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Analysis: Testing Romania's Constitution

Traian Basescu The surprising victory of Bucharest Mayor Traian Basescu over Prime Minister Adrian Nastase in Romania's 12 December presidential runoff created an unexpected political situation.

Developments have opened avenues to a number of potential scenarios for which parties might form a ruling coalition and, consequently, who might emerge as the political figure most likely to head Romania's next government.

But there are also doubts regarding the ability of the country's constitutional system to accommodate a number of possible eventualities, given the limits imposed by its founders. Such questions stem from the ability of the country's fragile democratic system to elegantly handle political "cohabitation."

Immediately after the 28 November parliamentary elections, there appeared to be little room for maneuver: the Social Democratic Party (PSD)-Humanist Party (PUR) alliance had come out on top, securing 132 seats in the 324-member Chamber of Deputies and 57 seats in the 137-member Senate. Most agreed that the PSD-PUR alliance would be able to form the next ruling coalition, which would include the Hungarian Democratic Federation of Romania (UDMR) and be backed in the lower house by the 18 deputies who represent ethnic minorities (and who are elected under a special constitutional provision). Such a coalition, however, would lack a majority in upper house, where it could rely only on 57 PSD-PUR votes and 10 votes from the UDMR. (No Senate seats are allocated specifically to ethnic-minority lawmakers, as is the case in the lower house.) It was generally believed, however, that a new coalition headed by the current foreign minister, Mircea Geoana, might secure the two missing votes to provide a Senate majority. This appeared to be the only feasible scenario for a parliament in which there was no clear majority.
Some have noted that the Constitutional Court is packed with Social Democratic appointees, should the case get that far.

And then Basescu surprisingly won the 12 December presidential runoff. Already during the electoral campaign and indeed upon his election, Basescu stated that he would nominate as prime minister Calin Popescu-Tariceanu, his co-chair within the opposition National Liberal Party (PNL)-Democratic Party alliance. Popescu-Tariceanu had assumed leadership of the PNL after Theodor Stolojan blamed ill health in stepping down on 2 October from both the party's chairmanship and his presidential candidacy (Stolojan was replaced by Basescu as the alliance's presidential hopeful.) Popescu-Tariceanu's designation as prime minister, the ruling Social Democrats countered, would be an encroachment on the constitution.

But would it? The constitution obliges the president to designate a prime minister from among the members of the party that wins a combined majority in the two chambers of the parliament. The 28 November ballot produced no such majority. In such a case, the constitution simply stipulates that the president should designate a prime minister after consultations with the parties represented in the legislature. All the constitution says is that this person must stand a good chance of forming such a majority; it does not prescribe that he or she must come from the ranks of the largest party, even though that has been the case since the constitution went into force in 1992. If the attempt to form a government fails twice, the constitution grants the head of state the right to dissolve parliament and call new elections.

Theoretically, then, Basescu could designate Popescu-Tariceanu prime minister, provided the PNL leader is able to forge a parliamentary majority to support his cabinet. Some Romanian observers believe Basescu might be out to force that option, believing that his victory is an indication that the PNL-Democratic Party alliance would win an early parliamentary ballot. The Social Democrats, however, might try to halt that exercise by appealing to the Constitutional Court.

Media reports suggest that Basescu is ready for such a confrontation, as is Popescu-Tariceanu. As the PNL leader argued on 14 December, it is not the Social Democratic Party but the PNL-Democratic Justice and Truth alliance that has the single greatest parliamentary representation -- namely, 161 lawmakers. Because while the PNL-Democratic Party ran as a "political alliance" and therefore has a unified caucus in parliament, the PSD-PUR ran as an "electoral alliance" and is therefore not entitled to unified representation. By this argument, the 30 PUR legislators should be subtracted from the PSD-PUR's total of 189, leaving the PSD with 159 members -- two fewer than the PNL-Democratic Party alliance.

Some have noted that the Constitutional Court is packed with Social Democratic appointees, should the case get that far. Another scenario speculated about in the media goes even further, with the Constitutional Court "suspending" Basescu from functioning as president as the case is pending. Meanwhile, the Senate speaker (appointed with the votes of the PUR, the UDMR, and the PRM) could serve as acting president and reappoint Nastase prime minister.

Near Breakthroughs

There were signs of a denouement on 15 December, when the Social Democrats, the PUR, and the UDMR announced that a coalition agreement would be signed later in the day. The UDMR postponed the signing, however, and instead announced it would continue negotiations with both the Social Democrats and the Justice and Truth alliance. The UDMR might well be seeking to avoid early elections, fearing it might not reach the 5 percent electoral hurdle the next time around. The party leadership's support of Nastase's presidential bid clearly went against the UDMR mainstream, and turnout in the presidential runoff was unusually low among ethnic Hungarians. Voices inside the party openly criticized Chairman Bela Marko's having opted for the Social Democratic candidate; the more radical wing of the party deserted as early as the 28 November parliamentary elections, with erstwhile UDMR candidates running on the lists of the Popular Alliance party.

For many of the same reasons, the PUR might also be reluctant to face voters again soon. Running on its own, it has a slim chance of reaching parliament. It is also unlikely that the Social Democratic Party would be as generous with its electoral partner in allocating the safe seats on its lists in new elections. The 28 November "cold shower" taught the Social Democrats to keep such seats for themselves.

This explains why the PUR on 14 December suggested a "two-stage" process for forming a government of national unity. Chairman Dan Voiculescu said that such a cabinet should include the Social Democrats, the PUR, and the UDMR and enjoy the parliamentary backing of the 18 ethnic-minority deputies in the lower house. The second stage, Voiculescu said, would include transforming that cabinet into one of national unity, capable of ensuring political stability and eliminating the risk of failure to meet EU conditions for accession in 2007. Voiculescu did not specify what other parties the national-unity cabinet might include. He also said he believes the next cabinet should be headed by Nastase, rather than by Foreign Minister Geoana, whom the Social Democrats designated for the position.

That might well reflect Social Democratic preferences. Outgoing President Ion Iliescu said on 14 December that he would prefer a government that included both the Social Democrats and the Justice and Truth alliance in order to help the country's drive toward EU membership. Iliescu said this would be "the best solution" to cope with the parliamentary-election results, and he warned that early elections would represent "a real danger" to Romania's quest for EU integration. Media speculated that the Social Democrats might agree to such a government, headed by either Stolojan or former Prime Minister Mugur Isarescu, the current National Bank governor.

But Popescu-Tariceanu rushed to throw cold water on the idea. Any coalition with Social Democratic participation would amount to a failure in the anticorruption effort and in the pursuit of state structural reform, he said. It would also be tantamount to "creating the possibility for Nastase to save himself" and thus against the national interest, Popescu-Tariceanu argued. Democratic Party Executive Chairman Emil Boc said the same day that the alliance does not exclude forming a minority government that other political forces could join later. And Varujan Pambuccian, who heads the group of 18 deputies representing ethnic minorities, said the group has not decided which of the two main forces to back. The Social Democrats were counting on that group's backing, but Pambuccian's statement casts doubt on any such assumption.

If the country is truly interested in fulfilling its EU obligations and acceding to that bloc in 2007, a government of national unity (minus the extremist Greater Romania Party) might be a constructive solution. Such a government would help avoid the tensions and excessive politicking that might otherwise frustrate efforts at EU membership. But it would also require the Social Democrats to jettison leaders who are tainted by perceptions of corruption. That might prove too great a task even for Ion Iliescu as he prepares to retake the Social Democratic leadership from the hands of Adrian Nastase.