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Romania - Government

Romania's 1991 constitution proclaims Romania a democracy and market economy, in which human dignity, civic rights and freedoms, the unhindered development of human personality, justice, and political pluralism are supreme and guaranteed values. The constitution directs the state to implement free trade, protect the principle of competition, and provide a favorable framework for production. The constitution provides for a president, a Parliament, a Constitutional Court and a separate system of lower courts that includes a Supreme Court.

In October 2003 citizens voted in favor of major amendments to the constitution in a nationwide referendum to bring Romania's organic law into compliance with European Union standards. The Constitution of Romania of 1991 was amended and completed by the Law No. 429/2003 on the revision of the Constitution of Romania, published in the Official Gazette of Romania, Part I, No. 758 of 29 October 2003.

The president is elected by popular vote for a maximum of two terms. The length of the term was extended from four to five years in the October 2003 constitutional referendum. The separate timing of the parliamentary and presidential elections meant that more weight would be put on the parties' respective candidates for Prime Minister to serve as "engines" for their parties' campaigns. Previous elections featured the presidential candidates as the standard-bearers and figureheads for their respective parties. The president is the Chief of State, charged with safeguarding the constitution, foreign affairs, and the proper functioning of public authorities. He is supreme commander of the armed forces and chairman of the Supreme Defense Council. According to the constitution, he acts as mediator among the power centers within the state, as well as between the state and society. The president nominates the prime minister, who in turn appoints the government, which must be confirmed by a vote of confidence from Parliament.

Semi-presidential systems risk stalemate when it is not clear which of the two "heads" head of State or head of Government shall take the lead. The political situation in Romania features some of the commonly observed characteristics of such an institutional blockade. Cohabitation is the situation where a directly elected president governs with a parliamentary majority from a different political party. In 2004 President Traian Basescu made it clear from the very beginning his conception of the presidency: "The power granted by the Constitution to the President is to be an active and efficient player in the public life of Romania, not just a well-intended spectator."

The two-chamber Parliament, consisting of the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate, is the law-making authority. Deputies and senators are elected for 4-year terms by universal suffrage. Elected officials at all levels of government, with the exception of the president and mayors, were selected on the basis of party lists, with parliamentary seats, city and county council representation, all allocated in proportion to party choices made by the electorate.

In February 2007 President Traian Basescu announced his intention to organize a national referendum to change the electoral process in favor of uninominal voting and away from the current party list system. Basescu focused on what he labeled a central challenge in Romanian politics: its self-centered political class. Whereas Romanian society as a whole had made "remarkable progress" since the 1989 Revolution, it was less true of the politicians. Romania was witnessing at present "the victory of party interests over the public interest." Uninominal voting, as opposed to the current party list system, would reverse the relationship within parties, making the leadership of the parties dependent on the support of parliamentarians, not vice versa. According to him, the electoral reform would "transfer power from the party leaderships to the electorate at the local level."Despite widespread popular support and a unified draft law ostensibly supported by all the three major Romanian political parties -- PSD, PNL, PD -- observers concluded that uninominal electoral reform was doomed to failure and that the hype regarding the uninominal vote is just for show.

The uninominal electoral reform law was formally gazetted by the government (and thus entered into force) 13 April 2008. The law was approved by parliament in March 2008 by an overwhelming margin of 231 "yes" votes (PNL, PD-L, PSD, and PC) to 11 "no" votes (PRM) and 18 abstentions (UDMR). The new electoral rules retain a 5 percent threshold for parties seeking to be represented in parliament, and create an alternate threshold allowing for parliamentary representation of parties winning at least 6 seats in the House of Deputies and 3 in the Senate. Independent candidates will need to win the support of at least 4 percent of the total number of eligible voters in their district in order to win a parliamentary seat.

Ethnic minority parties that fail to pass the two thresholds for parliamentary representation are still entitled to one seat in the Chamber of Deputies provided they receive a minimum of 10 percent of the national average number of votes necessary to elect a representative to the Chamber. County council chairmen will be elected in a first-past-the-post single ballot, replacing a previous system where they were chosen through back-room negotiations among council members.

