Earlier this month, the German newspaper Der Spiegel published an article describing Romanian President Klaus Iohannis as a “dilettante”. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “dilettante” as “a person whose interest in an art or an area of knowledge is not very deep or serious”. Synonyms include “amateur”, “dabbler” and “aficionado”. The point the German newspaper was trying to make was that the Romanian President is out of touch with the demands and rigors of his executive position, and that he is being a letdown for all the people who put hope in him.
Damning in its criticism, the German press called Iohannis’ administration “a disaster”, marked by amateurish blunders and awkward long silences. The trigger seems to lie with Iohannis’ decision to take away the Order of the Star of Romania (the country’s highest civil Order) from Laszlo Tokes. The Hungarian ethnic is a well-known figure in the Romanian Revolution of 1989; his refusal to bow down to the Securitate is considered one of the starting points for Eastern Europe’s violent anticommunist revolution. Iohannis’ decision to strip Tokes of one of Romania’s highest honors fuelled both surprise and anger, given that the act of removing the Star was thought to be sending out a wrong message about how Romania should treat opponents of communism. Vladimir Tismaneanu, one of Romania’s highly respected political scientists, caustically wrote: “I don’t know what physics teacher Klaus Werner Iohannis was doing in Sibiu on December the 16th, 1989. But I do know what pastor Laszlo Tokes was doing”, calling the President’s decision to take away the title “embarrassing”. Other Romanian political analysts joined in on the criticism; the list includes typical right-wing supporters and backers of Iohannis. Labels such as “low energy-President” creating an “uninspired” gesture triggered suggestions about Iohannis being poorly advised or too naïve, especially when his political persona isn’t swaying as many people as initially expected.
The irony of the situation is self-evident. Iohannis himself is an ethnic German, and, like Tokes, both a member of an ethnic minority and openly anti-communist. His recent gesture is exactly the kind of political blunder that his critics loathe most. The President’s justification for taking away the Star of Romania was vague and did little to calm down spirits. Upon announcing his decision to take away the title from Mr. Tokes, President Iohannis claimed that “He who receives and accepts this distinction (the Star) must obviously recognize Romania and the Romanian Constitution, he needs to appreciate the values at the core of the Romanian Constitution”. Despite the President’s vague justification, further insight done into the subject seems to have found the problem: it would seem that on July 27th, 2013, while he was at the Balvanyos Summer University, Laszlo Tokes asked Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban to build a “system of national cooperation” that would offer Transylvania “protectorate” status, similar to what Southern Tirol was for Austria.
Those familiar with the Romanian Constitution might be aware of its opening sequence, Article 1 specifically, that declares Romania a “national, sovereign and independent state, unitary and indivisible”. The President seems to have understood Tokes’ demand for a protectorate as an attack on Romania’s “unitary and indivisible” status. Nonetheless, a closer glimpse of Tokes’ claim reveals that the entire affair was a misunderstanding. Tokes apparently never uttered the word “protectorate”, but merely asked for more attention and commitment to protecting the rights of ethnic Hungarians in Romania.
A semantic misunderstanding and orthodox approach to constitutionalism is hurting President Iohannis. His political persona is constructed on ideas of patience, prudence and firmness in action. Yet, on this occasion, he has shown brashness, rigidity and stubborn decision-making, concerning a symbolic and culturally sensitive issue. It is easy to see why Der Spiegel and others perceive the Romanian President as a dilettante. The Tokes affair is a good example of unpleasant and confusing policy.
Executive boundaries of Romania’s president
Romania is one of the few European states (along with Russia, Ukraine, France and Portugal) to make use of a semi-presidential system. This means that power is shared between the President and the Prime Minister. The semi-presidential system is complex, allowing a certain degree of overlap between the two main political actors, who are supposed to keep each other in check. In reality however, we will see that this semi-presidential system makes the President a highly symbolic actor. When the President does have the chance to act, he often will do so with Parliament approval. There is very little the President can do to keep Parliament in check, especially when compared with a Presidential system, like the US one, where the President has a powerful veto tool, or with the Parliamentary system, as is the British one, where there is a degree of symbiosis between the Prime Minister’s cabinet and Parliament.
