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In Christian Romania, Sevil Shhaideh could be first female, and first Muslim, prime minister

By Web Desk
December 23, 2016

BUCHAREST: If Sevil Shhaideh wins approval from the president and Parliament, she will be both the first Muslim and the first woman to hold the post in a majority CHiristian country where Muslims are less than 1 percent.

Romania´s president postponed his expected nomination of a new prime minister of the EU´s second-poorest country until after this weekend, saying further discussions were needed.

"In the coming days I will have talks and the designation will take place after Christmas," Klaus Iohannis said, adding that he had received "two proposals" on who should be premier.

Romania´s Social Democrats (PSD) cruised to victory in parliamentary elections on December 11 with 45 percent of the vote. The party and its allies, the ALDE party, have a comfortable majority of 17 seats in parliament.

PSD leader Liviu Dragnea on Wednesday withdrew his bid to become prime minister because he is serving two-year suspended sentence for electoral fraud, putting forward former development minister Sevil Shhaideh instead.

Shhaideh, 52, would be Romania´s first female and first Muslim premier. But her lack of experience and personal closeness to Dragnea have stoked opposition accusations that she would merely be his puppet.

Indeed Dragnea said Wednesday that he would "assume responsibility for the government´s actions" and that he still hoped to become prime minister one day. He suggested the law barring him from office could be tweaked.

The PSD´s election triumph came barely a year after anger over a deadly nightclub fire that killed 64 people -- and blamed on endemic corruption -- forced the party from office.


Shhaideh has spent most of her career in Constanta, a port on the Black Sea, and not in Bucharest, the capital. But she is seen as close to Dragnea. She was secretary of state in the Development Ministry when Dragnea was its minister, succeeding him when he stepped down in 2015. He attended her wedding to a Syrian businessman.

Shhaideh and her husband own three properties in Syria, according to a declaration of financial interests from July 2015.

Muslim women have very rarely served as heads of state or government in Europe. The few previous examples were in countries with Muslim majorities: Tansu Ciller was prime minister of Turkey in the 1990s, and Atifete Jahjaga was president of Kosovo from 2011 to 2016.

By contrast, more than 80 percent of Romanians are Orthodox Christians, while fewer than 1 percent are Muslims.

“There will clearly be part of the electorate that won’t like it,” said Paul Ivan, a senior policy analyst at the European Policy Center in Brussels and a former Romanian diplomat. “They also won’t like that the two most powerful political positions in Romania will be taken by those from ethnic and religious minorities.” (Iohannis, the president, is Protestant and of German ancestry.)

Even so, Ivan said he did not think Shhaideh’s faith would make her seem alien to fellow Romanians. “Generally, Romania’s Muslim community, the Turks and Tatars, the Islam they practice is a very moderate one,” he said. “They have lived more than 100 years in a non-Muslim country, they’ve been through a socialist regime. If you look at Shhaideh, her head isn’t covered.”

There appeared to be little chance that the appointment of Shhaideh would soften Romania’s position on migrant quotas. Romania was one of the European Union member countries that initially opposed the setting of mandatory quotas for the relocation of migrants, many of whom are from the Middle East or northern Africa.

“Ironically, the fact that she is a Muslim will prevent her from being too bold on areas like refugees, simply because it is so easy to demonize and say, ‘Of course you say that, you’re a Muslim,’ ” said Radu Magdin, brand ambassador of Smartlink Communications, a political consulting group. “Her team will advise her not to get involved in issues where things can become personal.”