Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 2, No 1
10 January 2000

Catherine Lovatt M I O R I T A:
The Yuletide Collapse

Catherine Lovatt

In Romania the festive month of December was overshadowed by political crisis. Prime Minister Radu Vasile was dismissed from office, heralding the collapse of the coalition cabinet.

The senior partner in the ruling coalition, the National Christian Democratic Peasants Party (PNŢCD), has been rocked by internal divisions, heightened by economic and social strains. Radu Vasile found himself exiting the role of premier and excluded from the party only days after President Emil Constantinescu secured European Union (EU) accession talks in Helsinki. Political, social and economic instability have been the hallmark of Romania during the past year. Within twelve months the country has seen the dismissal of two different Prime Ministers - Victor Ciorbea and Radu Vasile. With general elections due in November 2000 Romania is likely to see yet another Prime Minister enter a position that is becoming increasingly more unstable.

Vasile was dismissed in the most extraordinary fashion. All the Christian-Democrat ministers resigned, withdrawing political support from the Prime Minister. The ministers were accompanied by three National Liberal Party (PNL) cabinet members and the PNL, Democratic Party (PD) and the Hungarian Democratic Union of Romania (UDMR). The resignations amounted to an unofficial vote of no confidence in the Prime Minister hence President Constantinescu had no alternative but to remove Vasile from the office.

The sacking of Vasile sparked off claims from the left-wing that the dismissal had been unconstitutional. The constitution provides that a cabinet member can be dismissed under certain circumstances but it provides no explicit mention on dismissal of the Prime Minister. Consequently, Vasile failed to recognise his removal from office insisting that he was still the "constitutional Prime Minister" (Reuters, 17 December 1999). However, Vasile ended disputes over the legality of his sacking on Friday 17 December by tendering his own official resignation: "I resign as Prime Minister of Romania...for the national interest, to solve the crisis which seriously affected Romania's democratic regime and its image abroad." (Reuters, 17 December 1999)

Vasile's expulsion from the PNŢCD was directly linked with his dismissal as Prime Minister. On Monday 27 December the PNŢCD decided to expel Vasile from the party during a session of the Leadership, Co-ordination and Control Committee (BCCC). They accused Vasile of "establishing and patronising an organism outside the structures of the PNŢCD" (Nine o'clock, 28 December 1999). The Committee referred to an organisation initially known as the 'Braşov Group' which transformed itself into the 'Popular Group' which became recognised as a 'genuine party' within the PNŢCD. The Committee also alluded to Vasile's attempts at blackmail in order to maintain his position as premier. Vasile's lack of co-operation with the government was also cited as a reason for expulsion and was exemplified by his refusal to attend the BCCC session. The PNŢCD voted to exclude Vasile from the party by eleven votes to two with one abstention.

The political chaos within the PNŢCD echoed throughout parliament and aroused two main opinions. The first is supported by PNŢCD chairman, Ion Diaconescu. Following the BCCC session he concluded that Vasile's exclusion "would close a wound in the party" (Nine o'clock, 28 December 1999). Diaconescu argued that the suspension of Radu Vasile took into account the national interest and would create greater unification within the party: "PNŢCD must have rules and unity, because, without a minimum of discipline, no party could operate" (nine o'clock, 28 December 1999). Vasile flouted the rules and his removal could only be beneficial for the party. This opinion is reflected in the mass support within the cabinet and parliament for Vasile's dismissal and expulsion.

However, this opinion undermines the support that Vasile maintains. Unlike his predecessor, Victor Ciorbea, Vasile controls enough influence to threaten a split within the PNŢCD. With support from the 'Popular Group' and backing from important parliamentarians and national organisations, the departure of Vasile could pose a serious threat to the present government already weakened by internal rifts.

The credibility and popularity of the PNŢCD in the public opinion polls has been diminishing throughout 1999. Vasile's individual credibility outweighed that of the party. The latest opinion polls show that Vasile is regarded as a victim of a government that is increasingly inconsistent and unstable. Consequently, his exclusion could prove detrimental to the PNŢCD in the race towards the general elections scheduled for November 2000.

Domestic political crisis has identified the inward looking nature of Romanian politics. It has provided another example of the instability that Romania faces, questioning the faith that society has in its government. If such problems exist domestically the signals transmitted abroad cannot be positive. Two days after Constantinescu had secured accession talks with the European Union, he dismissed his Prime Minister. One crucial criterion for gaining EU entry is stability in politics and the economy. The removal of the Prime Minister highlighted the levels of instability within the country and has created misgivings both at home and abroad.

Economically, uncertainty hinders investment potential, an area which Romania needs to encourage before accession to the EU can become a possibility. The EU have been monitoring the crisis in Romania concerned that the macro-economic situation will be seriously damaged. One spokesperson commented, "we are slightly worried, yes, because the whole idea behind this macro-economic strategy is that it's not a very stable country and we wanted to anchor them to reforms. We really hope it won't hamper the process" (Reuters, 15 December 1999).

Vasile's interim replacement as Prime Minister was agreed upon with great rapidity and with support from the majority of parties. The new Prime Minister is Mugur Isărescu, the head of the Central Bank of Romania (BNR), a position which he will return to once his tenure is complete. All political parties were consulted before the a-political technocrat was appointed as 'acting' Prime Minister. The appointment was seen as favourable among the majority of those consulted. An individual respected for his economic expertise could be beneficial for the immediate future of Romania but that future is yet to be seen.

The dismissal of Radu Vasile from the position of Prime Minister and from the PNŢCD was complicated and possibly unnecessary. The levels of political instability have been heightened at a time when stability is essential for economic growth and acceptance into the European Union. Vasile now poses a threat to the future existence of the PNŢCD as a unified organisation. A party split could weaken the coalition government considerably and eliminate any chance of being re-elected in November. During the next months the government need to tread carefully. Their weakness has strengthened the opposition. Losing Vasile has taken valuable public support from their own ranks.

The future is unpredictable but leaves one question to be asked - is the senior coalition partner and hence the government on a path to self-destruction?

Catherine Lovatt, 8 January 2000

Archive of Catherine Lovatt's articles on Romania and Moldova



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