2021 political year in review: A tough year for Romania, with unexpected power shifts and months of uncertainty
The second pandemic year, 2021, was marked by political tensions and unexpected power changes. Romania started the year with a center-right ruling coalition forged after the parliamentary elections in December 2020 but ended it with a "left-right" coalition, leaving the voters somewhat confused. All while the country still battled the COVID-19 pandemic and economic concerns. This is the 2021 political year in review.
As Romania started 2021 with a fresh government and a center-right ruling coalition with solid parliamentary support, many expected things to run relatively smoothly this year. But things didn't go as planned, and the many internal scandals and disagreements finally broke the ruling alliance, leaving the country without an official government for weeks. Now, at the end of 2021, Romania is governed by a rather unexpected "left-right" coalition made of the Social Democrats (PSD), Liberals (PNL) and ethnic Hungarians (UDMR). Somehow, the rivals have become allies, leaving voters disoriented and putting the future in doubt. (Opening photo: Social Democrat leader Marcel Ciolacu and Liberal leader Florin Citu) ___STEADY_PAYWALL___
A new year with a new government & ruling alliance
Following the parliamentary elections in late 2020, Romania started 2021 with a new centre-right ruling coalition made up of the National Liberal Party (PNL), the reformist USR-PLUS alliance, and the Democrat Hungarian Union (UDMR). And, of course, with a new prime minister - Liberal Florin Citu. Minor tensions appeared between the three partners right from the start, but nothing too worrying. Most were small issues related to public budget planning, justice reforms or negotiations for public positions. Plus, they started to sketch the National Recovery and Resilience Plan (PNRR) - the program of reforms and investments covered by European money.
On the other hand, the Social Democrats (PSD) were getting used to their new place in opposition.
Meanwhile, Romania took the next step in the fight against COVID-19 and started vaccinating the population. And it had quite a good start, with top political officials, such as president Klaus Iohannis and PM Florin Citu, getting vaccinated publicly to boost people's confidence in the vaccine.
The first major scandal & other tensions
The first big scandal in the ruling coalition emerged in March when Liberal PM Florin Citu started criticizing the activity of USR-PLUS health minister Vlad Voiculescu. The prime minister was mainly unhappy with how the Health Ministry handled the third wave of the pandemic.
Things escalated quite quickly, and a few weeks later, the PM decided to dismiss minister Voiculescu. This triggered a big scandal within the ruling alliance, with USR-PLUS leaders accusing the PM of having taken the decision without consulting them. However, although the USR-PLUS party initially said it would no longer support prime minister Citu, the conflict eventually cooled down, and a new USR-PLUS health minister was appointed - Ioana Mihaila.
But the PNL-USR coalition had to deal with challenges and tensions on other topics, too, such as the judiciary.
In the meantime, preparing for the internal elections and hoping to get another term as president of PNL, Ludovic Orban tried to secure support from party leaders. But PM Citu was already becoming a more popular option within the party, rising as a strong opponent to Orban for the PNL leader seat.
On the economic side, further steps were taken towards drafting the final form of the National Resilience Plan.
Government survives first no-confidence motion + another minister dismissed
In June, the Social Democrats filed a no-confidence motion against the government led by Liberal Florin Citu, criticizing the Executive's economic measures and plans, including the PNRR. However, although the move was also backed by the radical party AUR, the government survived the no-confidence vote in Parliament.
Then, a few days later, PM Florin Citu decided to make another change in his cabinet and dismissed finance minister Alexandru Nazare, quoting "delayed projects at the Ministry of Finance."
Meanwhile, new disagreements emerged within the ruling coalition, this time between USR-PLUS and UDMR. The topic: the dismantling of the controversial prosecution office SIIJ dedicated to investigating prosecutors.
Another story that made the headlines around the same period was that Liviu Dragnea, the former leader of PSD, was released from prison on parole.
