Romania’s first woman PM to face EU scrutiny, street protests

Viorica Dancila’s populist government determined to push through reforms

New Romanian prime minister Viorica Dancila in the parliament in Bucharest on Monday. Photograph: Inquam Photos/Octav Ganea via Reuters

New Romanian prime minister Viorica Dancila in the parliament in Bucharest on Monday. Photograph: Inquam Photos/Octav Ganea via Reuters

 

Romania has its first female prime minister after deputies approved a new government led by Viorica Dancila, but she will face close EU scrutiny and strong opposition from a protest movement that condemns her party’s plans for reform.

The Bucharest parliament, which is dominated by the ruling Social Democrats (PSD), voted 282-136 to make Ms Dancila Romania’s third premier in less than 13 turbulent months.

The long-time member of the European Parliament is considered to have no power base of her own and to be absolutely loyal to Liviu Dragnea, the head of the PSD, who clashed with Ms Dancila’s two predecessors as he sought to run Romania from behind the scenes.

Mr Dragnea is the de facto leader of the governing coalition, but cannot hold high national office due to a conviction for vote-rigging. He is also under investigation for fraud and prosecutors froze some €27 million of his assets in November.

Since taking power last January, the PSD has tried to push through sweeping changes that critics say would dramatically weaken anti-corruption legislation and increase political influence over the Romanian judiciary.

The moves triggered Romania’s biggest street protests since its anti-communist revolution in 1989, and rallies rumble on as successive governments pursue the controversial reform plans and activists refuse to accept them.

Checks and balances

The perceived threat to the rule of law has alarmed the European Union, which fears Romania could be taking the same path as Poland and Hungary, where populist governments are accused of eroding democratic checks and balances.

“Romania is a sovereign state and it is our duty to defend that sovereignty . . . in a European spirit but for the benefit of the Romanian people,” Mr Dragnea said before Monday’s vote.

“Viorica Dancila has the advantage of having been far from Romanian politics for nine years. She has breathed the air of the West.”

Mr Dragnea and allies dismiss EU concerns over their reforms, and the new cabinet includes a deputy premier who is accused of abuse of office and a minister who was the target of an anti-corruption investigation until parliament blocked it.

In a joint statement last week, European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker and vice-president Frans Timmermans said they were “following the latest developments in Romania with concern”.

“The independence of Romania’s judicial system and its capacity to fight corruption effectively are essential cornerstones of a strong Romania in the European Union,” the officials said, while warning that they would “look thoroughly” at the final versions of the government reforms.

The measures have damaged Romania’s hopes of escaping a special monitoring programme by which Brussels keeps track of anti-corruption efforts in the Balkan state and neighbouring Bulgaria, which both joined the EU in 2007.