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Romania’s president, Klaus Iohannis, has built a glowing international reputation as a champion of democracy but the shine is wearing off at home, where critics accuse him of ushering in a government they see as a breeding ground for corruption and cronyism.
Just a couple of months ago, Iohannis received the prestigious Charlemagne prize, awarded in the German city of Aachen for exceptional service to European unity — an honor previously bestowed upon historic figures including Winston Churchill, Vaclav Havel and Pope John Paul II.
The prize board praised Iohannis, who will join fellow EU leaders for a European Council summit in Brussels this week, for “embodying our shared European values, our commitment to upholding the European rule of law and our shared vision of a European future.” It described him as “unwavering” in his pro-European course and his commitment to anti-corruption efforts and the separation of powers.
But Romanian pro-democracy activists, anti-corruption campaigners, academics and others who once saw Iohannis as a symbol of hope have turned on him over the new government, composed of the two biggest parties in parliament, the Social Democrats (PSD) and National Liberals (PNL).
While the parties nominally belong to Europe’s center-left and center-right camps respectively, their opponents are most worried that they will divide up the spoils of power and set back efforts to fight the corruption that has dogged Romania since the end of Communist rule.
Disillusionment over the new government, which took office last month, could have grave consequences, analysts warn. It risks fueling distrust in political authority, a key driver of Romania’s low coronavirus vaccination rate. It may boost the vaccine-skeptical far right, which has grown in strength in recent years. And backsliding on the rule of law could imperil access to EU funds.
While the new coalition was agreed between the two parties themselves, insiders say Iohannis played a key role in bringing it about as he tried to end months of political crisis and paralysis.
That has sparked anger among many previous supporters of the president, a former mayor of the city of Sibiu who won a first term as head of state in 2014 on a platform of fighting corruption and strengthening judicial independence, and won re-election handily in 2019.
“Iohannis is the political author of this situation. He does not resemble the politician he was during his first term,” said Cristian Pîrvulescu, a political scientist and dean at the National School of Political Studies and Public Administration in Bucharest.
Local and international NGOs and prominent intellectuals blasted the new coalition as “the most shameless betrayal of a popular vote after 1990,” when Communist rule came to an end.
Iohannis’ acceptance of the new government — headed by Nicolae Ciucă, a former army general — has also triggered discord within the PNL, a party the president used to lead.
While corruption is a problem throughout Romanian politics, the Social Democrats have been particularly tainted by graft allegations and convictions. Some PNL members say Iohannis has badly damaged their party by backing a governing alliance with the PSD.
Ludovic Orban, who led the PNL until September this year and served as prime minister until the end of 2020, denounced the new coalition as a “moral and political fraud, with no logic behind it.”
“In the 2020 election campaign, we had a common message with Iohannis — that by voting for the PNL you would be getting rid of the PSD,” Orban, who has now quit the PNL and says he plans to form a new center-right force, told POLITICO.
Cristian Ghinea, vice president of the reformist Union to Save Romania (USR) party who was a minister in a previous governing alliance with the Liberals, said Iohannis “had an essential role in the formation of the PNL-PSD coalition.”
However, Radu Oprea, a PSD senator and spokesman for the party, disavowed any backroom negotiations with Iohannis. He said his party has a mere “institutional relationship” with the president. “We do not have a partnership,” he declared.
He said the PSD entered government to help Romania at a time of inflationary and pandemic crisis. “We did not make a political calculation to enter this coalition, or with our eyes on the opinion polls,” Oprea said. “We went in with the idea that the country needs stability.”
In an address on Romania’s national day, December 1, Iohannis admitted that “the events of recent months have accentuated a feeling of mistrust in the political class” but stopped short of taking responsibility. His office did not respond to requests for comment for this article.
In his address, Iohannis also said the country needed a government with a strong parliamentary base in order to quell rising inflation and take anti-COVID measures.
Around 40 percent of the Romanian population have had two coronavirus vaccine doses, one of the lowest rates in Europe.
However, so far the PSD has resisted measures such as mandatory vaccines and the use of COVID passes. Analysts say that’s because the party is worried about losing support among its base to the far-right Alliance for the Union of Romanians (AUR).
“The Social Democrats are uncomfortable because they realize that AUR can profit massively [by taking votes] from their common electorate,” said political scientist Pîrvulescu.
A question of justice
Government critics and NGOs are particularly exercised by the coalition’s appointment of Laura Vicol, a lawyer and Social Democratic MP, to head parliament’s justice committee. Before she won her seat in 2020, Vicol represented a range of clients with alleged links to organized crime and racketeering, including some now serving sentences for offenses including kidnapping, human trafficking, tax evasion, blackmail and extortion.
As a lawmaker, she has argued against dismantling a unit of investigators that targets prosecutors and judges. The EU, which has a special program to monitor the justice system of Romania and its neighbor Bulgaria, has called for the disbanding of the unit to ensure judicial independence.
Some Liberals have also voiced concern about the appointment of Vicol, whose committee has a say on key judiciary laws and regulations as well as veto power on launching political corruption investigations. A senior PNL legislator, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that it “resulted in a big loss of credibility for our party and for President Iohannis.”
Vicol, for her part, has defended herself in statements, saying she’s “proud” of her career and supports judicial independence, and insisting she has never breached the legal profession’s rules. She did not respond to a request for comment from POLITICO.
Cristian Ghinea, the former minister from the USR party, called Vicol’s nomination “shameful.”
“The EU should follow the justice situation in Romania closely,” he said.
Prime Minister Ciucă said through a spokesperson that goals agreed as part of the EU justice monitoring program are “a priority” for his administration.
“I trust that both the government and the parliament understand their importance,” he said.
Fuel for far right
The far-right AUR stands to be a big beneficiary from disenchantment with the new coalition. It was polling at just under 8 percent when it burst onto the scene two years ago; POLITICO’s Poll of Polls now has it at 14 percent, in third place behind the Social Democrats and Liberals.
The party has its sights set on big gains in the next parliamentary election, scheduled for 2024. “We are growing,” AUR leader George Simion told POLITICO. “We will be an option for government.”
The party promotes a conservative vision of Christianity, preaching traditional family values and railing against same-sex marriage. A few days after the interview with POLITICO, Simion was caught on video using a homophobic slur to describe the USR party.
AUR is also appealing to anti-vaxxers. While not explicitly telling supporters to avoid inoculations, it opposes vaccine passes and any restrictions on people who have not been jabbed.
Simion likened the ruling coalition to the old Communist party. “The two parties have shown they are not based on any doctrine. They are one and the same thing, despite dressing themselves up as left and right,” he said.
In October, an AUR MP secretly recorded a Liberal lawmaker promising to promote people chosen by AUR to executive posts in state-owned companies if the party voted against a no-confidence motion in the government.
Barbu Mateescu, a sociologist who studies elections, said that the Romanian public is losing faith in career politicians because “there are no political values that the current coalition relies on.”
The two big parties and Iohannis “are confirming AUR’s narrative about a decadent political class,” he said.