World News

Romania Names 3rd Prime Minister in a Year Amid Struggle Over Corruption

Posted January 29, 2018 3:37 p.m. EST

BUCHAREST, Romania — Viorica Dancila was approved by the Romanian Parliament as prime minister Monday, becoming the first woman to hold the position in the country’s history despite doubts about her relative lack of experience and the continued influence of a party leader who has been convicted of vote fraud.

Dancila, 54, a member of the European Parliament since 2009, will take power after her Cabinet was approved by Parliament, 282 to 136. She is the third prime minister in a turbulent 12 months for the country that has included a wave of anti-government protests, the largest in a quarter-century, over legislation that would have eased the penalties for corruption.

Dancila was formerly a little-known politician, and her low profile, some of the Cabinet choices, and her ties to Liviu Dragnea, the powerful leader of the governing Social Democrat Party, mean that she will enter office with many Romanians skeptical of her independence and her ability to bring stability and usher in a more progressive era, especially as the country wrestles with corruption and growing disillusionment with the political class.

Dragnea was unable to become prime minister because of a conviction for electoral fraud, and is also under investigation for misuse of state money, including European Union funds.

That has led to speculation that Dancila had effectively been installed to serve his interests rather than acting independently, although he said in a speech before the vote that the country would benefit from her lack of recent exposure to the more petty aspects of Romanian politics. She hails from the same county as Dragnea.

Speaking before the vote, Dancila focused on plans to raise the minimum wage, improve transport and reduce bureaucracy. Romania’s economy was one of the fastest growing in Europe last year, but the country is still one of the poorest in the European Union.

“The goal of my mandate is for Romania in 2020 to be in the top half of the EU’s strongest economies so that young people no longer leave from Romania, and those that have left want to return,” she told lawmakers.

“Maybe she is a very good person, but we don’t know anything about her,” said Cristian Pirvulescu, dean of the political science department at the National University of Political Studies and Public Administration in Bucharest. “She hasn’t had any important political experience until now — she was just a member of a small city council and then after that a member of the European Parliament.”

Pirvulescu said there was a simple explanation for why she had become prime minister: “After difficult experiences with the two previous governments, Liviu Dragnea wants a government he can be absolutely sure of.”

Others also questioned Dancila’s experience.

“She’s not been among the prominent MEPs, and wasn’t very visible in Brussels. I knew she existed, that she was a Social Democrat MEP, but that’s where it ended,” said Paul Ivan, a former Romanian diplomat and a senior policy analyst at the European Policy Center in Brussels, using an acronym for member of the European Parliament.

Dancila was nominated after her predecessor, Mihai Tudose, resigned Jan. 15 after losing the support of his Social Democrat colleagues, in particular Dragnea. His appointment came after the resignation of Sorin Grindeanu last June, after he lost a no-confidence vote brought about by his own party.

Both were felt not to have given their full backing to efforts to overhaul the justice system, a party priority, and to have sought more autonomy from party leaders like Dragnea.

After a year of on-again, off-again protests over attempts to weaken anti-corruption efforts, the composition of the new government dampened hopes that it would offer a different approach to leadership.

Several Cabinet members, including the new business minister, Radu Oprea, have faced allegations of corruption. The new minister for European funds, Rovana Plumb, was forced to resign from the same post late last year over allegations related to land transfers.

Pirvulescu said that the main focus of the new government in the short term was likely to be on completing highly disputed changes to the judiciary, an effort that has been met with strong criticism from the country’s allies, including the United States and European Commission. “Romanians don’t have the capacity to block this, even with big protests,” he said, before referring to the emergence of populist movements in the region. “We have this illiberal environment in Eastern Europe, and Romania isn’t an exception.”

Opposition groups were also disinclined to give Dancila and her Cabinet the benefit of the doubt.

“Dancila seems like she will be more obedient to Mr. Dragnea, so it won’t be better, and it could be worse,” said Florin Badita, an activist who has helped rally people through a Facebook group he created after a deadly nightclub fire in 2015. “Her appointment won’t have any impact on the protests.”