Romanian lawmakers from across the political spectrum have voted overwhelmingly to topple Prime Minister Florin Citu's center-right minority government in a no-confidence vote.
The fall of Citu's government on October 5 threatens to deepen the crisis faced by Romania, one of the poorest countries in the European Union, amid a devastating fourth COVID-19 wave and spiraling energy costs ahead of the winter season.
The crisis was triggered last month when the center-right USR party withdrew from the government led by Citu's National Liberal Party (PNL), complaining about his "dictatorial attitude" after he sacked several USR members of his government, including the justice and health ministers.
Citu, a 49-year-old, U.S.-educated former banker, has been prime minister since parliamentary elections in December, but has already been abandoned by his center-right coalition partner and heavily criticized by the left amid political bickering.
USR lawmakers on October 5 joined far-right nationalist party Alliance for the Union of Romanians (AUR) to vote in favor of the no-confidence motion lodged by the leftist Social Democratic Party (PSD).
The motion passed by 281 votes to zero out of 318 present, with PNL lawmakers boycotting the vote and the ethnic Hungarian UDMR party, which is part of Citu's coalition, abstaining. Only 234 votes were needed.
After the vote, center-right President Klaus Iohannis, a staunch ally of Citu, called political parties to hold consultations next week on forming a new government.
"Romania must be governed; we are in a pandemic, winter is coming, there is an energy price crisis...and now a political crisis. We need solutions and mature decisions," Iohannis told reporters, blaming the fall of the government on "cynical politicians, some of whom are disguised as reformists," a clear reference to the USR.
"To give parties more time to come up with a solution, I will only call consultations next week," he said.
Iohannis's statement drew the ire of the USR, which has said it could restore the coalition with the Liberals but with a different prime minister.
USR "was unpleasantly surprised by the fact that President Iohannis condoned the rushed, chaotic, and ill-conceived actions of former Prime Minister Florin Citu that forced the USR to leave the cabinet, but is in no rush to hold consultations with the parties" in the middle of multiple crises, the party said in a statement on October 5.
Analysts say that the PNL could choose to form a new minority cabinet with tacit support from the PSD, the party that initiated the no-confidence vote -- and without Citu as premier.
There is speculation, however, that Iohannis may simply reappoint Citu. If lawmakers then fail to endorse the new government twice within 60 days, Iohannis may dissolve parliament and trigger early elections, which according to current opinion polls would likely favor the leftist PSD -- already the largest party in parliament.
Alarming COVID Surge
The ongoing crisis threatens to further hamper Romania's efforts to tackle an alarming surge of COVID-19 infections in the European Union nation of 19 million that is currently putting the country’s hospitals under huge strain.
On October 5, the number of new coronavirus infections in Romania rose by a record 15,037 in the past 24 hours. The previous record had been registered on October 2. A total of 1,289,156 cases and 37,929 deaths have been registered in Romania since the start of the pandemic.
There were 252 fatalities over the past 24 hours, bringing the total number of deaths caused by COVID-19 to 37,929.
Health officials said no intensive-care beds were available anymore in Romania as of October 5.
Only a little more than one-third of Romania's adult population has been vaccinated amid distrust in state institutions and misinformation campaigns. Only its neighbor and fellow EU member Bulgaria has vaccinated less people.
About 40 percent of medical staff are not vaccinated and the government is considering making a digital EU COVID-19 passport mandatory for them.
One of the main accusations that lawmakers directed at Citu during the debate of the no-confidence motion was his lack of a coherent plan to fight the pandemic and to step up a lackluster vaccination campaign.
The government also dropped a mask requirement early in the summer, prompting many people to refrain from getting vaccinated -- needed for traveling abroad -- and instead swarm to Romania's Black Sea beaches without any social distancing.