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September 19, 2019

The fault line between Palaces

From a geographic and topographic standpoint, the distance between the country’s two fundamental institutions – the headquarters of the Presidency (Cotroceni Palace) and the headquarters of the Government (Victoria Palace) – is not substantial. On the contrary, they are located at a very small distance of each other, being separated by just a few kilometres that can be covered by the motorcade in just a few minutes.

Nevertheless, the two institutions, irrespective of who were the holders of the two Palaces’ portfolios in the last 25 years, have often given the impression that they are separated by deep fault lines, by astronomical distances measured in light-years as if they were part of different galaxies. The cause of this “distance” has been always the same, namely the abnormalities in the dialogue and communication between the President and the Premier, generated by personal animosities between them or by party rivalries, sometimes difficult to hide from the public opinion.

I don’t know whether the fact that the Cotroceni Palace is located on a hill, at an altitude higher than that of the Victoria Palace, explains in some way a certain behaviour cliché on the part of the holders of the supreme office in the state, certain superiority shown toward those holding the office of Prime Minister. It is said that attitude sets the stage, and sometimes the attitude coming from the Cotroceni Hill was politically correct, neutral, civilized or balanced. At other times however, this attitude was slightly arrogant, feisty, ironic or it was the attitude of a strict professor warning the rebellious pupil whose behaviour crosses the line.

What’s certain is that, in time, during all these years there has been a quasi-permanent state of conflict between the two Palaces. Sometimes smouldering, sometimes with noisy public eruptions, at the level of belligerent statements going back and forth between the two sides, featuring ironies, insinuations or even more or less veiled or direct insults.

The times when former President Traian Basescu did not miss an opportunity of training his heavy guns on Premier Victor Ponta are not far off, however we all recall that Basescu was also in a quasi-permanent state of war with former Premier Calin Popescu Tariceanu too. Just as there were episodes of more or less “friendly” skirmishes between former President Emil Constantinescu and former Premier Radu Vasile too. The moments in which tensions and divergences of opinion started to publicly transpire were not few even between former President Ion Iliescu and former Premier Adrian Nastase.

Therefore, “war between Palaces” syntagm used by the press or analysts has some substantial history, it is not at all something unusual. On the contrary, it rather seems that with the changing of the two Palaces’ office holders the relay of propagating this situation is also handed down. Namely this “war between Palaces.” Sometimes a “hot war”, sometimes a “cold war.

Probably the only exception to the rule, when the two Palaces were in full harmony, was registered during the period in which Basescu was President and Emil Boc Premier, the Head of Government being perceived at the time as the loyal little soldier of the Head of State who just about dictated everything and seemed to be a President-Premier.

Basescu has vacated the presidential office, Ponta has remained Premier, however the Cotroceni and Victoria Palaces have remained on different tectonic plates, separated by the same fault line.

Although one cannot talk of sympathy between President Klaus Iohannis and Premier Victor Ponta, no major earthquake had taken place between them until two weeks ago when the National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA) announced the start of its criminal probe against the Premier for conflict of interest, an announcement that generated several public statements from the President, asking the Premier to resign.

On the contrary, until the DNA’s announcement concerning the start of its criminal probe against the Premier in the “Sova case” there was normal and civilized institutional collaboration between the Cotroceni Palace and the Victoria Palace, which materialized through several meetings between the President and the Premier, meetings in which they proved to be two politically mature statesmen, showing consensus in thought and action on issues of interest for the country.

Presidents and premiers, irrespective of their names, are first of all humans, and like any human it is natural for them to harbour likes and dislikes. And this is the case everywhere, not just in Romania. However, beyond personal preferences and feelings the important thing is for the dislikes, animosities or malice not to erupt impermissibly, beyond certain limits, within the institutional framework generated by the prerogatives stemming from the offices and powers held. In an official capacity it is mandatory and necessary for any passions generated by personal or party interests to be left aside, and for the officials to display only a behaviour in which the centre stage is taken by the preoccupation for the national interest, for maintaining a normal, open and civilized dialogue on issues of vital interest for society, for social and political stability, but also for promoting foreign policy interests.

Ever since the elections campaign, and then several times during these 6 months in office that have passed since December 22, President Iohannis has never hid his preference for collaborating with a Liberal government and Premier, arguing that only in this formula would he be able to fulfil the goals he assumed in the elections campaign. Nevertheless, loyal to the election campaign promise that he will be a “different” President (in contrast to his predecessor who was the fan of fighting and conflicts like we all recall), in his relation with Social-Democrat Premier Ponta he behaved very correctly, civilized and balanced, until two weeks ago when the DNA announced that the Premier is the target of a criminal probe as a suspect in the Sova case.

Until the Ponta-DNA episode which clearly marks a turning point in the relationship between the President and the Premier, which is becoming increasingly tense, the first obvious “break” in the relationship between Palaces occurred when Premier Ponta left on a visit to the Gulf States in early May, without informing the Presidential Administration prior to doing so. That naturally sparked the President’s reaction, who did not hesitate to label the Premier’s “original” way of making foreign policy decisions and of leaving on an official visit without announcing the head of state. Ponta subsequently took responsibility for the “slip-up” and promised he will no longer repeat the mistake. However, subsequent events have proven that he did not address his attitude, but on the contrary continued to propagate it.

The fault line between the Palaces now runs even deeper. Early this week, before leaving on his official visit to Croatia, President Iohannis once again labelled the lack of communication with the Premier, reproaching him with not announcing his departure for Turkey in order to undergo knee surgery, and with not calling him to wish him “Happy Birthday” either.

Iohannis’s volley of hints that he no longer agrees to cohabitate with a criminally investigated Premier continued from Zagreb too, where the Head of State said before journalists that “in what Prime Minister Ponta’s case is concerned, the whole situation is sad.” “The atmosphere is quite heated in Romania these days, but we are definitely going to overcome everything,” the President said.

In the same line, on Wednesday, during the joint press conference with the Portuguese President who was visiting Romania, Iohannis nuanced his position in what concerns foreign policy, ensuring that despite any internal divergences Bucharest’s coherent foreign policy will not change.

“I am relatively new in this office, since December 22, 2014, and that’s why I believe that we need a harmonization between the manners in which the Presidency and the Prime Minister’s office understand to approach foreign policy. However, beyond this need for harmonization, I can assure you that Romania’s foreign policy is and will remain a coherent one, for we know very well who our friends are, such as, for instance, Portugal, and there is no danger related to the manner in which Romania treats its friends and partners,” said Iohannis, after his meeting with the Portuguese counterpart.

Referring to the current tense political context between the Palaces and the future relation between the Head of State and the Prime Minister, Laurentiu Stefan, the President’s internal policy aide, stated for psnews.ro that in the current context “there will probably no longer be business as usual.” He added that President Klaus Iohannis allegedly would have had the same trenchant public position and asked for the resignation of any Premier, irrespective of political stripes, if faced with a legal situation like the one Ponta faces. “The President will continue to consistently follow the goals of his term and will maintain the institutional collaboration with the Government and other actors relevant in promoting Romania’s interests. This was seen from the way the consultations with political parties and the talks within the Supreme Defence Council (CSAT) went, which among other things focused on the National Defence Strategy,” the president aide stated.

For the time being the Premier is still in Turkey following a complex knee surgery recovery, where he enjoys tranquillity he says he needed so much and which he would not have had in Romania. It remains to be seen what will happen to the fault line between the Palaces when Ponta returns and resumes his prerogatives when his medical condition allows it, at the end of the weeks of rest imposed by doctors.

This is probably the quiet before the storm…



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