The battle between the centre-right President of Romania, Klaus Iohannis, and the leftist government headed by Liviu Dragnea over control of the country’s legal and judicial institutions has entered a new phase. This last weekend saw the Social Democrats seeking to strengthen their hand in the stand-off with Klaus Iohannis by bringing their supporters from across the country into Bucharest for a major rally. Romania is set to enter turbulent and uncharted waters over the weeks to come.
The Battle Over Romania’s Legal Institutions: On 30 May the Romanian Constitutional Court (CCR) ruled that Klaus Iohannis, President of Romania, could not refuse to act on the instruction from Tudorel Toader the Justice Minister, to remove Laura Kovesi from her position as Chief Prosecutor in Romania’s Anti-Corruption Directorate, DNA. Iohannis had previously on 16 April declined to comply with an earlier move by the Social Democrat (PSD) led government to remove Kovesi .He had maintained that constitutionally decisions on the appointment and dismissal of the DNA’s Chief Prosecutor were the responsibility of the president and not the government. Tudorel Toader had called for Kovesi’s removal stating that she had ‘acted ‘beyond her responsibilities’ and was ‘guilty of ‘not respecting parliament.’ Iohannis described Toader’s arguments as being ‘subjective’ and ‘not in line with the laws applicable here.’ Laura Kovesi was also backed on 27 February by Superior Magistrates Council (CSM), Romania’s judicial watch-dog. Over a thousand magistrates signed a petition condemning Toader’s attempts to organise her removal.
Kovesi had since her appointment in 2013 spearheaded Romania’s anti-corruption drive. She has been praised domestically and internationally for her efforts. She has also become the target of intense criticism, primarily from the Social Democrats, and their allies who have presented her anti-corruption campaign as being a ‘politically motivated’ and organised by a ‘parallel state’ existing within the country.
The controversy over Laura Kovesi’s position is, however, part of a wider and on-going power struggle taking place in Romania. Since they were elected in December 2016 the left-wing Social Democrats have been attempting to gain control of or change elements of the Romanian legal system. These moves have been opposed by President Iohannis. The Romanian President is supported by the opposition political parties, and a large element of the urban population. Internationally Iohannis is also backed by the European Union and the United States government, who see the steps taken by the Social Democrats as representing an attempt to undermine the rule of law, and assert political control over legal institutions.
The Social Democrats – Dragnea’s Party of Power: The Constitutional Court ruling represents a major victory for the Social Democrats. It has opened the way to, potentially, removing Kovesi and has allowed the Social Democrats to argue that they, and not Iohannis and his supporters, are the true defenders of the rule of law in Romania. The Social Democrats (PSD) were elected in December 2016. In the year and a half since then there have been three Prime Minister, Sorin Grindeanu from January to June 2017, Mihai Tudose from June 2017 to January 2018, and the current incumbent, Viorica Dancila. The real power within the Romanian government is, however, wielded by Liviu Dragnea, the Social Democrat leader, who is prevented from becoming prime minister himself by a corruption conviction. Dragnea appoints PSD prime ministers who appear to be easy to control and then arranges for them to be sacked when they try to display some measure of independence. Dragnea and the Social Democrats aware that their internal political situation appears increasingly chaotic, and that their moves over the legal system have been subject to domestic and international criticism have taken steps to shore up their position. They have increasingly sought to portray themselves as the defenders of traditional family and moral values, and as championing the national interest against external interference. This traditionalist stance is calculated to appeal to voters from the Social Democrats small town and rural support base.
