2018 was not an easy year for Romanian politics, as it came with many political conflicts, controversial bills, a new government led by the first woman PM of Romania, and new political parties.
The controversial justice reform continued and even expanded in 2018, triggering even more reactions from the opposition, the civil society and the international partners, while the ruling party and the new government had to fight battles of their own. Meanwhile, the Romanians were called to a referendum and new political parties joined the political scene in Romania.
A difficult start for the ruling party
2018 didn’t start well for the ruling Social Democratic Party PSD, as the tensions within the party, caused by the bad relation between former prime minister Mihai Tudose and party leader Liviu Dragnea, continued in the first weeks of the new year. Tudose wanted to restructure his cabinet but the open conflict with Dragnea finally led to him being forced to resign from the position of PM after losing the party’s support.
The PSD leadership came up with a new prime minister rather quickly (its third prime minister since the party won the parliamentary elections in 2016). By the end of January, Romania already had a new PM: Viorica Dancila. Some might say her appointment was a historic moment for the country, as she is Romania’s first woman prime minister.
However, while Dancila was trying to get used to her new job and promote the party’s achievements and plans, something else made the front pages more often: her blunders. It all began about two weeks after she took over the new position, when she made the first controversial statement: she called those who “misinform the EU” autistic. A statement that was harshly criticized at that time, but unfortunately followed by many more grammatical gaffes and serious protocol mistakes over the year.
More tensions within PSD
Several internal scandals have been shaking PSD since the party took the power in Romania at the end of December 2016, and 2018 made no exception. After the order was re-established in January with the appointment of the new PM, the tensions within the party continued, with several of the party leaders or members criticizing Liviu Dragnea over the year. In spite of that, Dragnea managed to remain party president following the extraordinary congress in March, where he also presented his vision for Romania. Viorica Dancila was elected executive president during the same congress, the second-highest position in the party, after the other candidates withdrew from the race.
But things didn’t stop there. A political war between Dragnea and Bucharest mayor Gabriela Firea started in September, when Firea asked for the resignation of interior minister Carmen Dan, arguing that Dan is responsible for the gendarmes’ brutal intervention against the protesters during the August 10 anti-governmental protest in Bucharest. The PSD Executive Committee voted against Carmen Dan’s dismissal, as the interior minister is one of Liviu Dragnea’s most trusted collaborators. But this led to an even tenser relation between Firea and Dragnea. The Bucharest mayor launched several attacks against the party leader: she accused him of blocking her projects, of approving a fake news piece to discredit her, and even of spying on her.
Dragnea’s seat began to shake again when a small anti-Dragnea group started to take shape within the party, a group that included Gabriela Firea and other leaders and powerful members who were unhappy with Dragnea’s decisions. As some party members were asking for Dragnea’s resignation, PSD decided to organize a new meeting of the Executive Committee to decide its leader’s fate. Liviu Dragnea managed to keep his seat once again but the whole story cost Firea and other members their positions within PSD or even their PSD membership.
However, the tensions within the ruling party have been ongoing, according to media reports, and some MPs decided to leave the party and join other political formations. So far, this has cost the ruling coalition the majority in the Chamber of Deputies.
The government’s battles
While the PSD leader was struggling with the internal scandals, the government was fighting its own battles. Strongly criticized by the opposition, the Viorica Dancila cabinet managed to survive the first no-confidence motion in June, just to face another one in December. But it survived the second motion as well.
However, the opposition parties haven’t been the only ones criticizing the government. President Klaus Iohannis has also been an open critic of the Dancila cabinet, and even asked for the prime minister’s resignation twice this year. The first such request came in April, after the president criticized the PM over her visit to Israel and the government’s memorandum concerning the move of Romania’s embassy to Jerusalem. The second time was in May, when the president said the government is not capable of keeping the country’s public finances in order.
And although Viorica Dancila managed to successfully overcome the attacks coming from the opposition and the president, part of the government ended up being changed anyway, following a decision of the PSD leaders taken in November. Some key members of the government were included in the reshuffle decided by the party, including deputy prime minister and development minister Paul Stanescu, who has also been a critic of Dragnea. However, things didn’t go as planned for the ruling party after the president refused two of the new appointments and delayed announcing his decision. The dispute was settled at the Constitutional Court.
The justice reform
A hot topic since the PSD took the power two years ago, the justice reform continued in 2018, despite criticism from opposition parties, the civil society, the institutions of justice, and even international partners. Some even said that the entire struggle to change the justice laws and the criminal codes came amid the PSD leader’s own problems with justice. After the suspended two-year sentence in 2016, which stood in the way of his plan to become prime minister, Dragnea received another sentence in June 2018, of three years and six months in prison. Meanwhile, Calin Popescu Tariceanu, the Senate president and leader of junior coalition partner ALDE, is also being targeted in a bribery investigation. The DNA prosecuted him in the past for lying under oath in a case related to illegal retrocessions. However, Tariceanu was acquitted in first court.
