In mid-February, President Traian Basescu appointed Mihai-Razvan Ungureanu as prime minister of arguably the weakest Romanian post-communist cabinet whose members, though generally lacking a solid track record and administrative experience, were supposed to steer the country out of social problems and economic malaise by the parliamentary elections of November 2012. Newspapers close to the president and his ruling Democrat Liberals praised Ungureanu’s past experience as Minister of Foreign Affairs, and ability to keep the External Information Service, which he headed from 2007 until 2012, away from scandal. Many analysts predicted the presidency in Ungureanu’s near future, and none questioned the decision to appoint as premier the head of a major intelligence service that recently allowed the public release of sensitive information damaging the reputation of intellectuals critical of Basescu. The information leak pitted writer-cum-ex-minister Andrei Plesu against cinematographer-cum-protester Sorin Iliesiu, and gravely weakened the already ideologically colored and elitist Group of Social Dialogue. The fact that Ungureanu was one of the president’s men was seen as a guarantee of political stability and a sign that President Basescu, the most mercurial of post-communist Romania’s heads of state, still controlled the Democrat Liberal rank and file.
Ungureanu, in fact, had the misfortune to assume the premiership at a time when his political mentor’s influence within the party was at an all-time low. Ungureanu enjoyed the support of Basescu, who single-handedly anointed him as prime minister five years after nominating him, as a result of an equally opaque decision-making process, as head of the External Information Services, but he had virtually no followers from among Democrat Liberals. The strategy of promoting outsiders to top state positions had worked in the past – this is how Basescu’s daughter Elena and advisor Cristian Preda became European Parliament members, and his protégés Elena Udrea, Anca Boagiu and Monica Iacob-Ritzi became ministers, to mention a few. These protégés’ political experience did not matter much, as long as Basescu was the party’s driving force. Nevertheless, eight years of presidential wear and tear seriously diminished Basescu’s popularity inside and outside the party. By early 2012, the gregarious Basescu had turned into a genuine liability, with an increasing number of party members objecting, tacitly or openly, to the president’s orders. Ungureanu decoded the nomination as a chance to inch his political fortunes closer to the presidential office, but the Democrat Liberals saw it as a respiro permitting preparation for the local and general elections, to be organized in summer and fall, respectively.
When Prime Minister Emil Boc and his cabinet stepped down in February as a result of widespread street protests, the Democrat Liberals missed a golden opportunity to honestly reassess their policy record, assume their mistakes, and redesign their pre-electoral strategy. The change was cosmetic at best. Ungureanu became premier, but a small group of top party leaders ultimately decided the cabinet composition based on non-meritocratic criteria. Ignoring the need to strengthen the party in view of the upcoming elections, party recruitment and promotion were left untouched, oblivious to the integrity criteria proposed by Monica Macovei. No anticorruption official asked why Udrea acted as Minister of Tourism when her husband owned several hotels, why the construction of swimming pools was privileged over the maintenance of roads, or how the arms dealership of Basescu’s brother came to the attention of American, but not Romanian, officials. Key political decisions continued to be arrived at with little consultation with the social groups affected by them, in complete disregard of the opposition and the general public, with no preliminary cost-benefit analyses, in a perilous ad-hoc manner, and with mostly short-term benefits in mind. It took only weeks for Ungureanu to antagonize the handful of political actors sympathetic to his cause.
First, he antagonized the opposition by word and deed. He unceremoniously send Social Democrat leader Victor Ponta back to school, although Ponta was the only opposition leader to welcome his nomination as prime minister. More importantly, in March, Ungureanu rubber-stamped a highly controversial allocation of special funds privileging localities led by Democrat Liberal mayors – showing that, in times of crisis, when thousands of public employees lost their jobs and thousand others incurred salary cuts of as much as 25 percent, the national budget was treated as the ruling party’s personal piggy-bank. Ungureanu’s fund allocation echoed the conclusions reached by the Court of Accounts, which found that throughout 2009-2010 the Boc cabinets had overseen considerable waste of taxpayers’ money. Second, Ungureanu antagonized the very parties that championed his ephemeral cabinet. An increasing number of Democrat Liberals deputies and senators — the “barons” whose money, influence and clients made the party — crossed the floor to join the opposition Social Democrats and Liberals. The fragile majority on which the Democrat Liberals counted, which has been artificially sustained by recruitment of opposition legislators since 2004, disintegrated in April 2012, when those legislators chose to cross the floor back to their original parties.
On 18 April, the opposition introduced a much anticipated motion of no-confidence. The first since 1989 to be launched in the year preceding parliamentary elections, this motion was the second ever to pass and unseat the cabinet. In October 2009, a motion of no-confidence defeated the Boc cabinet, but at the time Boc succeeded to Boc as prime minister. In 2012, the motion was the first ever to lead to alternation and cohabitation. Alternation because the Ungureanu cabinet supported by the Democrat Liberals made way to a cabinet headed by Ponta and supported by the opposition Social Democrats and Liberals. The Ponta cabinet is the first since 1992 to assume power as a result not of elections, but of a parliamentary vote, a novelty that might turn into a double-edged sword. Cohabitation because the Social Democrat Prime Minister Ponta will have to work with the Democrat Liberal President Basescu, who shares responsibilities in foreign affairs and defense. Romania has no experience with cohabitation, which has proved difficult in France and the United States, two more stable and consolidated democracies where politicians are more prone to compromise. Ungureanu’s political career might be relegated to the footnotes to history, but his extremely short-lived premiership (one of the shortest in the post-communist world) further discredited the Democrat Liberals – something that appeared almost impossible in January.
Romanian political pundits believe that local election results anticipate parliamentary election results. This time there’s no need to wait until summer to smell the Democrat Liberal defeat. The party seems unable to find a credible policy direction, or even the will to continue the political fight – this is why it neither supported Ungureanu as head of a new cabinet nor proposed a party member for the job. Basescu’s political career also seems wasted, as he long estranged the masses and even lost the endorsement of the Bucharest intellectuals who blindly overlooked his racist remarks, crass politicking, and self-interested back-stabbing, all because he condemned the crimes of communism in December 2006. It will take determination, courage, innovation, and a good deal of honest introspection for the Democrat Liberals to recover from the Boc and Ungureanu cabinets (2008-2012 registered the highest cabinet instability, topping the notoriously unstable Democratic Convention rule of 1996-2000). It is doubtful that the shady political formations the Democrat Liberals have quietly funded on the side will have the force, expertise and popular following needed for the party to reinvent itself under a new name.