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Romania: Government Reshuffle Puts Crisis On Hold

Prague, 10 February 1998 (RFE/RL) -- With the signing last week (Feb. 5) of a protocol on relations between ruling coalition partners and the subsequent reshuffle of the government the political crisis in Romania appeared to have come to an end. But the crisis has only been postponed. The crisis was triggered at the end of January (29) by the resignation of former Minister of Transport Traian Basescu. This seemed to have been a deliberate provocation by the Democrats, who, while criticizing the government performance, appeared really aiming at making possible the return to the government of former Foreign Minister Adrian Severin.

But already on January 6 Severin told journalists that the leadership of the party had not done enough to defend its own ministers in the government, pointing out that it was "not normal" that the party that had "provided the best members of the cabinet" should be forced to have three of its ministers dismissed and do nothing about it.

The criticism was obviously directed at the chairman of the party, Petre Roman. This became more obvious at the end of the month (Jan. 30), when Severin, in another interview, blamed Roman for not having done enough to ensure the continuation of the coalition, saying that Roman should have "sacrificed himself" and should have accepted the status quo in the coalition relations.

There was contradiction between the two statements: either the party should have walked out defending its ministers, or it should have "swallowed" its pride and let the coalition continue. While Severin eventually had to pay a price for his attacks on Roman (he was assigned no responsibility when the party's Standing Bureau redistributed the duties of its vice-chairmen in early February), he had unleashed an unpredictable genie out of the Democrats' bottle.

In mid January (14) the party's Standing National Council demanded the replacement of Ciorbea at the head of the cabinet by 31 March the latest. The council practically imposed that decision on Roman, its members knowing only too well that the ultimatum would be unacceptable to the National Peasant Party Christian Democratic (PNTCD). PNTCD's claims that the demand amounted to "political blackmail."

The Democrats' frustrations derived from both pragmatic and ideological reasons. On the pragmatic level, they were often treated with disdain by their coalition associates. All too often the PNTCD at central and local government level made it publicly clear that the "marriage of convenience" with the Democrats was one it disliked and hoped soon to end.

Furthermore, public opinion polls showed that the Democrats were losing much of their following. They had garnered 13 percent in the November 1996 elections, but by December 1998 they were backed by only about eight percent. The Democratic Convention's popularity, on the other hand had grown from 30 percent to 42 percent in the same time, though not so the popularity of premier Ciorbea's cabinet. In other words, the electorate of the Democrats was deserting the party and, its regional leaders who make up the bulk of the National Council felt, the reasons for the desertion must have been mainly of ideological nature. The Democrats' electorate is mainly middle-aged, well-educated, and opposing the full restitution of property to former owners, which is backed by important segments in the CDR.

In spite of CDR's insistence on support for the government by all coalition allies before concluding the new protocol, the Democrats refused to pledge they would refrain from either initiating, or backing a no-confidence motion in the government. The PNTCD had to save face, but few doubt by now that the cabinet will resist beyond the end of March, when the Democrats' Standing National Council would convene again.

Moreover, the further "belt-tightening" measures announced by Ciorbea last week (Feb. 6) may provoke social unrest and provide the Democrats with an early opportunity to get rid of the prime minister. That might solve the crisis, but at the cost of having once more postponed the reforms the country urgently needs.