In fact, the ruling coalition, mainly through the voices of its leaders, has repeatedly talked about justice abuses and the existence of a so-called shadow state, coordinated by high officers of the intelligence service SRI and leaders of other power institutions in Romania, that allegedly contributes to these abuses. PSD even organized a massive street manifestation against justice abuses in June, attended by some 150,000 party members and supporters.
The controversial justice reform began in 2017, with the three controversial justice laws passing the Parliament’s vote at the end of that year. The justice saga continued throughout 2018, despite strong criticism. The Parliament passed the justice laws once again in March, in an accelerated procedure, after the Constitutional Court ruled that some of the provisions were unconstitutional.
Many international voices reacted to this justice reform, including the European Commission leaders, who repeatedly asked the Romanian side to open up a debate on these changes. However, the leaders of the ruling coalition and the government, as well as other members of the coalition, have repeatedly said that the European partners have been misinformed about the justice changes in Romania, or that they don’t have any say in Romania’s internal business. In November, prime minister Dancila addressed the MEPs during a European Parliament (EP) plenary session focused on the latest reform of Romania’s judicial system, criticizing the European Commission’s Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) reports on Romania.
Meanwhile, the Group of States against Corruption (GRECO), the Council of Europe’s anti-corruption body, and the Venice Commission issued harsh reports on this topic. In addition, the EP adopted in mid-November a resolution on the rule of law in Romania, in which it said that it is “deeply concerned” about the reform of the country’s judicial and criminal laws. The same day, the EC also released its latest CVM report, which noted that Romania has reversed the progress of its judicial reform and the fight against corruption.
Meanwhile, all three justice laws entered into force after being promulgated by the president, who said that he had to sign the laws after using all his options of challenging them. Then, the ruling coalition decided to fix some of the provisions in the new justice laws by emergency ordinance.
But the justice laws were not the only ones targeted by the reform, as the ruling coalition has also been trying to amend the Criminal Code and the Criminal Procedure Code. The Parliament adopted many controversial amendments to the criminal codes in July, which were also highly criticized by the Venice Commission. Moreover, the Constitutional Court ruled that 30 provisions of the law to change the Criminal Code and two-thirds of the provisions to amend the Criminal Procedure Code are unconstitutional. Thus, the bills had to re-enter the parliamentary procedure, which meant that their adoption was seriously delayed. Thus, the government announced that it would pass the criminal codes by emergency ordinance, thus speeding up the procedure.
This story about the justice reform in Romania is to be continued, with the PSD reportedly planning an even more controversial emergency ordinance: one on amnesty and pardoning.
The justice minister vs. top prosecutors
Another topic highly debated in 2018 was the justice minister’s decision to request the dismissal of Laura Codruta Kovesi from the position of chief prosecutor of the National Anticorruption Department (DNA). Although the request was announced in February, Kovesi was dismissed a few months later when president Iohannis was forced to sign the decree following a decision of the Constitutional Court. The DNA is headed by an interim chief prosecutor at the moment, as the president rejected the justice minister’s first proposal for this job.
In the meantime, justice minister Tudorel Toader also started the procedure to revoke the general prosecutor, a move that has triggered yet another big scandal in Romania.
The failed referendum
Romania also organized a referendum in 2018, when the Romanians were called to the polls to vote if they agree to changing an article in the Constitution that states that “family is based on the marriage between spouses” to “family is based on the marriage between a man and a woman”. This would have banned same-sex marriages in Romania. However, the referendum recorded a very low turnout and was invalidated. And this led to many political reactions.
New players on the political stage
2018 also brought new players on the Romanian political stage, with several new political parties being launched this year. Among them, Pro Romania – the party of former PSD leader and prime minister Victor Ponta, and the The Alternative for National Dignity (ADN), launched by MEP Catalin Ivan. A former liberal, Viorel Catarama, also announced his plans to launch a political party, while former technocrat PM Dacian Ciolos finally managed to have his own party - the Freedom, Unity and Solidarity Party (PLUS), after the registration of his first party – Miscarea Romania Impreuna took way too long due to court trials.
One step closer to Schengen
Good news also came in December, when the European Parliament adopted a non-legislative report calling for admission of Romania and Bulgaria as full members in the Schengen area. However, the final decision on whether Romania and Bulgaria can become part of the Schengen area requires an unanimous vote in the Council by EU ministers.
Irina Marica, [email protected]
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