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Analysis: New Romanian Cabinet Ushers In Liberal-Democratic Spirit

Calin Popescu-Tariceanu (file photo) On 28 December, a joint session of the Romanian parliament approved a cabinet proposed by Prime Minister Calin Popescu-Tariceanu (see Profile --> /featuresarticle/2004/12/99CFE0C1-3966-4540-BD0A-BA1624A13787.html ). The parliament was expected to back the new government lineup, but the extent of that endorsement surprised many observers.

The new government was counting on the votes of the three blocs that make up the new coalition: the Justice and Truth alliance, which comprises the National Liberal Party (PNL) and the Democratic Party, the Hungarian Democratic Federation of Romania (UDMR), and the Humanist Party (PUR). The 18 lower-house deputies who represent ethnic minorities were also expected to endorse the cabinet, as they have with every cabinet since 1992, regardless of its political stripes.

All in all, Popescu-Tariceanu's new team could count on 241 of 468 deputies and senators. The secret ballot, however, resulted in an endorsement by no fewer than 265 lawmakers of the 465 who cast ballots. Two hundred deputies and senators -- presumably representing the opposition Social Democratic Party (PSD) and Greater Romania Party (PRM) -- opposed the new cabinet, but the combined strength of the Social Democrats and the PRM in parliament is 227. Three of those lawmakers were absent, meaning that 24 members of the opposition took advantage of the secret vote to break ranks.

Does this mean that the government's chances of survival in the next four years are greater than many tended to predict, particularly against the backdrop of the hung parliament produced by the 28 November elections? Many, but not all, of the cards appear to be in the hands of the Humanist Party (PUR) -- a party that might never have made it into parliament if it were not for its having formed an "electoral alliance" with the Social Democrats. Its 30 deputies and senators on 20 December endorsed the election of former Prime Minister Adrian Nastase and the reelection of Social Democratic Deputy Chairman Nicolae Vacaroiu as speakers of the two parliamentary chambers. Then, in a political volte-face, PUR Chairman Dan Voiculescu decided to switch sides. Yet he refused to sign any coalition agreement, arguing that agreements are anyhow not respected in Romania. Continued endorsement of the cabinet, Voiculescu said, would depend on its performance and on its serving the "national interest." What is to stop Voiculescu from jumping the political fence once again?

First, the danger to his party posed by early elections; and, second, its having suddenly ceased on 28 December to be "irreplaceable." The 24 votes coming from opposition benches show that the ruling coalition might beat the Social Democrats at their own former game -- luring lawmakers into changing sides with promises and being in a position to distribute political and other "sweeteners." Riding the coattails of the Social Democrats, the PUR for the first time gained access to the political cake, and a second bite would be unlikely in the event of early elections. Newly inaugurated President Traian Basescu made it clear that early elections were an option, and this was apparently a convincing argument for the PUR -- at least for now.

During the presidential campaign preceding his 12 December election as Romania's new head of state, Basescu vowed that any cabinet formed by the Justice and Truth alliance would include no former ministers so as to avoid perceived ties to corruption and to facilitate a genuine, long-delayed departure from the country's communist past. Basescu reportedly rejected the PNL's nomination of two ministers who served in previous cabinets: Radu Berceanu and Dan Radu Rusanu.

Indeed with the exception of the prime minister and one "delegate minister"(Laszlo Borbely of the UDMR, who is in charge of public construction), no member of the new cabinet has served as a minister in any previous government. Young and yet impressively professional, the cabinet bears Basescu's obvious mark.

It does so in several ways. First, by being a generally young team (the average age is 44) that in large part was educated in the West or within Western-style, postcommunist educational programs -- and thereby freer than its predecessors from the legacy of communism. Furthermore, despite their youth, many members of the cabinet have significant management or business experience, or both. Second, many among the Democratic members of the government have previous ties to the new president.

The youngest members of the new cabinet are UDMR Communications Minister Zsolt Nagy and the PNL "minister delegate" in charge of relations with parliament, Bogdan Olteanu, both 33. The presence within the government of Economy and Trade Minister Codrut Seres also helps lower the cabinet's average age. At 35, Seres graduated from the Technical Military Academy in 1993 and later completed a Romanian-Canadian MBA program. Seres, who is PUR deputy chairman, worked in the Defense Ministry in 1993-99 and has since managed several private companies, according to Reuters. The other minister representing PUR, although he is not a member of the party, is 34-year-old Sorin Vicol. A graduate of the Romanian Police Academy, he will run the Control Ministry.

The most impressive record is arguably that of PNL Foreign Minister Mihai Razvan Ungureanu. At 36, Ungureanu is now among the youngest people ever to have headed Romania's diplomatic service. A historian by training who studied at Oxford and speaks four languages, including Hungarian, Ungureanu was recruited from his teaching career to the diplomatic service under the 1998-99 tenure of Foreign Minister Andrei Plesu. He rose to the position of deputy foreign minister, and under the Social Democrats' 2000-04 government functioned as the Vienna-based deputy coordinator of the South-East Europe Stability Pact. Ungureanu's relations with Plesu (who is now foreign-affairs adviser to President Basescu) have reportedly cooled; Plesu is widely regarded as more of a "traditionalist" than the Western-educated Ungureanu, and it remains to be seen how much leeway Ungureanu will have in shaping Romania's international policies.

