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October 23, 2021

Pragmatism of parity

The intentions of the power-holders to take advantage of their comfortable parliamentary majority to adopt relatively quickly amendments to the Constitution have also revived the issue of the role the president should have. More exactly, the sharing of powers and competence between the president and prime minister. This is not just a dispute of principles, but it has been an underlying reason of discord throughout our entire post-communist history so far. The current system is the fruit of the declared option of the first post-1989 legislators to introduce a system standing for a correction of the too high concentration of power at the time.  In practical matters, however, the presidents have always played first fiddle, often at the price of quite serious political crises. Ion Iliescu did not only dominate one way or another Romanian politics for many years, but he was also very good at making and unmaking premiers, using his perfidy (he kept the arrogant Adrian Nastase in place when it suited him), and sometimes even more ungloved ways (pushing Petre Roman’s resignation with the help of the ‘Robin Hood’ miners). Constitutional prerogatives were, in fact, just right for his role as a populist leader and at the same time very good at pulling discrete strings from behind closed doors. His ‘arrogant’ successor at the party helm dreamt about also taking his place at the helm of the state, after a long term as prime minister. And he even enlarged the president’s powers a little bit awaiting the moment, not imagining that his opponent, Traian Basescu, was going to be the beneficiary of that. Basescu stretched to the maximum the interpretation of the Constitution, practicing a voluntarism that brought him both to a war with the Parliament and to the only policy acceptable to a ‘player-president’: submissive second-in-command prime minister. The ‘episodic’ President Emil Constantinescu just borrowed his predecessor’s presidential manners, also forcing the resignation of a premier who was in the way. So this is how the constitutional debate has so far notably depended on given situations and ambitions of concrete leaders. It doesn’t seem to be any different this time, except perhaps that the political context is different. An alliance ahs just fulfilled its first objective: win a parliamentary majority and, by that, the command of the Government. The next step is the taking over of presidency, as election has been shifted forward. The clear thing is Crin Antonescu’s consistent effort to become president. It is first of all a personal undertaking, but it does engage the party in quite an unusual political campaign. The Liberal Party for the first time has an important chance of winning the position, But only if the presidential prestige and powers are preserved. If under a new Constitution the president became a more or less decorative piece, the Liberals would probably feel almost cheated after a negotiation of power in USL that gave them a once in a lifetime opportunity. If it didn’t happen, it would be a regression compared to Tariceanu’s time: A little bit more than half of the Cabinet and a PM from a different party (at the antipode ideologically speaking, which will not go without electoral consequences on a long term). The question is: is PM Ponta’s position advocating a reduction of presidential powers just circumstantial, reflecting his long-standing war with Traian Basescu, or does he in reality seek a rethinking of relations inside the ruling alliance? Do not forget that it is the Liberals who have been the most fervent militants for a parliamentary republic. However, adopting this kind of constitutional reform now would entail an almost ascetic renunciation. It would mean that Antonescu settles for a minor role and that his party wait for a future electoral window or opportunity to get the leadership of the Government. Which is little probable, because, in that way, PNL would also be giving up on its main political levers to keep and possibly strengthen its condition as a top party. USL has held up first of all because it chose the parity system for sharing power beyond any considerations of actual popularity. That was an inspired choice to make. On the other hand, any spectacular turns must be avoided in order not to destabilise the functional balance demonstrated so far into the process. For pragmatic reasons, Victor Ponta is not going to take any such proposals too far. The current situation is far too cosy and he knows a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. The prime minister is not Traian Basescu, a man who can overturn situations, undermine his allies and dominate authoritatively. Ponta and Antonescu still need each other, because, on their own, they would be facing the risk of starting to shake seriously.

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