The dust has not yet settled on the ballots Romanian voters used on December 6 to elect their new President – mostly because the Constitutional Court ordered their recount – and the new talk in town was no longer the validation of President Traian Basescu for a second five-year term, but his Democrat-Liberal Party’s chances to form the new government. This development is surprising, since the election was presidential, not parliamentary. One might reply that the development was in fact expected, since Romania needs a new cabinet, after the team of Democrat-Liberal Prime Minister Emil Boc lost the confidence of Parliament only weeks before the vote. I’d suggest instead that it was not the ousting of the government that conditioned the presidential vote, but the presidential poll that cut short Boc’s premiership. This was an unforseen consequence of the electoral reforms effected during the last odd five years, which set the parliamentary and presidential polls apart by lengthening the President’s mandate to five years, instead of four. Ironically, the lengthening of the presidential office was hailed as one way to better the Romanian political system and fight the voters’ increased apathy toward a political process from which they have been increasingly marginalized by a voracious and self-interested political class. The 2009 elections might give Romanian reformers pause.
Given the Romanians’ fascination with electing a man to the Presidency, and the great attention political parties have given to this exercise throughout post-communism, it’s no wonder that the national political machinery has come to a virtual standstill during the years when presidential elections were organized. This happened to a certain degree in 1996, 2000, 2004, and again in 2009, not to mention the early 1990s. In addition, let’s not forget that Romanian cabinets have found it difficult to go about their business of running the country in a rational, cost-efficient and dispassionate manner in the years when parliamentary elections were scheduled. Instead, left-wing and right-wing governments alike have used the twelve months preceeding general polls to engage in populist policies meant to ingratiate them with different electoral segments, and to viciously smear their political rivals (regardless of whether those belonged to the opposition or were their government partners). One should only remember the great initiatives promoted by the cabinet of Social Democrat Nicolae Vacaroiu in 1996, Christian-Democrat Mugur Isarescu in 2000, Social Democrat Adrian Nastase in 2004, or Democrat-Liberal Emil Boc in 2009. Trouble identifying them? Rightly so, because there were none.
Most probably, the 2009 presidential poll will not be the only one turned into a parliamentary one, as the trend might continue in the future, further fuelling cabinet instability in a country ruled by no less than nine different premiers since 1989. There have been many more cabinet reshuffles that saw ministers come and go at a dizzing rate often due to the most trivial reasons (Ciorbea effected one in 1997, as did Popescu-Tariceanu a decade later). If presidential and parliamentary elections were held concomitantly (as they were in the 1990-2004 period), cabinet lethargy would affect years 2012, 2016, 2020, 2024, and 2028, to look only at the next two decades. But assuming I’m correct, and presidential elections will turn into parliamentary elections with respect to their main purpose, electing a President as a means to facilitating cabinet formation, then to the years already mentioned one should also add 2014, 2019, 2024, and 2029. Thus, during the next twenty years, Romania might find itself in a perpetual electoral campaign, calling its citizens to vote repeatedly, sometimes for the President, other times for its deputies and senators. This political mess comes with a price tag almost double the size of the concomitant elections. Isn’t it time to rethink the system, and elect the head of state at the same time when members of Parliament are?