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The Constitutional Politics of Cohabitation in Romania

Zoltán Pozsár-Szentmiklósy, ELTE University, Budapest

Klaus Iohannis, Romania’s new president, faces a challenging situation right at the beginning of his term: after a harsh campaign, his rival candidate for the presidency, Victor Ponta, remains prime minister and enjoys the support of a significant parliamentary majority. Though they have different powers, the president and the prime minister are both in the executive branch of government.

The semi-presidential system in Romania and elsewhere “combines a popularly elected head of state with a head of government who is responsible to a popularly elected legislature, thus making the model conceptually and analytically distinct from the other two principal constitutional types existing in the world today.”[1] In the near future, it will be revealed whether the relationship between Mr. Iohannis and Mr. Ponta will be one of cooperation or rivalry.  

It has normally been the case in semi-presidential systems that the prime minister is a partner in realizing the president’s program where the dual executives belong to the same political party. In France, moreover, by reducing the term of office for president from seven to five years, the constitutional amendment to the French Constitution in 2000 significantly lowered the chance of cohabitation. The length of term of the National Assembly is now identical to the length of term of the president, who is now limited to serving no more than two consecutive terms.

In Romania, constitutional rules and political practice seem to lead to different outcomes. The Constitution specifies the power of president and of prime minister in broad terms, which leads to disagreement related to exercising these powers. The  constitutional amendment of 2003 extended the length of presidential term from four years to five years, whereas the mandate of Chamber of Deputies remained four years. This amendment, which aimed at strengthening the independence of directly elected president, increases the chance of cohabitation: the outcome of elections may vary in different election periods.

After 2004, when president Traian Băsescu took office for his first five-year term, political cohabitations arose for two reasons: the unusual change in the composition of the governing coalition during the term of the Parliament (2007-2008, when Călin Popescu Tăriceanu was the prime minister, and 2012, when prime minister Ponta took office for the first time) and the formation of a new parliamentary majority after the elections (since 2012, still with Victor Ponta as a prime minister).

There is a commonly accepted argument that in semi-presidential systems the power of president and of prime minister to control each other could be viewed as elements of the system of checks and balances within the institutional design of the country based on the principle of separation of powers. The possible debates between them could mean “compromising government efficiency in the interest of preventing tyranny and the arbitrary exercise of official power”.[2]

Preventing tyranny is evidently important in countries that had been located on the east side of the iron curtain before 1989. However, in the case of political cohabitation, the semi-presidential constitutional system compromises not only government efficiency but also the risk of constitutional crises in absence of effective safeguards and proper political culture. The French constitutional practice indicates shifts in emphasis of the governmental system from the presidential character to the characteristics of parliamentary systems, depending on the relationship of president and prime minister. In contrast, the Romanian experience demonstrates alternations between constitutionally “silent” periods and constitutional crises.

Political cohabitation in the Romanian context is a constitutional challenge which needs constitutional answers. One way for Romania is to modify its constitutional system to strengthen the characteristics of „classic” semi-presidentialism by establishing exit mechanisms from institutional deadlocks. Bearing this in mind, a possible solution could be to empower president with the right to dissolve Parliament, as in this way Parliament’s right to suspend president from office could be effectively counterbalanced.[3] The synchronization of the length of terms of president and Chamber of Deputies would be also advisable to evade situations wherein the head of the state and the parliamentary majority belong to different political sides.

The other way could be to transform the constitutional system into parliamentarism. In this case prime minister (with the support of a parliamentary majority) would be the single head of the executive branch of government whereas president (representing the entire nation) would have mainly symbolic powers.[4]

Now, with these and many other options for institutional reform in Romania, Mr. Iohannis and Mr. Ponta should work to find a solution suitable to Romanian constitutional practice and political culture.

Suggested Citation: Zoltán Pozsár-Szentmiklósy, The Constitutional Politics of Cohabitation in Romania, Int’l J. Const. L. Blog, Jan. 30, 2014, at: http://www.iconnectblog.com/2015/01/the-constitutional-politics-of-cohabitation-in-romania

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[1] Cindy Skach: The „newest” separation of powers: Semipresidentialism 5 Int’l J. Const. L. 93 2007 (p. 93)

[2] See Richard Albert: Presidential values in parliamentary democracies 8 Int’l J. Const. L. 207 2010 (p. 228)

[3] Vlad Perju refers to the Austrian model which „rebalances the powers within the dual executive” by the automatic dissolution of the Parliament if the president survives the referendum of removal. See: Vlad Perju: The Romanian Double Executive and the 2012 Constitutional Crisis 13 Int’l J. Const. L. 2015, Forthcoming (p. 29, manuscript)

[4] Manuel Guțan argues similarly. See: Manuel Guțan: Romanian Semi-presidentialism in Historical Context 3 Rom. J. Comp. L. 275 2012 (p. 300)

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Published on January 30, 2015
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  1. […] cohabitation was met with high hopes for a smoother relationship between state institutions. A constitutional reform has also been suggested as a necessary step for the clarification of the roles and powers that the […]

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