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Romania: President Announces Forthcoming Reforms

Prague, 19 January 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Romanian President Emil Constantinescu announced two days ago (Jan. 17) in a nationwide television address that the parliament will meet this week (Jan. 21) in an emergency session at which the government will submit a package of reform bills.

The move is to be tied to a kind a confidence vote in that if no objections are raised to the bills, they will be considered to have been approved by the legislature. A motion of no-confidence can be moved by at least one-third of deputies and senators. In such a case, the vote is to take place within three days.

Constantinescu's announcement surprised many political observers and, presumably, the leadership of the Democratic Party as well. Having threatened to leave the coalition by the end of March unless Premier Victor Ciorbea was replaced and a new reform program adopted, the Democrats might have expected the president to seek to mediate between themselves and the National Peasant Party Christian Democratic (PNTCD), which has rejected the Democrats' ultimatum.

The announcement put the ball back into the Democrats' court. Led by Senate chairman and former Premier Petre Roman, the Democratic party has complained that reforms are stalling and hinted that this was because the PNTCD and other members of the Democratic Convention of Romania are more interested in promoting relatively minor interests such as the full restitution of property to its former owners or adopting pro-monarchy positions instead of devoting their energies to securing legislation that would bring about structural reform and large-scale privatization. While that argument may be considered partly valid, it is strange that Democrats agreed to the government's program less than one month earlier, when Ciorbea's reshuffled cabinet was approved by the parliament. What was the reason for this sudden change?

The answer is to be found in the reshuffle itself. The reform process had indeed been stalling owing to the coalition partners' inability to compromise on different programs. "In-party" fighting (since the government is a "coalition of coalitions") played a role, and what seemed to be a promising reform-minded team in November 1996 had come to look like a rather infantile, inefficient group. The reshuffle did not take place until early December 1997 because of bickering and each coalition formation's jealous guarding of fiefdoms. The Democrats, meanwhile, seemed to have come out of it least damaged.

But just several weeks later (on December 23) former Foreign Minister Adrian Severin, the Democrats' most prominent member of the government, had to resign after his allegations of the presence of "foreign agents" among political leaders and prominent journalists, proved untenable. Severin was replaced by former dissident Andrei Plesu, who, though nominated by the Democrats, is not a member of that party. As a result, the Democrats had now suffered losses comparable to those of their coalition partners, which in the December reshuffle had been forced to agree to relinquish some of their prominent members. The same day Plesu was sworn in, Ciorbea asked Transportation Minister Traian Basescu to resign, following Basescu's refusal to retract harsh criticism of the way the government functioned. With the benefit of hindsight, it appears that the "Basescu episode" might have been a provocation. Ciorbea could hardly have acted differently, particularly after his announcement in early December that he would no longer tolerate public criticism from members of the government. At the beginning of January, the Standing Bureau of the Democrats called on Ciorbea to reinstate Basescu. When Ciorbea refused to do so, the bureau accused Ciorbea himself of stalling reform and announced that the party's participation in the coalition is conditional on his replacement by the end of March and agreement among the coalition members on a new reform program. The latter of those demands was presented as the main bone of contention. But in reality, it was not. A new government could mean Severin's and Basescu's return to the cabinet, possibly to other portfolios.

Constantinescu's response now calls the Democrats' bluff. If the Democrats are really interested in relaunching the reform process, they must support the program to be submitted to the legislature. Roman responded temperately to Constantinescu's statement, saying his formation will support the package, which, by implication, would mean the complaints about Ciorbea are no longer justified. But his party released a statement yesterday rejecting Constantinescu's "insinuations" that narrow party interests exacerbate the country's already tarnished image of prolonged political instability.

Constantinescu implied that it is irresponsible to compromise not only the country's reform program but perhaps its democratic process as well. Indeed, the failure of the current coalition would only benefit the extremists, who, according to recent opinion polls, have a growing number of supporters. The consequences of such a turn of events would make the political situation only more difficult.