Romanian president Traian Basescu nominated on December 17 Social-Democrat leader Victor Ponta as the country’s next prime minister. Before the general election on December 9, Basescu said that nominating Ponta would be akin to “having to swallow a pig”, but with Ponta’s coalition winning a two-third majority in the new parliament and adamant it would only support Ponta for the job, Basescu was left little choice.
Speculation in local media in the week after the election said that Basescu would consider an attempt to split Ponta’s USL coalition – an alliance between the Social-Democrats and the centre-right National-Liberals, which also features two small parties, all united in their opposition to the unpopular president.
But with USL holding firm in its support for Ponta and EU politicians urging Basescu to avoid re-igniting the institutional stand-off from the past summer (when USL attempted to impeach Basescu, claiming he overstepped his constitutional powers, failing only because the impeachment referendum fell tantalisingly short of the validity threshold), the president chose to give in.
Breaking with tradition, Basescu invited representatives of all parliamentary parties and ethnic minorities in the new legislature for the usual consultation on December 17, rather than hold separate meetings with each party. Local observers said it was a sign of Basescu was prepared to concede defeat and was holding the meeting only because it was required by law, its outcome never in doubt.
Following a brief session, Basescu said that “as far as I am concerned, the issue is closed, [Ponta’s nomination] representing not only the will of the parliamentary parties, but the will of the electorate.”
Reports in Romanian media claimed that USL leaders – including Ponta and National-Liberal leader Crin Antonescu, the coalition’s declared nominee in the next presidential election – met with Basescu on December 12 to discuss a “co-habitation agreement”. Whether it holds until Basescu second and last presidential term expires in 2014 (and whether USL itself still remains intact), remains to be seen.
Romania’s new parliament is scheduled to hold its first session on December 19, but it is unclear whether it will hold a confirmation vote on the new Ponta cabinet right away. The prime minister designate has said that he would like a government in place by December 25, but reports in Romania have claimed that heated talks within USL on the particular portfolios were far from done.
Another issue on which the parties in the ruling coalition were split was whether to invite the ethnic Hungarian UDMR party into government. Ponta has said that he was willing to do so in order to show the coalition’s willingness to include outside voices, but Antonescu and Dan Voiculescu, media magnate and leader of the Conservative party (as well as a collaborator of the communist-era secret services), remain opposed.
Basescu’s Democrat-Liberal party and the populist People’s Party of TV presenter Dan Diaconescu are certain to be in opposition, with Diaconescu saying that his party would not support a Ponta-led Cabinet. (Diaconescu even ran directly against Ponta in the election, only to be soundly defeated and remain outside parliament).
Ponta, 40, has been prime minister since May, nominated after USL brought down through a vote of no confidence the second Democrat-Liberal cabinet in the space of four months (it did the same in winter, only for Basescu to nominate another of his allies as prime minister). Since taking office, his image was tarnished by allegations of plagiarism and the fierce battle to impeach Basescu (popular at home, but frowned upon in Western capitals).
If, as expected, he is confirmed to stay on as prime minister, he will face two difficult tasks from the start – persuading the EU that his government was willing to tackle corruption at the highest level (a team of European experts is due to visit the country ahead of the Co-operation and Verification Mechanism report due in January) and negotiating an extension to the International Monetary Fund bail-out agreement, which expires in March 2013.
While USL won the December 9 election decisively and will have the two-thirds majority required to change the country’s constitution, the slow economic recovery will likely prevent the new government from reversing, at least right away, the austerity measures implemented over the past three years by Basescu and his allies.
(Ponta, left, and Basescu at the ceremony to swear in the new government in May 2012. Photo: presidency.ro)