Governing a dysfunctional state: The challenges facing Romania’s new technocratic government

Following the resignation of Romania’s Prime Minister, Victor Ponta, a new ‘technocratic’ government led by former European Commissioner Dacian Cioloș entered office on 17 November. Neculai-Cristian Surubaru assesses some of the key challenges facing the new government. He argues the government may have a limited window of opportunity to implement reforms, but that it is becoming increasingly clear Romania’s established political parties are now facing significant public opposition, particularly from younger generations of Romanians.

Recent developments taking place in Romania present an interesting case for students of politics. Following the Colectiv club tragedy in Bucharest, manay people took to the streets to protest against corruption and what they saw as the irresponsibility of government officials in dealing with the disaster. In many ways, what they were rallying against was the dysfunctional nature of state institutions.

The events opened a new window of opportunity and for several days it was felt that the contract between society and the state was being renegotiated. Reinventing the polity was a core demand of many of the young people that took to the streets. One year before, a similar window of opportunity had emerged when Klaus Iohannis was elected as President of the country in November 2014.

On the back of the protests, and following pressure from members of his own Social Democratic party (PSD), Victor Ponta resigned as Prime Minister. It was the first major internal political crisis that president Klaus Iohannis had been forced to deal with. According to the constitution, he had to nominate a new head of government with, ideally, the nomination receiving agreement from all parliamentary forces. Iohannis organised several consultations with the main parliamentary political parties, as well as representatives of civil society (a novel development).

Before a final decision was made public, there were many internal and public quarrels on the nature of the new government. Against this backdrop, some relatively inconclusive evidence appeared to suggest that many Romanians favoured a politically neutral and technocratic government. The Romanian President duly took this on board and nominated a former European Commissioner – Dacian Cioloş – to form the new government.

Romania’s ‘technocratic’ government

Following the publication of the new list of potential ministers, it became evident that many of those nominated were not in fact technocrats in the strictest sense of the term. The Cioloş government is at best a patch-work which includes some political heavy weights, EU-oriented technocrats and a few civil society representatives. Yet, many were baffled by the appointment of a 28 year old resident physician and male model (Andrei Baciu) with close ties to a National Liberal (PNL) member of the European Parliament (Cristian Buşoi).

This nomination provided a glimpse into the secret deals reached between the President, the new Prime Minister and members of the political class, in order for the latter to convey their support in Parliament. The deal allowed some people working in the “system” to obtain a ministerial office. For instance, the minister for regional development, Vasile Dâncu, has close ties to the leadership of the Social Democrats.

In addition to these examples, several Brussels based professionals were incorporated in the new government. These individuals worked mainly at the European Commission and for the Romanian Permanent Representation. This has constituted a second political novelty for the country over the last few weeks, and possibly with little precedent in other EU nations. These ‘Euro-technocrats’ are believed to be more reformist in character and were potentially hand-picked by the designated Prime Minister.

Finally, several members of civil society organisations were nominated for office, including the head of the American Freedom House NGO, Cristina Guseth. Her nomination was however withdrawn after a poor showing during the questioning process in parliament, which she nevertheless passed. This was yet another sign that MPs were instructed to vote en masse for the new government, even at the parliamentary hearings stage.

Two factors are apparent in these developments. First, members of the new cabinet were selected in a somewhat hasty manner, with no rigorous selection principles in place and, unfortunately, not in a very transparent manner. Second, the new government is largely a patch-work that reflects the compromise reached by President Iohannis with members of the political class, which was necessary in order to safeguard political support for the new Prime Minister.

Despite this fact, there are still many potential reformists and new faces running major ministries. The key issue is the extent to which the new cabinet will have the ability to manage their ministries effectively, and the degree to which their work will be inherited from their predecessors.

Governing the dysfunctional state: the different faces of politicisation

The concept of the ‘dysfunctional state’ is illuminating in the Romanian case. There are several streams of academic literature focusing on issues of state governance and these streams all deal with the idea of dysfunctional and poorly governed countries. Yet politics lies at the core of this dysfunctionality and is mediated by processes of politicisation.

