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May 17, 2022

President or premier?

The debate on the political regime is periodically re-launched in Romania, but no one has been willing to go to the bitter end with it so far. As Hamlet would say, there has been nothing but ‘words, words, words’. In other words, who should have the last say? The president elected by the ‘people’, or the prime minister, the emanation of a parliamentary majority?At the end of the day, the dispute is not so much on the electoral model, as it is on the hierarchy of the executive power. Is a powerful prime minister like in the majority of European states preferable to stronger presidential competence based on the French model? The current semi-presidential has led to numerous conflicts. Ion Iliescu dismissed Petre Roman in 1991 with the help of the miners who had descended in Bucharest as improvised political actors. President Emil Constantinescu pushed PM Radu Vasile to resign against his will, with the latter’s resistance only lasting for a few days.

The same Ion Iliescu skilfully annealed the ambitious Adrian Nastase at the various moments of his rule. Traian Basescu, however, has overtaken everyone else, always trying to undermine the power of an initially allied PM Calin Popescu Tariceanu who nonetheless surprisingly resisted in office for a complete term. And, more recently, PM Victor Ponta has consented to the big move of impeaching the president by referendum.  All these conflicts have been accompanied by ‘theoretical’ polemics. Some have militated for the ‘parliamentary republic’, first of all the Liberals. Talks have obviously always been interested. When they were headed by Adrian Nastase, the Social-Democrats were counting on strengthened presidential prerogatives because their leader was targeting the supreme office himself. Now that they are being tormented by ’an engaged president’, hostile and longeval, they are more open to limiting his powers. The Liberals are also versatile in this respect. Prime Minister Tariceanu wanted to take away some of the power of a president such as Basescu and honestly intended to institute the status of an authoritative prime minister. Crin Antonescu, whose personal target is to win the presidential election, is less willing to become a ‘straw’ head of state. Under the umbrella of `Zeus` (alias Traian Basescu), the Democratic Liberals have preferred the status quo. The Hungarians in UDMR are also undecided, as the benefits coming from their allied governments (that have kept succeeding in the last years) can always be doubled by a presidential support while in the opposition.  However, we can wonder: beyond such positions of circumstance, what would be better for Romania? The certain thing is that the current situation partly serves the balance of powers and, at the same time, generates serious political blockage. If the president was ‘weak’, would he have the moral authority that is seen in other European states? Would he be listened to? The plagiarism scandal involving the PM proves that moral criteria do not really work in the Romanian society. Anyway, not enough to have the due weight. So a ‘weak’ president would be virtually useless. On the other hand, a president who would be even ‘more powerful’ than the current one could easily abuse his power. The ‘enlightened monarch’ model cannot work in the current democracy, it would be nothing but a hazardous experiment. However, the option of a powerful prime minister is not negligible, for the experience of the Boc governments manipulated from Cotroceni is not a solution for the future. Traian Basescu now pays with his drastic fall of popularity for his excessive involvement in the act of government.The main responsibility of the government as to belong to the premier and parliamentary majority behind him/her. But political parties are far too corrupt – the sceptic would reply. After all, corruption can only be deterred by judicial means, but the even more claimed ‘independence of the judiciary’ is the result of a relatively constant political will. It is possible that, without President Basescu’s political support, the prosecutors’ successes may have been smaller. Of course, the president has not acted in an innocent manner, driven by good faith and responsibility. But democracy has developed more complex mechanisms exactly because it knows that politician, like humans, in general, do not usually act on virtuous reasons. Anyway, before a political party becomes strong enough to dominate the political stage (even if as a member of an alliance, but not the kind of alliance currently in power, operating on parity principles), nothing is going to change.The Romanian presidents of the last two decades have been reclining against various forms of populism which do not need confirming by concrete results as it is the case with those who lead governments. Victor Ponta, for example, even after half a year, will be evaluated by the electorate for the concrete things that have happened in the meantime. In a certain ay, a parliamentary republic can, willy-nilly, lead to a political culture that is more attentive to criteria of accountability. Electing a prime minister (there are already electoral proposals in that respect) presupposes the possibility of holding that person accountable even by calling a snap election. A president, on the other hand, is more difficult to evaluate and even to dismiss. No matter how many discussions will follow on the theme of the political regime, a decision is extremely hard to make not only from a practical point of view, but also in terms of principles.

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