SEAT OF POWER: Prime minister-designate Mihai Razvan Ungureanu delivers a
speech at Cotroceni presidential palace in Bucharest on February 6.
The resignation of Romanian prime minister Emil Boc on February 6 did not come as a complete surprise; rumours of a cabinet reshuffle had been percolating in Romanian media in the days before the announcement.
The surprise, including for the ranking members of the Democrat-Liberal party (PDL), the senior partner in the ruling coalition, was that the reshuffle would affect all of the party's cabinet ministers, not just the unpopular ones.
Initially, several senior party members were slated to retain their portfolios, but following a meeting between Boc, who did not resign his party position, and president Traian Basescu, the de facto leader of the PDL, the party's executive bureau was told that none of PDL's erstwhile ministers would be nominated in the new cabinet.
Basescu, a deeply divisive president who has lost, over the years, his lustre as the champion of the fight against corruption in the entrenched political elites in Bucharest, has nominated Mihai Razvan Ungureanu (43) to form the next government.
Like Boc, Ungureanu is a close ally of the president – although a member of the National Liberal party and foreign minister in the Calin Popescu Tariceanu cabinet in 2004/07, Ungureanu was part of the party wing that sided with Basescu when relations between the Liberals and PDL, then allied in a coalition government, soured and led to the sacking of all PDL ministers in March 2007.
Ungureanu left the party but did not join PDL and was appointed the head of the foreign intelligence service later that year. The service is directly subordinated to the president, who names its director.
The move is seen by local observers as an attempt to replace one of the most unpopular politicians in the country with one who lacks the same level of vitriol being directed at him, even though most Romanians remain deeply suspicious of any politician with links to secret services.
Opposition attacks labelling Ungureanu a "securist" – a term used for agents of the communist-era secret services, some of whom launched successful if less than transparent businesses during the transition period – may be wide of the mark, but will not help Ungureanu win over a public tired of austerity measures.
Neither will the fact that PDL's cabinet nominations are virtually unknown names, but most of them with ties to the ministers they are replacing. Some local commentators have already observed that the reshuffle did not bring real change and would not alter the course of government in any tangible way – contributing to this view is the fact that PDL's two minority partners in the ruling coalition have already said that they would not replace their own cabinet ministers.
Ungureanu's stated task is to improve the standard of living, but raising pensions and salaries runs contrary to the austerity plan Romania had to embark on as a condition of receiving the $25 billion bail-out plan from the International Monetary Fund and European Union in 2009.
The belt-tightening measures have cut PDL's approval rating to less than 20 per cent, while the opposition coalition of Liberals and Social-Democrats hovers at about 50 per cent approval rating.
Romania is scheduled to hold parliamentary elections at the end of the year, although the opposition parties have been demanding snap elections.
In one respect, however, Basescu's bold move has been successful, creating tension inside the opposition coalition.
Social-Democrat leader Victor Ponta, who reportedly has an amicable relationship with Ungureanu, initially said he would be open to meet with the prime minister-designate after Ungureanu asked to meet the opposition leaders. Ponta had also said earlier that after the opposition coalition wins the elections (a foregone conclusion according to most observers), he would not be attempting to replace the heads of intelligence services.
Liberal leader Crin Antonescu, however, took a very uncompromising position against his former fellow party member, saying that the opposition was not interested in negotiations, only early elections.
It was just the latest in a series of minor spats between the two parties in the coalition, which may be headed towards more friction in the near future over the distribution of nominations in the local elections. (These were initially due in late spring and traditionally have acted as a test run for the parliamentary elections, usually held about six months later, but the Boc cabinet controversially moved to merge the local and parliamentary elections at the end of the year).
The two parties have long ago decided not to field competing candidates, dividing mayoral and local council chief nominations between them, with the Social Democrats getting an edge because the party traditionally does better in rural areas and towns. Some ranking members of the party, however, have recently asked for a new division, one that would give the Social Democrats even more nominations, especially in counties where the party is already entrenched.
The rifts within the opposition are unlikely to bring additional support for Ungureanu's confirmation vote in parliament, not that the prime minister-designate needs it. The ruling coalition has a slim majority in both chambers and the confirmation vote, scheduled for February 9, passed handily, especially with the opposition parties having said that they would boycott the vote.
The tougher task will be to deliver on the promise of raising incomes without antagonising the IMF. The only feasible way would be strong economic growth, but the Romanian economy's prospects were less then rosy, with growth forecast at under one per cent this year.
Romania could even slip back into recession in the case of unfavourable developments in the euro zone, the country's largest trading partner, foreign and local economists have warned.