By Daniel Stroe – Bucharest
The Romanian ruling coalition is starting to suffer from the same separation syndrome all the previous political alliances underwent and which sets the stage for a serious electoral confrontation this year with high stakes for all the players involved.
The start of the tension inside the ruling social-liberal union (USL) was given by PM Victor Ponta’s social-democrats’ decision for forge another pre-electoral alliance with two smaller parties, in anticipation of a break-up with the liberal partners. Analysts say the new alliance, called USD, relies on the similarity in name with USL to mislead voters and the liberals are likely to lose due to that. The new political group also gives Ponta an upper hand on future negotiations with the liberals who admitted the new alliance is “a strong signal” which set them thinking.
A war of attrition is underway in USL. To put even more pressure on the liberals, the social-democrats warned the new alliance can govern easily with a majority in the Parliament. Even the position of the liberals’ leader, Crin Antonescu(photo), speaker of the Senate and the second man in the country’s hierarchy, came into discussion, with some warning he may lose it if they choose to leave the ruling coalition.
Antonescu and Ponta started trading barbs and calling each other names. The liberal leader compared the prim-minister with a waiter while Ponta said Antonescu has become of friend of President Basescu and started using the latter’s language. Basescu is USL’s political rival and Ponta and Antonescu have many times admitted that their alliance is founded on the very opposition to President Basescu.
What ignited this wrangle inside USL, already the stage of some latent tensions for a while? The source of the squabble is Klaus Johannis, the German ethnic of Sibiu, a city in central Romania, whom the liberals nominated for the position of minister of Interior, vacated after the resignation of the previous holder. But the liberals are also claiming a deputy-PM job which they had until a week ago, but which they lost after its occupant, former Finance minister Daniel Chitoiu was removed.
PM Ponta argues appointing Johannis in the deputy position involves changing the structure of the government since the job, by the current organizational chart, belongs to the Finance minister not the Interior minister. The liberals, led by Crin Antonescu, do not want to give up the position. This is the very context in which the new political alliance, USD, was forged.
Ponta’s apparent refusal to accept Johannis by his side seems to be springing from electoral concerns the social-democrats have before Euro-elections in May and presidential polls in November. The prime-minister’s social-democrats fear that Johannis, the second most popular politician after PM Victor Ponta, could overshadow the latter since the party is seriously examining the possibility Ponta runs for president, given his high rates of approval. For now, the ruling coalition is set to count on Antonescu for the polls in November, but the liberal leader’s position in the polls is weak and this is why how Johannis came up as an alternative for the presidential elections.
Trying to avoid the dissolution of USL, Ponta said he would accept Johannis as a deputy-PM, but he would appoint a third from one of the two small parties of USD. The liberals fought back and said they cannot be put on the same level with minuscule political structures. Antonescu gave Ponta a three day deadline to think about installing Johannis by his side with no other conditions.
Many say USL will not break up before the elections for the European Parliament. With the social-democrats and the liberals running on separate electoral lists, the Euro-elections will gauge each party’s performance and will play a crucial role in subsequent political decisions. If the social-democrats score well, they will be tempted to run their own candidate for the presidential elections in November and abandon Antonescu. The prospect of giving both the presidential and prime-ministerial positions is too tempting for the social-democrats. In their turn, the liberals want to run in Johannis who could become a viable alternative for the presidential elections and this is exactly what troubles the social-democrats.
With an unexpected 3,5 per cent economic growth in 2013, which the government announced on Friday in great pomp, Ponta may have the wind blowing in his sails for now. He still has to convince the West he is a long distance runner who is committed to losing the camarilla around him if he wants to be credible.