Positive politicisation would be the ability of politicians to provide guidance and support to the state apparatus, in line with various political principles. By contrast, negative politicisation is not only the inability or unwillingness to provide such support, but can also refer to the adoption of measures or corrupt behaviour that will affect the functioning of state institutions. Overall, we can see politicisation as a wider societal phenomenon in which politicians will seek to influence, or hold a strong grip, on many aspects of state governance.

Three very different examples from Romanian contemporary developments may provide an insight into the way negative politicisation may manifest. First, the presidential elections of November 2014 were criticised for being poorly organised abroad on the basis that this would prevent the Romanian diaspora from expressing its clear political choice for Iohannis. And, indeed, there was some reasonable evidence showing that the government, led at the time by the presidential favourite Victor Ponta, did not allocate sufficient resources to polling stations outside the country.

Second, there has been a notably poor performance on the part of the Romanian authorities in managing and absorbing European funds, particularly the 19.6 billion euros of Structural Funds it was allocated for 2007-2013. Here, previous research has shown that a lack of political support towards specialised institutions has damaged the latter’s ability to manage these resources.

Third, the recent tragedy at the Colectiv club fire has shown how several state institutions (local city hall, Department for Emergency – ISU), as well as private firms, simply ignore rules in the area of health and safety. In this context, some investigators have followed petty corruption leads in which club and bar licences have been granted in exchange for bribes to local officials and even safety inspectors.

Overall, the negative role played by political officials is the glue that links all these different events together. Politicisation affects the nature of many state institutions, rendering them dysfunctional. With all this, it must be said that representatives of the above institutions, be they diplomatic staff, public funds administrators, local civil servants or firemen/doctors, are to a good extent capable of carrying out their duties in a professional manner.

The importance of politicisation is that it prevents this from happening. It renders their work obsolete or channels their energy towards achieving politicised goals. Therefore, one can argue that at the core of this dysfunctional state is simply the inability of political elites to provide decent leadership, guidance and solutions. Given all this, the question is how will the new Romanian government manage to fulfil its role?

The challenges awaiting the new government

Several key challenges await the new ‘technocratic’ government. First, given its limited political mandate and its image as a transition government, Dacian Cioloş and his associates will have limited capacity to enact substantial reforms. Its brief governing programme was watered down several times since being launched. For instance, the provisions for urgently amending legislation on electing mayors and heads of County Councils (in two rounds) was taken out, most probably due to political pressure.

This may show the extent to which parliamentary political forces are keen to limit the damage that the new government may be able to inflict on them. Given that Romanian administrative changes may only be instilled through new legislation, the Parliament will take advantage of its role as veto player and block any legislation that will be seen as “dangerous”.

Second, every Romanian child learns in school about the great fights between the Romanian Voivodes and the Ottoman Empire. When faced with the threat of war, one strategy adopted by the first was to scorch the land and poison fountain water so that the invaders would be slowed down in their advance. To a great extent this is a strategy adopted by many Romanian politicians when vacating office. Many of the problems that the new government will inherit may take years, or a radically different approach, to solve.

For example, the Ministry of Transport has been one of the most politicised administrative bodies in the country. Its satellites, such as the Romanian National Highway Company (CNADNR) and the Romanian Railway Company (CFR), have suffered from years of mismanagement, corruption and acute politicisation. Reforming these companies is an incredibly difficult task that not even a strongly mandated political government would aim to tackle.

Third, many second-level political officials are political party associates. Liviu Dragnea, the head of the PSD, has publicly stated that the new Prime Minister will not (be allowed to) replace politically associated personnel. In many ways, the functioning of state institutions is hampered by the negative role played by affiliate political staff. In exchange for political support, the new government has vowed not to carry out what was blatantly referred to as “administrative purges” of political personnel. The technocrats of the cabinet may face strong resistance from many of these political affiliates, who often hold the political keys to Ministries, drawing on clientelistic ties in order to reinforce their status.

