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Jan 31, 2014 | 11:03 GMT

7 mins read

Romania Looks To Streamline Decision-Making in a Changing Region

Romania Looks To Streamline Decision-Making in a Changing Region

Constitutional reforms under discussion in Romania have raised concerns that the country is headed the same direction as Hungary, where the ruling Fidesz party is using its control of parliament to enhance its influence on the economy and politics. Since coming to power in late 2012, the government of Prime Minister Victor Ponta has been calling for Romania to abandon its semi-presidential system and introduce a parliamentary system, which would diminish the role of the president and concentrate power in parliament. Ponta's ruling Social Liberal Union currently holds two-thirds of the seats in parliament. However, the difference between Romania and Hungary is that the former has more significant obstacles in the way of increased control of the political economy.

The Romanian parliament plans to vote on the constitutional reforms in mid-March, according to the president of the Romanian Senate, Crin Antonescu. Antonescu said the government's goal is to hold a referendum on the new constitution in late May to coincide with the European Parliament elections. While the reforms are still being drafted, and the timeline of approval may change, the new constitution will probably give more power to the parliament to take quicker and more decisive actions in responding to Central and Eastern Europe's shifting geopolitical environment.

Similarities With Hungary

Suspicions that Romania may be going down the same path as Hungary are not unfounded — both countries are similar in many respects. Both are located in the borderland between Russia and Western Europe, and both constitute part of the string of countries — from Estonia on the Baltic Sea to Bulgaria on the Black Sea — that have traditionally been disputed by larger powers in the east and west. In particular, Hungary and Romania have historically been a battleground for Russian, Turkish and Austrian-German powers. And because this is a region where borders have changed many times, Hungarians and Romanians have historically competed for the lands west of the Carpathians — most notably Transylvania, which is currently under Romanian control.

Because of their position in the borderlands, Hungary and Romania have grown accustomed to watching for events in the east and west to shape their domestic and foreign policies. For both countries, the prospect of invasion — not strictly militarily but also politically and economically — is a permanent factor in their strategic calculations. Both had communist regimes during the Cold War, and after the fall of the Soviet Union, both believed an alliance with Western Europe (in the form of EU membership) and the United States (in the form of NATO membership) would help diminish Russian influence while making them members of multinational organizations.

However, political and economic realities are once again shifting in the region; the European Union is weakening, and Russia is becoming relatively more assertive. In response, Hungary and Romania are once more trying to adapt.

Domestic Factors

There are also domestic issues affecting Romania and Hungary. In both countries, the combination of economic crisis and popular fatigue with the ruling parties increased public support for the opposition parties, which received unprecedented power in the most recent elections. In late 2010, Hungarians had grown tired of corruption scandals involving the Socialist government and voted for the conservative opposition, giving Prime Minister Viktor Orban's Fidesz party an absolute majority in parliament. In late 2012, something similar happened in Romania, where voters overwhelmingly supported Ponta's Social Liberal Union (a coalition of center-left parties) after two years of political instability because of conflicts between the parliament and the presidency. Like its neighbor in the west, the Romanian government enjoys a two-thirds majority in parliament.

In Hungary, Fidesz used its control of parliament to modify the constitution several times, enhancing the role of parliament and weakening other formal institutions such as the Constitutional Court and central bank. Romania may gradually do the same. In mid-2013, Bucharest announced plans to reform the constitution. The proposed amendments are aimed at severely weakening the role of the president. Unlike most European nations, Romania is a semi-presidential regime, which means the president is allowed to veto laws and represent the country abroad and has a key role in the appointment of the government. The shortcomings of the system were laid bare in 2012 and 2013, when center-right President Traian Basescu had to serve alongside the center-left Ponta, leading to several political clashes between the two that slowed decision-making.

The role of the Romanian president would be largely ceremonial if the proposed constitutional reforms are passed. The president would be obligated to appoint a prime minister from the party that receives the most votes, while the parliament would have a bigger role as the main decision-making institution. It would become more difficult for the opposition to issue no-confidence votes because it would have to prove that it had a working majority to replace the government. Other reforms would also weaken the role of the Constitutional Court, which would maintain its role of questioning the constitutionality of legislation but would not be able to question decisions made by the parliament, including, for example, the power to organize referendums. 

Most of these provisions are common elsewhere in Europe. For example, in Germany the role of the president is largely ceremonial, and a confidence vote requires the opposition to propose a candidate of its own whom it wants as the new chancellor. In other words, the notion of becoming a parliamentary republic does not necessarily mean that the Romanian regime would become more authoritarian; these reforms are common to streamline decision-making. 

However, the key difference with Germany is that Romanians, like Hungarians, are increasingly uncomfortable with events in the east and west. From Romania's perspective, the European Union is too focused on the problems of the eurozone. Meanwhile, NATO is going through an identity crisis, while Russia is using energy and money to rebuild its sphere of influence, with a particular focus now on Central Europe. It is thus quite reasonable that Bucharest wants the central government to be able to make quicker decisions in responding to regional developments.

Differences From Hungary

Despite their similarities, Romania's situation is somewhat different from that of Hungary. For instance, unlike Orban, Ponta rules over a tense coalition of parties that is not as cohesive as Fidesz. The ruling Social Liberal Union includes Ponta's Social Democratic Party and the National Liberal Party, led by Antonescu. While formally in a coalition, these parties do not always cooperate and, in the long term, have their own electoral aspirations. Also unlike Orban, Ponta is dealing with a potentially strong opposition. Basescu, whose term ends in December, and his center-right Democratic Liberal Party are currently unpopular, but their extensive network of political connections makes them stronger than any adversary Orban has faced in recent times.

Moreover, Romania's constitutional reform will be put to a referendum — no referendum was held to ratify the constitutional changes in Hungary — meaning that the competition between the government and opposition will intensify. The mobilization of voters will be key. In 2013 the Social Liberal Union failed to oust Basescu because not enough people voted during an impeachment referendum. The party has recently reformed the referendum law to lower the participation threshold from 50 percent to 30 percent, but the ability of Romania's main political parties to take people to polling stations will remain critical.

Finally, Euroskepticism is not yet as strong in Romania as it is in Hungary. Bucharest has postponed indefinitely its accession to the eurozone, and the Romanian government has repeatedly pledged to increase economic and political relationships with countries outside the European Union, most notably the United States and China. But strong criticism of the European Union is not a key element in the political agenda of any major Romanian party. Unlike in Hungary, the Romanian government has not made any systematic attempt to reduce the participation of foreign companies in the banking or utilities sector or tried to undermine the independence of the central bank.

Several factors will shape Romania's calculations in the coming years. As Brussels increasingly focuses on the problems of the currency union, countries in Central and Eastern Europe are feeling isolated from the policymaking in Brussels, Berlin and Paris. In the case of Romania, the feeling of isolation is particularly significant, since Western Europe keeps delaying Bucharest's accession to the Schengen treaty and governments in northern Europe are trying to limit the access of Romanian workers to their labor markets.

In addition, the European Union's lack of a response to Hungary's attempts to develop an increasingly independent domestic and foreign policy could easily become a model for other countries in the region. Romania's constitutional reform does not implicitly mean the country will start imitating Hungary, but it is certainly an indication that Hungary is not alone in its assessment of the evolving political reality in the region.

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