Clearly miffed that in recent times Britain had been outdoing it (by quite some distance) in the ridiculous politics stakes, Romania has upped its game this week and as we write (on Thursday morning) looks set for a new period of political crisis. Coincidentally, just as Theresa May’s problems in the UK are all of her own doing (calling an election when there was no need for one) so are those of Romania’s ruling party, the PSD, which in what is perhaps a worldwide first is currently trying to topple its own prime minister, Sorin Grindeanu. On Wednesday night both the PSD and its coalition partner ALDE withdrew support for Grindeanu, who has so far refused numerous appeals to resign from within his own party.
Grindeanu you may remember was appointed prime minister at the end of last year after the PSD won December’s parliamentary election. He was not the PSD’s first choice. Liviu Dragnea (the PSD’s leader) was the preferred option, but a conviction for vote rigging precludes him from taking the job. Dragnea therefore nominated Sevil Shhaideh, a loyal ally, to serve as PM. President Klaus Iohannis refused the nomination: Shhaideh’s husband, a Syrian, has close links with the regime of brutal dictator and fan of chemical weapons Bashar al-Assad.
It was then that Dragnea turned to Grindeanu, who for months has been viewed as little more than a puppet. All of the ministers in his government were appointed by Dragnea. One of his first acts as PM was to issue (on Dragnea’s orders) the now infamous OUG 13 pardoning hundreds of corrupt politicians and officials which sparked the biggest public demonstrations in Romania since the 1989 revolution.
The OUG – specifically designed to spare Dragnea (and others) possible prison sentences – was eventually withdrawn. Since then, Grindeanu (and Minister of Justice Tudorel Toader) have failed to find a way of passing the measures covered by OUG 13 via other means. Dragnea – whose current corruption trial will end soon – has become increasingly desperate. Then there is the government’s embarrassing climbdown over public service pay hikes. Teachers, medical staff and other civil servants were promised huge pay rises by the PSD in last year’s election campaign: the sorry state of Romania’s finances has seen them delayed until at least next year. Grindeanu is being asked to take the fall. So far, he has refused, despite Dragnea offering him more or less any other job he likes.
And so today Romania has a government led by a PSD prime minister who no longer has the support of his party. What’s more, all of his ministers have resigned. And yet he stays on, determined (it would appear) to force a no-confidence vote in parliament (the only way, if he refuses to resign, that Dragnea can get rid of him). The sight of the PSD voting to bring down a PSD government would be quite something, although we doubt it will come to that.
So what will happen?
We have no idea. It is not unfeasible that Grindeanu hangs on, bites back and forces Dragnea to resign as PSD leader. We can’t see it though: Dragnea’s faction (which now appears to include Bucharest Mayor Gabriela Firea) is far stronger. He will eventually resign, which is when the real fun will begin. Dragnea will have to nominate a new prime minister (perhaps Firea herself): there is no guarantee Iohannis will accept the nomination. He will certainly not be under any obligation to do so. Iohannis may propose his own prime minister, who will no doubt be unacceptable to the PSD. Should that happen, we could be looking at a new election. Five months ago that would have been ideal for the PSD’s opponents. Now, not so much. Both the PNL and USR are currently leaderless and ill-prepared for an election. It is likely that turnout would be historically low and return a parliament no different to that we have today.
Meantime, Romania’s zombie government of ministers will march on: in office but not in power, as it were. Ordinary people will notice no difference: the country has not been governed in any real sense of the word since December.
One final point: a few commentators who really ought to know better have tried, over the past couple of days, to turn Grindeanu into some kind of hero. He is no such thing. It was his signature on OUG 13, not Dragnea’s. If he has suddenly found his moral compass then it is too late.