Short-lived, minority cabinets have been a frequent occurrence in Romania over the last three decades. But why is this the case? Drawing on new research, Veronica Anghel examines the role informal institutions have played in the formation of these minority governments.
In a new edited volume, Bonnie N. Field and Shane Martin ask contributing authors to explore and analyse the formation, functioning, and performance of minority governments – what they term the why, how, and how well of minority government politics. Among the countries assessed, Romania – the subject of the chapter I have contributed – is firmly set among those with the greatest number of minority cabinets.
Indeed, out of all post-communist states, Romania tops the charts, with more than double the number of minority cabinets compared to the second-placed country on the list, Latvia. Investigating why Romania comes at the top of this ranking is important and reveals some surprising patterns of party bargaining. Chief among these is the role played by informal practices in the formation of minority cabinets.
Romanian politics is defined by ‘stable instability’. In the first thirty years of democracy (1990–2020), seventeen prime ministers chaired thirty-four cabinets. Cabinets had an average lifespan of less than a year. No fewer than 18 of these cabinets were minority cabinets (53 percent). Among these, six were single-party minority cabinets.
There are several factors that help explain both why minority cabinets are so common in Romania and when these cabinets become unstable. First, there is the important role of the country’s semi-presidential regime structure in minority cabinet formation. On several occasions, the power to nominate the prime minister has proven to be a key formal and informal bargaining chip. Presidents have used this power to limit the distribution of offices to other parties and maximise office payoffs for the president’s party. In doing so, they have prioritised minority cabinet formation.
President Traian Băsescu (2004-14) actively used this power after both of his electoral victories to shape investiture majorities in favour of his preferred choice for prime minister, facilitating minority cabinets in the process. More recently, President Klaus Iohannis (2014-24) has also shaped a fragile legislative majority in favour of his party’s candidate for prime minister and a minority cabinet after he won a second mandate in 2019.
The aim of maximising cabinet seat share for the president’s party under conditions of minority cabinets has underpinned several other presidential interventions. On each occasion, the candidate for prime minister favoured by the president has chaired a party with high coalition potential, and which commanded alone or in an alliance a comparable number of seats to the main opposition Social Democratic Party.
Second, individual political goals and informal institutions – such as corruption and clientelism – have played a fundamental role in making and breaking parliamentary alliances. These latter phenomena often shape legislative majorities, making individuals highly dependent on state resources and loosely bonded to a specific party. Informal institutions are unwritten, unofficial, widely-known practices that organise individual behaviour.
The pervasiveness and resilience of such informal institutions are common features of post-communist regimes and have been studied from different perspectives to map state capture, client-patron relations, and corruption risk. Resilient informal institutions such as corruption and clientelism lead to lower quality governance, impede democratisation, and result in underdeveloped rule of law. I argue that informal institutions may also affect power-sharing arrangements and are a conditioning factor in minority cabinet formation.
Minority cabinets are also the result of strategic elite behaviour by individuals. Individual choices are mostly reflected in frequent party switching and the prioritisation of personal gain over the interests of the party as a whole. This creates favourable conditions for minority cabinet formation because payoffs for individuals do not require cabinet office. In a context where each member of parliament prioritises their individual goals over their party’s goals in exchange for providing legislative support, the party’s bargaining potential for cabinet membership diminishes. This also circles back to corruption practices.
In Romania, there are numerous paths of discretionary access to state resources and public procurement. Most often, they require proximity to the centre of executive decision-making. Consequently, choosing which government to support can involve high personal stakes in economic terms as well. There have been several cases in which such interests have influenced the bargaining process for government formation.
Proximity to public office is a coveted means for personal enrichment more generally. According to the annual reports from the National Anticorruption Agency, the number of ministers, parliamentarians, local representatives, and directors of national companies who are sent to trial yearly under corruption charges are in the high teens. Being in government is not an absolute necessity to access resources, but proximity to state institutions is. Further comparative studies are necessary to connect corruption directly to a preference for (or indifference to) minority governments.
The performance of minority cabinets
Finally, there is the question of whether the minority status of cabinets affects stability or performance. The case of Romania lends support to recent scholarship that finds minority cabinets are neither situational nor do they necessarily perform poorly. However, even in this high volatility environment, minority cabinet duration and performance may improve when parties sign a substantive agreement that signals long-term commitment to shared governance, or when they have the support of the main ethno-regional parties.
For more information, see the author’s contribution to a new edited volume, Minority Governments in Comparative Perspective, edited by Bonnie N. Field and Shane Martin
Note: This article gives the views of the author, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics. Featured image credit: European Union