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PM's firing means danger for Romanian democracy

Peter Janku
January 16, 2018

After a brief struggle for power, Romanian Prime Minister Mihai Tudose has resigned. President Klaus Johannis named Defense Minister Mihai Fifor as interim prime minister, but the political crisis continues.

Rumänien Liviu Dragnea
Tudose (l.) stood in the shadow of Social Democrat party boss Dragnea (r.) from the beginning of his short tenure as PM Image: Getty Images/AFP/D. Mihailescu

He certainly would not be available to serve as interim Prime Minister, Mihai Tudose said Monday when asked what was going to happen now in Romania. He was leaving with his "head held high," he said, just a day before his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe was scheduled to visit Romania.

His petulant demeanor in the wake of being fired by his party's executive committee comes as no surprise. The 50-year-old only managed for seven months to avoid his predecessor Sorin Grindeanu's fate.

Both had repeatedly dared to stand in the way of the Social Democratic Party's (PSD) increasingly controversial and powerful leader Liviu Dragnea. Both thwarted his favorite project, the judicial reforms that the opposition, the judiciary, civilian society, the EU and the US criticize as harmful to the constitutional state. And both ended up paying with their office for the short-term independence they enjoyed.

Brief power struggle

When Dragnea's leftwing populist party on Monday gave Tudose the boot, it marked a swift end to the power struggle that came to a head a few days ago when the PM called Interior Minister Carmen Dan – a longtime close ally of Dragnea – a liar and demanded she step down.

PSD leader and President of the Romanian House of Representatives, Dragnea by no means wanted to forgo yet another insider and government supporter: he is currently on a suspended sentence for election fraud, and has no access to the government himself.

At the same time, new mass protests loom on the horizon and there also might be snap elections. Control of the Interior Ministry seems to be of key importance to the strongman, who needs to keep up his tarnished authority in Bucharest. More important than political or economic stability, more important than a stable currency.

Three months ago, Tudose incurred the powerful politician's wrath by removing two of Dragnea's close friends from the cabinet. According to critics, he is doing what he can to dodge more convictions that could put a sudden end to his political career. He is suspected of having embezzled EU funds, forging documents and abuse of office. In December 2017, the wealthy oligarch whisked legislation through parliament that puts an end to the independence of the judiciary, sparking widespread protests.

Protesters outside government headquarters in Bucharest, Romania
Protests over the government's crackdown on judicial independence have ramped up in recent monthsImage: picture-alliance/AP/V. Ghirda

A threat to the constitutional state

Dragnea critics at home and abroad agree that politicizing the judiciary, greatly curtailing the powers of the police, of law enforcement and anti-corruption agencies would give Dragnea and his coalition partners a clean record. They would no longer have to fear criminal prosecution.

Neither the PSD leader nor his political cronies seem to care much that the constitutional state threatens to fall by the wayside. They all joyfully benefit from riding the slipstream in which the second-poorest country in the EU has been moving for months and years, far behind Poland and Hungary – EU states the West criticizes much more severely. The leadership elite, which resembles the oligarchy in Russia, hides in the countryside behind the bullied and synchronized media and their anti-Western conspiracy theories. According to the latter, either Jewish billionaire George Soros or an ominous, undefined "parallel state" are active in Romania to take power from Dragnea and his party.

Thanks to the course set in 2015 by the Dacian Ciolos administration, Romania still enjoys robust economic growth. But not much trickles down to the population; abject poverty is still widespread.

Difficult times ahead

Discontent with poverty, corruption and lacking legal security – in particular among the new middle classes and potential investors – hasn't just put the brakes on new investment, but has also led experts and scientists to leave the country. The "brain drain" is not just tapping key human capital, but, buoyed by Russian propaganda, a waning sympathy for the EU and democracy is disappearing along with the emigrants. 

President Johannis, who participated in pro-constitutional state mass demonstrations in Bucharest in early 2017, will have a hard time stemming this erosion of democracy. His powers are limited, and he can easily be deposed, a fact that members of the government have made clear more than once these past days.

On Tuesday, Johannis named Defense Minister Mihai Fifor as interim prime minister. It remains to be seen whether he will accept the PSD's proposal to nominate Dragnea ally Viorica Dancila for the position. The Romanian people, meanwhile, have hopes for a planned mass protest on Saturday and an audible interference by western heads of government like German Chancellor Angela Merkel and US President Donald Trump.