Could Ciolos be Romania’s prime minister again?

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Dacian Cioloş [European Commission]

Romania’s parliamentary election campaign pits the nation’s political elite against what could be described as the EU’s bureaucratic elite, embodied by incumbent Prime Minister Dacian Cioloş, writes Doug Henderson.

Doug Henderson, a UK Labour MP from 1987 to 2010, was Minister for Europe in Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government.

As the political world of Europe eyes coming national elections for signs of Donald Trump-style voter uprisings, there is one country worth examining for 180-degree opposite reasons.

Closing in on the end of his one-year mandate leading a non-partisan caretaker government, Romanian Prime Minister Dacian Cioloş will be contemplating whether he will be able to continue in office once the ballots are counted on 11 December.  Though on no party’s electoral list, it’s no secret that the center-right Liberal party (PNL) plans to nominate him for the post should it pick up enough votes.

But the PNL’s rivals, the center-left social democrats (PSD), currently leading pre-election polls, argues that naming the unelected Cioloş to a full term as prime minister would be an anti-democratic trick. They also argue that his short-lived government simply hasn’t been very good.

The incumbent PM has acknowledged that his administration has made mistakes. “When expectations are high there may be disappointment at the end,” he said recently.

Cioloş will know that technocratic governments have had a difficult time in recent years in other parts of Europe,  notably in Greece (1989-90, 2011-2012), the Czech Republic (2009-10), Hungary (2009), Italy (1992-93, 1993-94, 1995-96, 2011-12).

The Cioloş government was established in the aftermath of a devastating fire which ravaged a Bucharest nightclub and left 48 people dead, traumatising the country.  Corruption, a chronic problem in Romania, was suspected and politicians received the blame.

Cioloş has been the EU Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development and had strong qualifications as a career bureaucrat with a French degree and an international background.  It was hoped that he would be sufficiently independent to avoid any link with any local party political corruption – as this was suspected to have played a role in the nightclub fire.

Cioloş was politically unaffiliated and vowed to remain so, but problems began almost immediately.

The caretaker government was given a year, at the end of which there were to be new elections and restoration of parliamentary democracy.  But, of course, it is not easy to find candidates to fill high office when they know there is a likelihood that it will only last for 12 months!

There were immediate mishaps. Within hours of naming his minister of health, a 29-year-old physician, social media was awash with photos and amused comments about the young man’s appearance as a professional model in an underwear advertisement. Cioloş was forced to withdraw the nomination.

That was just the start of the problems. The man ultimately tipped for the health ministry, Dr Patriciu Achimaş-Cadariu, fell out of favour when it was discovered that people hospitalised following the nightclub fire were dying as a result of sub-standard hospital treatments. He tendered his resignation a few months later.

Then there was the case of Aura Răducu, an EBRD official who was named Minister for European Funds. Applying for and managing EU funding is a major job in the Romanian government, and is full of potential pitfalls, which are much in evidence currently. EU Commissioner Corina Crețu has only recently confirmed that, apart from monies owed from before the Cioloş government took office, no structural funds will flow to Romania until mid-2017 out of some €40 billion available in the EU budget. Romanian Social Democratic MEP Victor Boştinaru blames this lack of funds absorption on the government’s delay in gaining accreditation for the managing authorities. Raducu stepped down at the prime minister’s request.

There was a communications minister who made controversial comments about the education system, mocking teachers for complaining about their pay.

The education ministry itself has had its own leadership problems. It has been reported that the minister was replaced for failing to address quickly enough the widespread problem of plagiarism in the schools.

The interior minister left under fire following an alleged cover-up in a major fraud case. The transport minister was replaced after responding to public complaints about public transport fares with the comment that “the train is a luxury.” The minister of labour resigned amid reports of alleged suspicious spending on, among other things, watches, caps and computer memory sticks for a youth programme. The minister of culture left government in the wake of a mismanaged labour dispute with the Romanian Opera, only to be replaced by another who is currently under fire for allegedly overpaying by millions of euros to repatriate a famous work by the Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi.

In just under a year, there have been no fewer than ten ministerial resignations from the Cioloş government, both voluntary and requested – surely a record turnover rate for an EU member state government.

The common thread running through many of the resignations is a distinct lack of sensitivity as a result of political inexperience. Asked if he would agree that some ministers have displayed arrogance, Cioloş says they are just speaking bluntly. “…[W]hen calling things as they are … I do not think it’s arrogant,” he told a TV interviewer.

Meanwhile, Cioloş faced ridicule recently when it came to light that he still earns some €8,000 per month as part of his compensation package with the Commission.