Romanian Politics Played Out on a Middle Eastern Stage: The conflict over Romania’s legal institutions has also had international dimensions. In April 2018 the rival centres of power in Romanian politics became embroiled in a controversy over whether the country should recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. The nature and prominence of this dispute may appear strange at first sight, but makes sense in the context of Romania’s internal power struggle, and the government’s need to deflect international criticism. On 20 April Liviu Dragnea announced in an interview with the pro-government TV station Antenna 3 that Romania was ready to follow the lead set by the US Trump administration in recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. This was followed by a visit to Israel by Liviu Dragnea and Prime Minister, Viorica Dancila from 22-25 April. The visit to Israel also allowed Dragnea to avoid being present at a hearing in his on-going corruption trial. Dragnea stated that support for the embassy move would be a ‘huge opportunity’ which would yield ‘short, medium, and long-term benefits’ for Romania. He noted in particular that this decision would be regarded favourably by Donald Trump’s administration. Klaus Iohannis reacted immediately by condemning Dragnea and Dancila’s unilateral decision. He called on them to show ‘responsibility and discernment regarding major foreign policy issues.’ Iohannis reiterated his support for a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict in which the status of Jerusalem would form a part. This dispute allowed Dragnea and the Social Democrat government to curry favour with the Trump administration whilst circumventing both the EU and the US State Department. At the same time it also forced Iohannis to make clear his position in opposition to the US administration’s stance on Jerusalem. The Israel-Palestine conflict was being weaponised as tactical instrument in Romania’s internal power struggle.
The PSD Seek to Mobilise Support: The PSD had, prior to the CCR ruling, scheduled a rally to take place in Victory Square in central Bucharest on 9 June. The rally had originally been intended to be staged in support of the increasingly beleaguered PSD Prime Minister, Viorica Dancila, but the theme for the rally was changed after the CCR decision to a protest over ‘abuses of the justice system.’ It was planned that he rally would provide an opportunity for the PSD to demonstrate, domestically and internationally, that it had public support for its stance in relation to the legal institutions. It was also intended as a direct imitation of the mass anti-corruption street protests which took place in Bucharest and other towns across Romania in early 2017. By scheduling the rally for the weekend after the Constitutional Court decision Dragnea and the PSD were also seeking to pre-empt any attempts by the opposition to mobilise in support of Klaus Iohannis, and Laura Kovesi. In a move which emphasised the traditionalism of the PSD’s support base the party urged people to turn-up to its rally wearing white shirts or Romanian national folk costume. The PSD stated in the run-up to the rally that it would involve between 250,000 and 300,000 participants.
The PSD Under Pressure: While in the immediate aftermath of the Constitutional Court ruling Liviu Dragnea appeared to have the upper hand in his struggle with Klaus Iohannis not everything has been going his way. Viorica Dancila’s PSD government had been coming under increasing pressure. The opposition have called a vote of confidence in the administration. While this no-confidence motion is unlikely to succeed the problems faced by the government will not go away. At the time of the December 2016 election support for the PSD stood at 45%. Polling undertaken in the spring of 2018 showed the PSD’s rating down to as low as 28%. Further turmoil within the PSD would be likely to reinforce this downward spiral in its public support. The PSD has also seen recent defections from within its ranks with 12 MPs leaving to join Pro-Romania grouping. This new party is led by Victor Ponta, who was PSD Prime Minister from April 2012 to October 2015. Ponta had been a supporter of Sorin Grindeanu in his intra-party struggle in Liviu Dragnea, and had been expelled from the PSD after Grindeanu’s resignation as prime minister. Ponta had been acquitted of corruption charged on 10 March 2018. Ponta has sought to present his party as taking a middle way between the PSD government and the centre-right opposition. He has stated that he supports the anti-corruption campaign, but he opposes the methods used by Laura Kovesi. He has also suggested that he will seek to maintain good relations with the EU and avoid taking a path of confrontation similar to that adopted by the governments of Poland and Hungary. The PSD were, to a degree able to ameliorate the impact of these defections by persuading 3 members of the centre-right Peoples Movement Party (PMP) led by Traian Basescu to join their ranks. Ponta’s new party does, however, have the capacity to slice off a layer of PSD support at a time when its popularity is already in decline.
