Klaus Iohannis gave no reasons for rejecting the nomination of Sevil Shhaideh, put forward by the Social Democrats (PSD), but there was speculation that it may have been due to her Syrian husband’s background.
“I have properly analysed the arguments for and against and I have decided not to accept this proposal,” the president said in a televised statement. “I call on the PSD coalition to make another proposal.”
The PSD won 45% of the vote on 11 December. Its leader, Liviu Dragnea, withdrew his own bid to become prime minister because he is serving a two-year suspended sentence for fraud in a previous election.
Shhaideh’s political experience is limited, having served as development minister for just five months before the previous PSD-led government resigned in late 2015. This and her personal closeness to Dragnea – he was a witness at her wedding – stoked opposition accusations that she would merely be his puppet.
Shhaideh’s Muslim faith is not thought to have been a problem for Iohannis. Instead, the focus may have been on her Syrian husband, whom she married in 2011.
According to the non-profit investigative journalism group the Rise Project, he has several times expressed support for the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, and for the Lebanese Shia movement Hezbollah.
He worked in the Syrian agriculture ministry for 20 years before emigrating in 2011, according to media reports and Dragnea. He then served as an adviser to the Romanian agriculture ministry and gained citizenship in 2015.
Andrei Ţăranu, a political analyst, said: “In the absence of any explanations by the president, I suppose that his rejection is linked to questions of national security and because the United States would not have been very keen.”
The website HotNews cited unnamed sources as saying the security services had “strongly cautioned” against Shhaideh’s nomination because of the closeness to the Assad regime of her husband and his two brothers.
Dragnea was due to make a statement on Tuesday afternoon responding to the rejection. Some in his party called for Iohannis to be suspended.
Ţăranu said: “Either the PSD shows its wisdom by making a new proposal [for prime minister] or we move towards fresh elections.” He said an attempt by the PSD to remove the president would be problematic because under the constitution Iohannis is entitled to request a second proposal for prime minister.
The PSD’s election triumph came barely a year after anger over a deadly nightclub fire that killed 64 people forced it from office. The inferno inside the Colectiv club was blamed on corrupt officials turning a blind eye to a lack of fire precautions. Poor medical care also contributed to the death toll.