The new system will include 42 total constituencies nationwide, including the existing 41 counties and the Bucharest metropolitan area. However, a separate electoral district will be created for expatriate Romanians voting overseas. These constituencies will be divided into "uninominal districts" (seats), with the ratio of some 70,000 inhabitants for one representative of the Chamber of Deputies and 160,000 inhabitants for every Senator. Based on this ratio, there will be some 330 seats in the lower chamber and 135 in the upper chamber for the next election, with an additional 4 deputies and 2 senators representing overseas constituencies.

Despite the "uninominal" moniker, the new system retains a number of elements from the old party-list system, including provisions that could mean that a candidate failing to meet the 50 plus 1 percent threshold might lose to rivals receiving fewer votes overall, but belonging to parties with a larger national vote share. At the insistence of political parties, the new system retains some proportional elements in an effort to balance voter preferences with some provisions which give play to the parties, relative electoral weights. Candidates who receive a simple majority (e.g., 50 percent plus one vote) in a uninominal district will enter Parliament outright, provided their party passes either the 5 percent or 6/3 electoral thresholds. However, if no candidate manages to get a simple majority of votes in a given constituency, all of the votes obtained by the various candidates will be pooled by party affiliation at both the constituency and national levels.

Passage of the electoral reform bill marked the end of a effort begun in the mid 1990s to abandon Romania's party-list electoral system which gave disproportionate power to party bigwigs and which minimized the political accountability of elected officials. Proponents argued that the new rules will force parties to choose candidates on the basis of local electability rather than loyalty to kingmakers. In addition, they claim the new rules will foster grassroots democratization by providing an opening for smaller, regionally-based parties with stronger ties to local electorates.

Critics on the other hand warn that the new electoral code will weaken the center and foster the breakdown of party discipline, creating an even more faction-ridden political scene. They also predict the emergence of new political elites skewed more towards local oligarchs, celebrities, sports figures, and others with greater appeal or resources at the local level.

The Constitutional Court adjudicates the constitutionality of challenged laws and decrees. The court consists of nine judges, appointed for non-concurrent terms of 9 years. Three judges are appointed by the Chamber of Deputies, three by the Senate, and three by the president of Romania.

The Romanian legal system is based on the Napoleonic Code. The judiciary is to be independent, and judges appointed by the president are not removable. The president and other judges of the High Court of Cassation and Justice are appointed for terms of 6 years and may serve consecutive terms. Proceedings are public, except in special circumstances provided for by law.

The Ministry of Justice represents "the general interests of society" and defends the legal order as well as citizens' rights and freedoms. The ministry is to discharge its powers through independent, impartial public prosecutors.

For territorial and administrative purposes, Romania is divided into 41 counties and the city of Bucharest. Each county is governed by an elected county council. Local councils and elected mayors are the public administration authorities in villages and towns. The county council is the public administration authority that coordinates the activities of all village and town councils in a county.

Prior to 2008 the central government appointed a prefect for each county and the Bucharest municipality. The prefect was the representative of the central government at the local level and directs any public services of the ministries and other central agencies at the county level. A prefect may block the action of a local authority if he deems it unlawful or unconstitutional. The matter is then decided by an administrative court. Under legislation in force since January 1999, local councils have control over spending of their allocations from the central government budget, as well as authority to raise additional revenue locally.

For the first time in Romania's post-communist history, in June 2008 the presidents of county councils were elected directly by the voters and were no longer be chosen through smoke-filled back-room negotiations in local councils. Direct election of county council presidents would enhance their already considerable powers and would make them less controllable by--or accountable to--their national party leaderships. The heads of the county councils will represent real centers of power, especially given the increasing funds (both from national coffers and from the European Union) being disbursed at the local level. Thus, county council presidents will be key players at the intersection of both local and national politics.



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