Preparation s for the rally on 9 June, which was planned as a show of strength by the PSD, also produced embarrassing revelations, and signs of dissent. A leaked memo from within the PSD has demonstrated that far from being a spontaneous display of support for the government the demonstration was in fact a carefully organised and controlled effort by the PSD to bring their supporters from the provinces to the city. Quotas of the number of participants to be brought to the rally were imposed on PSD branches. One local PSD organiser objected to the way in which local members were being treated ‘like animals.’
The Opposition Reacts: The CCR decision was roundly condemned by opposition leaders who sought to defend the right of President Iohannis to appoint and dismiss judicial officials. Ludovic Orban, leader of the National Liberal Party Romania’s main centre-right opposition stated: ‘There is no precedent in 28 years of democracy for such a decision. The political majority on the Constitutional Court rewrote the constitution.’ Dacian Ciolis, the former Prime Minister and leader of the newly founded Romania Together movement, stated that the President should be ‘prepared to risk everything’ from a political perspective in order to defend the constitution. He suggested that a referendum should be held on the issue of judicial independence. Traian Basescu, the leader of the PMP and former Romanian President, who had himself been a subject of investigation by Laura Kovesi and the DNA, stated that Iohannis needed to make a stand and defend presidential powers and prerogatives or else he will simply end up as someone who occupies a palace with a nice garden attached. A group of 37 civic organisations called for Iohannis to engage in a broad process of dialogue before he made any decision on the dismissal of Laura Kovesi. They stated that the CCR ruling returned Romania to the situation prior to EU accession when ‘the judiciary was a slave to political power.’
The Rally on Victory Square: The PSD organised rally which took place on 9 June was attended by 150,000 participants. This was a large number, but less than its organisers had anticipated. Many of the participants arrived wearing white shirts, as they had been instructed. Liviu Dragnea told the rally that: ‘You showed courage by coming here today. You have assumed the right to freedom and democracy with dignity. I also hail with pity this time all those who came previously to this square and gave their support to the parallel state, either on orders or out of curiosity.’ Many of the participants had been bussed into the city or had come on specially scheduled trains. There were reports that government employees, including those working in schools and hospitals, had been pressurised into taking part in the rally. The rally was regarded with a mixture of dismay and mockery by opposition supporters. For some Bucharest residents the rally stirred dark memories of the Mineriada of the 1990s when miners had similarly, albeit more violently, been brought in from the provinces to bolster, a threatened regime. Others were both amused and angered by an interview given by Liviu Dragnea on 11 June in which he stated that the previous weekend had seen two great successes for Romania the victory for Simona Halep in the French Open tennis and the PSD rally in Bucharest.
What Happens Next? Klaus Iohannis could at this point, in theory, accede to the government’s demands and remove Laura Kovesi from her position as Chief Prosecutor of the DNA. He would then have to limp on as a lame duck president for a year and a half until the next presidential elections take place in the autumn of 2019. The level of personal and political investment Klaus Iohannis has made to resisting government encroachment on legal institutions and their powers would, however, make it difficult for him to pursue such an option. A refusal by Iohannis to comply with the government’s instruction to dismiss Kovesi would throw the ball back into the court of the administration and the PSD. In a television interview on 11 June Liviu Dragnea stated that the PSD led government would be ready to use ‘any means at its disposal’ against Iohannis. One option would be for the PSD to seek to oust Iohannis by bringing in an impeachment referendum. Senior figures within the PSD are, however, known to be split as to whether such a move would be advisable. The PSD sought to use, impeachment referendums to remove the then President Traian Basescu in 2007 and 2012. On both occasions they were unsuccessful. It is not clear whether they would be any more successful using the same tactics against Klaus Iohannis in 2018. Alternatively Iohannis could take the initiative and call early presidential elections. This course may seem to be an appealing course in view of the recent opinion polling which has shown sharply falling support for the PSD over recent months. Romanian politics is set for a turbulent and confrontational period over the near future.