The Romanian President has attributes that touch on the realms of foreign policy, national defense, and institutional reform. He is also supposed to be a mediator between both the civil society and government and the executive and legislative branches. We will see that in every one of these cases, his impact is either limited or symbolic. On the issue of Government, Iohannis can name the Prime Minister. He ceremonially names the government, should it pass a confidence vote in Parliament (minister proposals come from the nominated PM), he can also name or dismiss ministers, once the Prime Minister puts forward his proposals for the respective ministries. He lacks the ability to dismiss the Prime Minister. He can attend government meetings of high importance. He enacts laws, and if he dislikes certain laws, he can send them back only once to Parliament for re-examination. He can dissolve the Parliament should a government lose a confidence vote. He can call referendums.
Simply put, the President’s strongest executive abilities consist of naming the PM (a process where again, Parliamentary political parties consult with him and put forward their own vision and names) and calling for referendums. Most other aspects require a high degree of self-checking from Parliament.
In the area of foreign policy, the President finalizes treaties (that were negotiated by Government) and he sends them toward ratification by Parliament. He has a certain degree of liberty in shaping Romanian embassies abroad, the only area where he has relative freedom to appoint and recall certain diplomatic actors.
On national defense, he is the commander of the armed forces and presides over the Supreme Council of National Defense. He can mobilize the armed forces with Parliament approval. He can also declare states of emergency. Aside from the three pillars of internal, external and defense, Iohannis also has the ability to perform ceremonial duties, like offering decorations, honor titles, he can also pardon people.
In conclusion, the President’s power is limited by Parliament. He has little executive freedom due to the semi-presidential system. He has no real veto power, his control over ministries is secondary or passive, since the ministries report to the prime minister, he cannot change the shape of government unless Parliament strikes the government down. This is the reality of the Romanian President: there is a very strong emphasis on tying this position to Parliament and making sure it complements the Prime Minister.
The parliamentary and public boundaries of the Romanian President
It has been established that if the President wants something done right, he needs to work with the Prime Minister and with Parliament. The semi-presidential system works best in places like France, where elections for Parliament, Presidency, local government are all on the same day. In Romania, legislative elections are held every 4 years, and Presidential elections come once every 5 years. This increases the chances of an ideological divide between the President and his Prime Minister. For many years, the presidency and prime minister’s cabinet have been in gridlock, Iohannis is no different. Even though currently he has the technocratic government of Dacian Ciolos on his side, the President will not be able to make full implementation of his desires without a parliamentary majority.
This is perhaps the crux of the issue concerning Iohannis, it might be interpreted as one of the reasons the President often simply has to spectate the political process instead of being more engaged. Being President with no parliamentary majority, limited executive power and a political system that forces you to cooperate with branches of government you have little control over leaves little to the imagination. Iohannis was elected in 2014 as a candidate of the National Liberal Party (PNL). His party lacks control in both chambers of Parliament.
Figure 1. The shape of Romania’s Senate
Source: Romanian Senate Group Membership Page
The most recent count of Senators from the Senate website shows the Social Democrats with a slight edge in the Senate and a more considerable lead in the Chamber of Deputies. These numbers are only loosely relevant, because the current government is technocratic and that will be the country’s status until the next elections this year, however, they are still good at painting a picture of exactly how difficult it is for the President to make use of a Parliamentary majority (the UNPR has historically been siding with the majority party, and the Conservative Liberals dislike the PNL and have no interest in forming alliances).
Figure 2. The shape of Romania’s Chamber of Deputies
Source: Chamber of Deputies Parliamentary Groups Page
If the current Parliament is of no use, the President can hope the next one will be. Recent polling has been sparse, however, the past 5 polls who have looked at political preferences between June – December 2015 show the National Liberals leading by a slim margin. Should the PNL prevail in this year’s elections, the spotlight will turn on Iohannis again, as the President will probably be bound to take a more leading role should he have a parliamentary majority.
Figure 3. Polling for the last half of 2015 in Romania
With his party leading in the polls, the President knows pressure will mount on him to change his approach in the future. The second aspect Iohannis must consider is his public approval rating. When elected, the President rode on very high approval ratings, since he was the de facto anti-corruption candidate, the votes he received were a mixture of anti-PSD / anti-corruption votes and votes given as a sign of hope for a better future in Romanian politics.
Opinion polls on his popularity have shown him at 78% favorability in December 2014, during what western pundits would describe as his “honeymoon” period. As of August 2015, the President found himself at 59% approval rating, a considerable decrease showing the honeymoon is over, but still a rather solid level of approval. As of December 2015, one year after the first month of his presidency, Iohannis’ approval ratings still hold solid: INSCOP surveys found that he was sitting firmly at 59.8% much / very much confidence from Romanians (an increase from September 2015’s 58.6). He is followed by National Bank of Romania Governor Mugur Isarescu with 40.4% and current Prime Minister Dacian Ciolos, with 32.6% approval.
