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Romania sets course for early election as government falls

Romania’s government has been ousted in a vote of no confidence, just three months and one day after taking office. The vote paves the way for an early parliamentary election, likely to be held in June.

The no confidence motion – put forward by the opposition Socialists (PSD) and backed by the Hungarian Democratic Union (UDMR) – easily passed, securing 261 votes, 28 more than the 233 needed.

The administration of Ludovic Orban had wanted to return to a system of voting whereby Romania’s mayors are elected over two rounds, and not, as now, via a first-past-the-post system. Reintroducing the two-round system was one of the key promises made by Mr Orban when he took office, and one of the conditions of the Save Romania Union (USR-Plus), which backed his election.

Concerned, however, that his minority government may not have the numbers to push the requisite legislation through parliament, Mr Orban resorted to a little-used and risky mechanism whereby the government can make a piece of legislation an issue of confidence.

If the government survives the subsequent no confidence vote, then the legislation immediately goes to the president for promulgation. If the confidence vote is lost, as in this case, the legislation is not passed and the government falls.

However, Mr Orban’s reaction to the vote suggests that he has in fact got exactly what he wants.

“I am proud of what we have achieved in our three months in office, repairing much of the damage caused by the PSD. The government falls on its feet. I am happy that soon the Romanian people will have the chance to choose a new parliament,” he said.

Mr Orban’s Liberal party (PNL) is riding high in opinion polls and would like a parliamentary election as soon as possible, preferably before September 1 when pensions are due to rise 40 per cent. It is not certain that the government has the funds to pay for the higher pensions, while delaying the increase would cost the PNL support.

Romania is scheduled to hold a parliamentary election at the end of November.

The PNL would also, along with the PSD and UDMR, likely have lost a relatively large number of mayors in local elections – scheduled for May – if the two-round system had been reintroduced.

Some analysts have therefore suggested that the vote was little more than a prearranged farce, designed to please both the PNL and the PSD: the PNL gets its early parliamentary election but can still tell the public and its political allies that it tried to push through two-round voting, while the PSD gets to keep the first-past-the-post system that should ensure the majority of its mayors survive.

Dan Barna, the leader of USR-Plus, said that “the whole country” was wondering if the vote had been an arrangement between the PNL and PSD.

The outcome certainly has the effect of weakening USR-Plus, whose candidates will find it difficult to be elected mayor under the first-past-the-post system.

“A tacit agreement between the PNL and PSD tears up the plans of USR-Plus, the rising star of Romanian politics, and ensures that the old system which shores up the power base of the two main parties remains in place,” says Dan Tapalaga, a journalist at the influential online platform G4Media.

There are still a number of constitutional obstacles to be overcome before an early parliamentary vote can be called, but as the country’s president Klaus Iohannis has long voiced his preference for such an outcome it is likely that those obstacles will not be too difficult to overcome.

Mr Iohannis must now nominate a new prime minister, likely to be a relatively unknown figure with little chance of forming a government. Should he or she fail to do so within 30 days, a second nomination is made (almost certainly another no hoper), who also gets 30 days to put together an administration.

Once the second nominee has failed to form a government, parliament is dissolved and an election called.

In the meantime, Mr Orban is likely to stay in office as a caretaker prime minister with limited powers.

On February 4, clearly concerned that he would lose the vote, and lending weight to the idea that he had come to an albeit unofficial agreement with the PSD, Mr Orban passed a raft of emergency legislation at a marathon cabinet meeting, including a shake up in the way that ANAF, Romania’s inefficient tax administration, is run, as well as new rules on health spending.

In what has widely been viewed as a positive move, Romanians will now be able to make use of public funds at private clinics and hospitals, ending the monopoly of the country’s state-run and generally sub-standard medical facilities.

Some critics of the new policy have suggested that it is the first step towards the full privatisation of the Romanian health service, a charge that the health minister, Victor Costache, a practicing surgeon, has denied.