Finally, Romanian civil servants are used to political changes and know what these entail for the public administration as a whole. The lack of assumed responsibility or a general sense of apathy among many of those working in the local and central public administration can clearly be linked to processes of negative politicisation. One of the greatest difficulties for the new government will be to motivate civil servants. The new government programme talks about a “professionalisation of the public administration” and carrying out “evaluations based on competence and performance”. Although these principles were always on the public agenda for public administration reform, they were never carried out. The potentially short life span of the Cioloş government may not help solve this issue.

Any hope for reform?

One of the key achievements of the recent street protests was that they highlighted the inability of the political class to manage state institutions. This dysfunctionality was one of the core concerns of demonstrators, generally captured by the slogan ‘corruption kills’. One year after being elected as President, Klaus Iohannis has reiterated that there is a need for a reformed political class. In his view, often expressed through social media, new political movements and parties are necessary to challenge the current establishment.

Street protesters and/or civil society representatives were particularly polarised on this issue. It is increasingly difficult to imagine new political movements emerging from ‘the street’. Although some innovative forms of citizen consultations did develop during the protests, they did not yet materialise in any political movements.

What is clear for many established political parties is that the status quo cannot hold. Street protests, regular consultations with civil society and a good display of management skills from the new government may put more pressure on them to reform. Some parties have stated that they will put forward new faces during the upcoming elections in 2016. There are thus some signs that old parties are willing to at least adopt changes in principle, superficial though they may be.

Whatever the case may be, the new Cioloş government will have to act quickly. It has a limited window of opportunity to deliver on some promised, yet limited, reforms. It will act under the constant threat of internal political sabotage or external political opposition from the parliament, and its legitimacy will be easily eroded if it doesn’t deliver results. This will give heart to those political parties sitting on the outside who would like to regain power and return to business as usual. In that case, street protests may again be the only viable option for those trying to reshape Romanian politics.

POST as edited and published on the LSE Europp blog:


Toamna vrajbei noastre Colectiv(e) – drumul către ceva nou

Scriu rândurile acestea ȋn primul rând pentru mine, pentru a-mi limpezi gândurile despre ceea ce s-a ȋntâmplat şi se ȋntâmplă ȋn continuare ȋn România.

A vuit Facebook-ul de idei despre cine, ce şi cum, iar pentru câteva zile am fost mâhnit gândindu-mă la cum s-a trecut atât de repede de la Colectiv la planuri, cu iz dâmboviţean, de stabilire a noului Guvern. Îmi dau seama că esenţa acolo rămâne şi anume ȋn restabilirea unei autorităţi guvernamentale. Însă mai mult ca niciodată, există şansa ca statul / sistemul să fie resetat. Sunt sigur că statul român poate fi unul funcţional şi poate servi intereselor societăţii, şi nu unor grupări transpartinice, organizate formal ȋn actualele partide politice. Sunt naiv? Nu cred. Cred că există şansa reală de reasamblare a plăcilor tectonice care stau la baza statului român. Un stat căpuşat, obosit şi disfuncţional. Un stat controlat de partide care reprezintă noile elite politice şi noua ordine de după Revoluţie. Având ȋn vedere protestele din stradă şi limbajul comun pe care ȋl vorbesc oamenii – corupţie, lipsa de transparenţă, incompetenţă şi nevoia de altceva – putem afirma că s-a ivit o nouă oportunitate pentru a reinventa Statul român. Despre asta vreau să vorbesc aici pe scurt, concret sub forma unor idei.

Astăzi mai mult decât oricând există şansa reală ca legătura sau contractul dintre Stat şi Societate să fie rescris. Statul este slujitorul societăţii. Societatea românească, prin forţa noilor generaţii prezintă astăzi o altă optică asupra lumii. Nu mai vrea să fie minţită, ȋnşelată, manipulată, dusă cu zăhărelul. Există o masă critică de oameni, peste tot ȋn ţară, care nu mai acceptă starea de fapt a naţiei. Astăzi mai mult decât oricând, se poate creiona drumul spre ceva nou. A trebuit să traversăm o tragedie colectivă pentru a ajunge aici. Mii de oameni vor rămâne devastaţi de evenimentele de la Club Colectiv. Nici un ajutor, lacrimă sau rugăciune nu va putea reda pacea familiilor şi prietenilor. Dar cei care au murit nu trebuie să fi murit ȋn van. Ca membri ai societăţii nu trebuie să permitem ca astfel de evenimente să se mai repete. Ca societate per ansamblul ei nu trebuie să mai permitem statului să fie disfuncţional, mai ales prin politizare, şi anume prin afilierea la grupări politice a căror interes nu este articularea unor politici şi reprezentarea votanţilor lor, ci simplul jaf public instituţionalizat.

