By Daniel Stroe – Bucharest
This past week, Romania revolved around the political crisis which had for more than two weeks persisted inside the former ruling coalition and which in the end ended in its expected dissolution, marking the beginning of a political forces regrouping in anticipation of the Euro and presidential elections in May and, respectively, November.
On Monday, the National Lberal Party (PNL) announced its withdrawal from the social-liberal ruling coalition (USL) which it formed back in December 2011 with the social-democrats, the largest party in the Parliament. “By repeated and flagrant encroachment, to an unacceptable degree, of some government making elements by PM Ponta, PNL has decided to put an end to a crisis artificially prolonged by the prime-minister, withdraw all its ministers from this cabinet along the resignation of the liberal dignitaries. The second decision is to ask for the resignation of PM Victor Ponta” the liberal leader Crin Antonescu said last night at the end of a party convention.
The announcement came weeks after PNL proposed Klaus Johannis as deputy-PM after the position became vacant following the resignation of another liberal minister. Johannis, the German ethnic mayor of Sibiu, a city in central Romania, was brought forward by the liberals, but PM Victor Ponta, the head of the social-democrats, is reluctant to accept his nomination for fear it may overshadow him in an electoral year. Johannis has high approval ratings and Ponta fear bringing him in the first ranks of the government may impact on his public image.
The move has left many wondering why an alliance with more than 70 per cent presence in the Romanian legislative breaks up so easily, especially since the social-democrats and the liberals’ common political enemy, President Traian Basescu, which they admitted it is the main reason to keep the alliance strong, is still in office and any fragmentation of their front only benefits the latter. The split also brings to end huge political projects, such as the change of the Constitution along a much touted administrative reform which got stuck at the Constitutional Court in the meantime.
The main reason Antonescu decided to leave USL was that he became convinced he is no longer the coalition’s presidential candidate, as provided the initial agreement which lay at the basis of the alliance. With him trailing in the polls, PM Ponta’s social-democrats started putting pressure on the prime-minister to allow the party to choose its own candidate for the presidential elections in November. With a strong presence in the polls, Ponta’s party is likely to give both the president and the prime-minister as of late this year and this is what the social-democrats are after. That is why one of the reasons why Ponta refused Johannis by his side for fear the German ethnic may chip at his popularity.
But Ponta had made it in such a way that USL break up looks like the result of the liberals’ actions. A polls published last week shows that about 35 per cent of the Romanians think it is PNL to blame for the ruling coalition dissolution. Still, in the opposition, the liberals may regain from the lost popularity by launching attacks against the social-democrats’ policies, such as an unpopular fuel excise, heavily contested by the president himself. It may be a difficult mission to be credible in doing this, but many in the liberals’ electorate were disappointed three years ago when the party chose to ally itself with a center-left party, so PNL still has a large electorate to reach.
In the meantime, Ponta seeks to form a new majority with two small parties, the minorities’ lawmakers and the Hungarian ethnics’ party UDMR which has always been the spare wheel of any government. The new coalition may reach a majority of up to 60 per cent, deputy-PM Liviu Dragnea said yesterday. But bringing the Hungarians to power may come with some concessions, such as a Hungarian language teaching line at the Targu Mures University, a long claim of the minority and which, ironically, Ponta severely fought when he was in opposition by mid 2012. Publicly, such concessions made to UDMR, especially amid a more radical appearance of Hungarian splinter parties calling for territorial autonomy in the so-called Szeklersland, are not well seen by the Romanian electorate, so Ponta may take a chance by accepting them, especially in an electoral year.
In return, Antonescu may seek to join forces with President Basescu to slow the social-democrats’ momentum. Both have got something to gain if they hinder Ponta’s political ascension. Most probably, the Euro-elections in May will be the starting point of political transformations in Romania which will result in new camps before the presidential polls in November. The liberals have still got the ace in the sleeve which is Klaus Johannis.
Many say USL’s break up is for the better since the two parties were embroiled in the crisis for too long and left the government more preoccupied about the dissent inside the coalition that the governing itself. The need for an undisturbed government is even clearer these days when a major crisis is underway at Romania’s external borders, the one unfolding in Ukraine.