To sum up, President Iohannis is in a strange grey area concerning his image and the effect of his actions. He lacks the parliamentary majority to support his platform. His executive attributes are strongly limited and mostly tie him to Prime Ministers that either opposed him ideologically, or are technocrats. He never really had a Prime Minister from his own ideological spectrum. This has pushed him in a political status similar to that of a lame duck. Aside from the occasional EU summit and award giving (or award taking) ceremony, the President has had to endure many moments when he was accused of being overly quiet, overly passive and disinterested. However, his difficult political situation, and the occasional bizarre rookie mistake (taking the Star of Romania from Tokes) have done very little to actually hurt him in Romanian approval ratings.
A detached and error-prone President should surely lead to unpopularity in the polls, yet Iohannis, throughout his first year and a half in office, has predominantly maintained solid approval. Perhaps Romanians were fed up with past Presidents and past governments, when conflicts, insults and political war games would be abundant. Iohannis’ silence and clumsiness is surely innervating many, yet, for now, it seems he has not done bad enough to make a majority of Romanians dislike him. Perhaps Romanians themselves are aware of the ceremonial nature of the Romanian Presidency and welcome Iohannis’ overly formal, sometimes frustratingly bland political language. This brings us to the third and final part of the article: an analysis of the discrepancy between what western media has expected of Iohannis and what he actually could do.
High expectations for Iohannis and the tacit response that followed
Der Spiegel’s frustration is understandable, it is a sentiment shared by many, both in the west and in Romania. The Economist called his election a “Transylvanian surprise”, citing high turnout and offering his support to Romanians abroad who wanted to vote for him and couldn’t due to various methods to stifle the vote employed by the past government. Dilettante or not, Iohannis knew enough to capitalize on the unwise method of suppressing the vote abroad, which earned him in exchange considerable support. After losing the First Round in the election, Iohannis appropriated the pro-diaspora message, which turned him into the main beneficiary of the anti-corruption vote. A second Economist article from 2014 seems to have enough vision to anticipate what was to come: then-defeated Prime Minister Ponta claimed he saw no reason to resign given his parliamentary majority (thus setting up a clear ideological difference between the branches of government). The signs might have been there all along, most just didn’t see them.
The New York Times did not even expect Iohannis to win, seeing, like many others, Mr. Ponta as the favorite, and shaping the election as a battle for trust. To The Guardian, Iohannis was supposed to ride on a wave of anticorruption. The BBC described Iohannis as someone who emerged from “relative obscurity”, an “outsider” due to his German ethnicity and limited experience as mayor of Sibiu, someone for whom the task of governing was merely beginning.
It would be fair to say, in conclusion, that many in western media did not see Iohannis as a solid contender and did not know too much about him. There is only one linear message associated with him from the time: he needs to fight corruption. Needless to say, the President cannot really use too many of his abilities to “fight corruption”. Iohannis himself has also shown that, like all politicians, he is far from being immaculate, as accusations of political incompatibility and various acts of corruption while he was mayor of Sibiu also came to surface in the months following his election.
This article does not intend to criticize or defend Iohannis. It intends to make people understand the Romanian political status, and give a bit of context, since information concerning Iohannis in the west is quite sparse. It is very easy to magnify the poor showings of a President who has many hurdles to jump over. Perhaps if he would not make rookie mistakes, the President could at least claim that while he has little to do, he does it right. However, dilettante or not, one should reserve judgment of Iohannis just yet. Should he be given by the Romanian electorate (who seems to approve of him) a parliamentary majority, then will be the time to fully and properly assess the Romanian President’s intentions and dedication to his idealistic fight against corruption. Iohannis’ first year and a half in power has had many frustrating moments. However, perhaps after the elections scheduled this spring, the real test will come: will he stay passive and distant, confirming the doubts of many and proving that he is indeed overwhelmed by his position? Or will he take charge and try to shape policy, in the direction he claimed to do so? Will he address the internal corruption and conflicts of his own party, or will he ignore them for the sake of parliamentary assent? Unfortunately, for President Iohannis, it is still too early to give a verdict, and, just like those first few days after the November election, there is still a long road to convince critics and western pundits that he is out of obscurity.
Mircea Alin Barbantan
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