Romania's President Klaus Iohannis and the government are at loggerheads. Iohannis took the rare step of partly rejecting a proposed cabinet reshuffle, and the country's struggle with corruption is coming to a head.
Romanian President Klaus Iohannis has partially rejected a cabinet reshuffle proposed by his country's government. Iohannis, of the National Liberal Party (PNL), cited the current government's disappointing record, saying he had expected a comprehensive governed shake-up ahead of Romania's ascent to the presidency of the European Council.
Prime Minister Viorica Dancila, of the Social Democratic PSD, and her party's powerful leader Liviu Dragnea, had suggested replacing "renegade" cabinet ministers and reassigning loyalists after severe criticism from within their own party. The plan was proposed despite a damning European Commission progress report on Romania, and a cross-party resolution by the European Parliament expressing grave concern about the government's inability to tackle corruption and threats to the independence of the judiciary.
Major blow to Dragnea
Iohannis rejected Romanian Labor Minister Lia-Olguta Vasilescu's planned reassignment to the Ministry of Transport, but accepted her proposed successor — thereby effectively shutting Dragnea ally Lia-Olguta Vasilescu out of the cabinet. The move deals a severe blow to the PSD boss, who is also the acting parliamentary president and is barred from serving as prime minister due to a previous conviction for vote-rigging.
As president, Iohannis has taken the unusual step of rejecting his prime minister's suggestions for the cabinet
The president also rejected the proposed removal of Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Regional Development Paul Stanescu (PSD), who had openly opposed Dragnea — his own party leader — in recent weeks. His party's control over the Ministry of Regional Development is particularly important to Dragnea, say critics, because it allows him to fund regional politicians and buy their loyalty.
By backing Stanescu, the president also prevented 35-year-old Social Democrat Ilan Laufer from taking control of the regional development portfolio. Laufer had served as a minister in a previous government led by the Social Democrats, and was sacked earlier this year by the party leadership along with the prime minister for incompetence.
Some Romanian media outlets blame political foul play for Ilan Laufer's rejection. The young politician emigrated from Israel to Romania with his family at the age of 14, studied sports and soon became a Romanian celebrity. He is considered a shrewd businessman, speaks several languages and according to his supporters maintains close ties to the US and Israel. One Romanian journalist reputed to have close ties to the government said Laufer's rejection could only be explained by international intervention in the president's affairs.
For critics of the president, it is clear what that intervention was: About one week ago, Israeli daily Jerusalem Post reported that German Chancellor Angela Merkel had called President Iohannis last April and urged him to prevent the relocation of Romania's embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, as had been announced by Dragnea and the government. The report sparked heated political debate in Romania, and neither the president's office nor Germany's government have so far officially denied its accuracy. Laufer has lambasted his rejection as an act of anti-Semitism, and has announced he will file a complaint with the country's anti-discrimination agency. He said this was not the first time Iohannis had "sabotaged Jews."
Emergency government meeting called
So far, however, President Iohannis has not given a detailed explanation for his rejection of Lia-Olguta Vasilescu and Ilan Laufer. He does possess the constitutional right to initially dismiss any cabinet nomination or reassignment. Romania's government must now alternative nominations. The Social Democrats wish to keep Vasilescu in the government by making her the new deputy prime minister and putting her in charge of the coveted regional development ministry.
On Tuesday, PSD leader Dragnea held a crisis meeting with Calin Popescu-Tariceanu, whose Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (ALDE) is the junior partner in Romania's coalition government. In early November, Romania's National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA) started investigating Popescu-Tariceanu at the request of Austrian authorities, and has demanded he be stripped of his parliamentary immunity. When Popescu-Tariceanu served as Romania's prime minister some ten years ago, he allegedly received a bribe of $800,000 (€700,000) from an Austrian company. PSD leader Dragnea, meanwhile, is under investigation for inciting the abuse of public power and the embezzlement of about €20 million in EU funds.