a very fragile, conjectural alliance among the civil society at large, President, and European Commission (via CVM).

In spite of optimistic views regarding Romania’s reaching a tipping point in 2014/2015, the country remains a flawed democracy, marred with ineffective and opaque governance. The electoral competition, in and of itself, cannot fix the structural problems created by incompetent decision-makers. Genuine social assistance or antidiscrimination cannot succeed, just as Europeanization and anticorruption seem stalled for now. The alternative, autarchic solution, is highly improbable to succeed, albeit embraced in the rhetoric of the governing coalition (PSD and ALDE) and some members of the opposition (PNL and PMP, most notably). The 100-year celebration of 2018 may set Romania’s democratic vs. illiberal course at least until the mega-electoral year of 2024.

This text was a part of and published in the “European Atlas of the Democratic Deficit” (Projekt: Polska 2017)

Codru Vrabie