Those ministers with links with President Basescu include Interior Minister Vasile Blaga, 44, who was appointed just a few days earlier as a presidential adviser and was reportedly Basescu's "right-hand man" within the Democratic Party. Transportation Minister Gheorghe Dobre, 56, was a senior official at the Transportation Ministry under Basescu in 1997-2000 and in 2001 became head of the inspection and control department at the Bucharest mayoralty when Basescu became mayor. (A report published by the daily "Romania libera" alleged that Dobre was involved in June 1990 in facilitating the Jiu Valley miners' transportation to Bucharest, which resulted in assaults on National Salvation Front political opponents.) Environment Minister Sulfina Barbu, 37, who headed the Democratic Party women's organization in one of Bucharest's municipal districts and headed the environment department within the mayor's office, is also reportedly part of Basescu's circle.

Another person who purportedly enjoys strong Basescu backing is Justice Minister Monica Macovei. Macovei's selection is clearly a signal that the new cabinet intends to aggressively combat corruption and introduce judicial independence, as the cabinet's program emphasizes. Macovei, 45, is a former director of the Association for the Defense of Human Rights in Romania-Helsinki Committee, one of Romania's most active NGOs in combating human-rights infringements, corruption, and the miscarriage of justice.

Apart from Ungureanu, other young PNL nominees in the cabinet include Finance Minister Ionut Popescu, 40, who was a government spokesman under the Democratic Convention of Romania coalition with the UDMR in 1996-2000. An economist by education and a former editor in chief of the business weekly "Capital," Popescu was also spokesman for the Justice and Truth alliance in the most recent election campaign. Defense Minister Teodor Athanasiu, 42, has been a PNL member since 1990 and became chairman of the Alba County council following the June 2004 local elections. He is a former director of the state-owned CUGIR weapons manufacturer with polytechnic and management degrees.

The Democrats, the UDMR, and the PUR are each holding minister-of-state posts -- the Romanian equivalent of deputy prime minister. Democrat Adriean Videanu is to coordinate portfolios in charge of economic activities. Videanu, 42, is a successful businessman with a reported $30 million in assets who is one of President Basescu's close political associates; he also served as Basescu's deputy chairman within the Democratic Party. When parliament approved legislation in 2003 aimed at preventing a conflict of interests between politics and the management of private companies, Videanu became the first Romanian politician to resign from parliament; he will now have to resign as chairman of the board of the successful marble manufacturer Marmorsim and entrust his shares in that company to another party. Much the same applies to 51-year-old PUR Minister of State George Copos, who is to coordinate the activities of ministries involved in improving the business climate and encouraging small and medium-sized enterprises. He has already announced that he entrusted the administration of his assets to the Romanian branch of the KPMG audit and financial-consulting company, according to the daily "Cotidianul." Copos's wealth is estimated at $160 million, stemming from companies involved in industry, commerce, and tourism. He is also owner of the Bucharest Rapid soccer team. Finally, UDMR Chairman Bela Marko, 53, is to be minister of state in charge of culture, education, and EU-integration activities.

The new cabinet intends to proceed swiftly in implementing measures aimed at promoting its liberal-democratic spirit. Its priorities include the introduction of a 16 percent flat tax to attract investment and thus create jobs while combating tax evasion. This is to replace the current progressive taxation of incomes and profit, which can be as high as 40 percent. Lowering taxes, it is argued, would also encourage employers to stay away from the widespread employment of untaxed, black-market labor.

Other liberal-democratic measures announced in the government's program include full transparency in the governing process and in making legislation comprehensible to those affected by it; restoring and guaranteeing the independence of the media in general -- and of state radio and television in particular; reducing individual contributions to state pension funds and a gradual rise in pensions by as much as 30 percent by 2008 on the strength of improved tax collection; consolidating the independence of the judiciary from politics; involving civil society in the struggle against corruption by recruiting the aid of NGOs and of organizations representing business; reforming the education system in line with European norms; passing a law on the rights of national minorities; and eliminating compulsory military service by 2007.

Speaking in parliament on 28 December, Popescu-Tariceanu said the vote of confidence in this government "ends the transition to a market economy and starts the process of modernizing the country, a process closely linked to joining the EU." To achieve those goals, however, Romania most requires political stability.

This might well be what the Social Democrats wish to obstruct. Young Social Democratic lawmaker Victor Ponta predicted at the cabinet's investiture session that "we shall meet again in April [to debate] a better government." For the Social Democrats, the option of early elections might be dangerous at this point. Basescu's 12 December victory over Nastase in the presidential race showed the Social Democrats are vulnerable in the current environment. But things might be different in a year's time, after the shaky coalition has been forced to implement unpopular measures in the wake of the Social Democratic legacy of harsh EU accession conditions.

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