Un lucru pare evident – reformarea statului şi a instituţiilor României nu poate fi ȋnfăptuită de partidele politice actuale. Nu cel puţin ȋn starea ȋn care se prezintă. Personal, cred că politicienii români sunt incapabili să ȋnţeleagă cu exactitate ce li se solicită din stradă. Însuşi Klaus Iohannis a dovedit acest lucru. Cu o legitimitate fără precedent ȋn cadrul societăţii post-decembriste, Klaus a eşuat ȋn a ȋnţelege cu adevărat dorinţele societăţii. Societate care cu un an ȋnainte l-a ales preşedinte. Mai mult acesta a confundat strada cu o mână de organizaţii alese pe sprânceană, care au participat la consultările de la Cotroceni. Nu voi intra prea mult ȋn detalii. În esenţă, consultarea persoanelor prezente poate a avut efecte benefice şi poate sta la baza unui model nou de comunicare cu instituţiile statului. Eşecul ȋnsă de a ȋnţelege strada poate fi văzut ca o alegere din partea domniei sale. O alegere politică, ca semn de recunoştiinţă faţă de familia politică care l-a ajutat să-şi ocupe funcţia de azi şi care ȋn mod evident ȋşi aşteaptă rândul la guvernare.

Nu este ȋn interesul acestor entităţi politice să se alinieze cu dorinţele străzii, deşi clasă politică românească doreşte să profite de pe urma ei. Trecutul recent dovedeşte că au şi reuşit acest lucru. Dar aici poate interveni ruptura faţă de trecut. Partidele politice profită de lipsa de organizare a străzii şi a protestatarilor. Astfel, ȋn linie cu atributele şi regulile democraţiei din România, cred că momentan cea mai bună soluţie este crearea unor mişcări politice noi. Resetarea sistemului nu se poate face cu partidele actuale ci printr-o serie de noi partide politice.

Partide care să reprezinte cu adevărat interesele votanţilor lor şi care să facă legătură dintre societate şi stat ȋn mod adecvat. Partide care să ȋnţeleagă că funcţia lor principală este să reprezinte, articuleze şi să susţină interesele tuturor cetăţenilor din societate prin actul guvernării. Partide care să nu mai umple de semnificaţie actualul sens denaturat al cuvântului.Partide noi care să fie diverse ideologic sau ca şi organizaţii. Partide de stânga, partide dedreapta. Partide care să ȋnlocuiască treptat clasa politică şi care să o ȋmpingă de la spate pe cea veche ȋn a se reforma. Partide care să susţină ȋmbunătăţirea condiţiei precarea a municitorilor şi salariaţilor, partide care să ceară taxarea corporaţiilor, partide care să susţină capitalul autohton sau străin, partide care să susţină inovaţia şi antreprenoriatul. Partide care să depolitizeze statul şi să promoveze meritocraţia, reforma educaţiei şi decenţa pe care o aşteptăm cu toţii.

Partide care să aibe ȋnsă un numitor comun, şi anume capacitatea de a se uni ȋmpotriva actualelor partide pentru a forma ȋn viitorul apropiat sau mediu, Guvernul României. Crearea unor partide este unica soluţie prin care dorinţele articulate ȋn stradă să poată fi transpuse ȋn realitate. Lista revendicărilor creşte de la o zi la alta şi sper că aceasta va fi centralizată. Cel mai mult m-am bucurat săptămâna asta când am văzut că protestarii se organizează şi că ȋn mod natural ȋşi exprimă doleanţele, ȋn public, pe hârtie, şi de ce nu, şi online. Sentimentul că există capacitatea de organizare m-a bucurat enorm. E un proces care va luat timp şi sper ca aceste consultări originale din stradă să se extindă la nivelul ţării sub forma unor consultări cetăţeneşti reale şi reprezentative. Aceste consultări pot sta la baza creării noilor partide. Ele pot fi organizate ȋn următoarele săptămâni / luni peste tot ȋn ţară. Tinerii din România sunt foarte creativi şi pot dezvolta metode diverse pentru facilitarea acestor consultări. La finalul acestora sunt sigur că o nouă viziune va putea fi schiţaţă.