The fall of the centre-right ruling coalition
The entire year was rather complicated for the PNL-USR-UDMR ruling alliance, but things really started to get bad at the end of summer. The first strong disagreements appeared over a EUR 10 bln public investment program promoted by PM Florin Citu but opposed by the USR-PLUS party due to a lack of accountability.
Then, the tensions within the governing alliance skyrocketed when PM Citu decided to dismiss justice minister Stelian Ion, a member of USR-PLUS. This led to the fall of the ruling coalition, as USR-PLUS chose to withdraw its support for the PM and, days later, pull out its ministers from the government.
The junior ruling partner said it would continue as part of the coalition with PNL, but it could no longer work with Florin Citu as head of government and asked him to take a step back. But this was out of the question for the Liberal PM, especially as he was running for the PNL president seat against Ludovic Orban. Thus, USR-PLUS decided to file a no-confidence motion, hoping this would lead to the change they wanted. However, the motion got stuck in procedures and never reached the vote in Parliament.
Meanwhile, the Social Democrats filed their own no-confidence motion against the Liberal government. This time, the motion passed the Parliament vote, leaving Romania without a fully functional government.
In the meantime, both PNL and USR-PLUS elected new presidents. Florin Citu managed to secure the PNL leadership, while Dacian Ciolos was elected president of USR-PLUS (which also rebranded as USR).
But a piece of positive news also arrived around the same time: the European Commission green-lighted Romania's Resilience Plan.
Political games and weeks of crisis
With the process of forming a new government came the political games. Which, in turn, translated into a weeks-long crisis with a rather surprising end.
Now the new leader of the Liberals, Florin Citu still hoped to be nominated for PM again despite just being thrown out by Parliament vote. And President Klaus Iohannis seemed to support this idea for a while, especially as he backed Citu in the internal elections in PNL.
But as it was getting quite clear that USR would no longer work with Florin Citu, and without USR the government would not have the necessary support in Parliament, president Iohannis gave up plans to appoint acting PM Citu for another term. He nominated USR leader Dacian Ciolos instead. A nomination that was somehow unexpected, as USR had little or no support from the other parties. As a result, when it got to the vote in Parliament, Ciolos failed to win parliamentary approval for his government.
The president then decided to nominate a Liberal for the PM seat - Nicolae Ciuca, the former defence minister and a retired general. However, Ciuca's cabinet had little chance of getting enough votes in the Parliament, so the Liberals started seeking partners.
The following weeks were sprinkled with ambiguous statements from the PNL, as they oscillated between going ahead with a minority government, trying to restore the alliance with USR or, as very few expected, considering a coalition with their long-time enemies - the Social Democrats. As weeks passed, it became evident that PNL had to find a solution to form a majority. To win some more time and find solutions, PM-designate Nicolae Ciuca gave up on his mandate to form a Government.
Next, as it became clear that a minority government was not an option, the Liberals started to seriously seek partners for a new ruling coalition. Again, they were oscillating between their former allies – the reformist party USR – and their former adversaries – the Social Democrats (PSD). But as they were still upset that USR voted the no-confidence motion against Florin Citu (at least that's what the official statements said), PNL took the somewhat surprising decision to team up with the Social Democrats for a new government.
And, after complicated and lengthy negotiations, PNL and PSD decided to govern together, leaving their voters rather confused. Mainly because both PNL leaders and president Iohannis voiced harsh criticism against PSD over the years. Even in the recent weeks of political crisis, they repeatedly said that an alliance with PSD is out of the question.
Now that a new political majority was formed - PNL-PSD-UDMR, the president nominated Nicolae Ciuca again for PM. On November 25, the Parliament voted the new government, putting an end to the around two-month political crisis in the country.
Nothing new on the Schengen front
There has been some news this year about Romania's possible Schengen membership, but nothing concrete has happened yet, despite optimistic official statements. More so, the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) was not lifted this year either.
(Photo source: Inquam Photos/Octav Ganea)