O viziune pentru dezvoltarea României si organizare, două principii care pot sta la baza creării noilor partide. Un al treilea principiu este de asemenea necesar şi anume CURAJ. Curaj din partea celor implicaţi ȋn stradă pentru a se organiza şi pentru a genera sâmburele organizaţional a acestor noi mişcări politice. Curaj pentru a duce această luptă mai departe. Deşi pare că nu lipseşte momentan, am senzaţia că foarte multe persoane ȋncă păstrează o doză de scepticism, neȋncredere ȋn capacitatea de a face politică sau pur şi simplu iau ȋn derâdere idee de partide noi. Modul ȋn care s-a făcut politică ȋn România ne-a denaturat viziunea despre ceea ce este ea cu adevărat, mai exact reprezentarea intereselor membrilor societăţii ȋn cel mai democratic şi demn mod cu putinţă.

Trei mari pericole planează momentan asupra acestor oportuniţăţi. Primul, delăsarea străzii şi a tuturor cetăţenilor care au luat parte la proteste din varii motive. Al doilea, lipsa de organizare la nivelul străzii. Prin stradă nu mă refer aici nu doar la cei care participă fizic la proteste ci la toţi aceia care sunt cu trup sau/şi suflet alături de manifestanţi, care vorbesc acelaşi limbaj şi care sunt ghidaţi de aceleaşi idealuri. Lipsa de organizare, ȋntâlniri sau discuţii, care să ducă la stabilirea unor puncte concrete poate fi cea mai periculoasă. Al treilea, ȋn strânsă legătură cu titlul acestui articol, este ȋnvrăjbirea oamenilor sau crearea de diferite facţiuni care să nu comunice una cu cealaltă din diferite mize meschine sau ideologice. Dezbinarea e o trăsătură colectivă puternică ce trebuie depăşită ȋn astfel de momente. Părerea fiecăruia dintre noi contează şi un filon comun poate fi găsit. E de datoria noastră să-l căutăm ȋn primul rând, mai ales ȋn momente ȋn care se poate ajunge la o resetare reală a sistemului.

Cred ȋnsă ȋn România, ȋn cetăţenii ei frumoşi, ȋn foştii mei colegi, ȋn tinerii şi bătrânii care au ieşit ȋn stradă, ȋn tinerii care au murit strigând – „The day we give in is the day we die”. Crearea unor noi partide politice noi este singura soluţie. O soluţie care trebuie să fie ȋn ton cu se cere ȋn stradă. O soluţie ce nu trebuie deturnată de către interese obscure sau de oportunişti mediatici sau elitişti. Cred că noile partide româneşti pot fi entităţi moderne de reprezentare şi responsabile ȋn faţa alegătorilor. Partide cu mecanisme de control şi de selecţie puternice, dominate de un simţ real al refomei şi dominate de principii etice. Nimic mai mult, nimic mai puţin. Astfel vom putea folosi democraţia pentru noi şi ȋmpotriva actualelor partide. Trebuie să-i batem la propriul joc şi să le arătăm că o democraţie nu ȋnfloreşte decât atunci când aleşii reprezintă interesele societăţii lor ȋn mod real şi fără nimic de ascuns. Pentru asta organizarea, comunicarea şi solidaritatea sunt principiile care pot ghida strada, şi pe toţi aceia care cred ȋn destinul nostru colectiv şi ȋn drumul către ceva nou. Mult curaj celor din stradă, regret că nu pot fi acolo fizic ȋn aceste momente esenţiale dar sunt cu mintea şi sufletul alături de voi. Înainte!