Romania’s largest political party nominated a woman from the country’s Tatar minority for prime minister on Wednesday. If 52-year-old Sevil Shhaideh wins approval from the president and Parliament, she will be both the first Muslim and the first woman to hold the post.
The Social Democratic Party scored a resounding victory in the December 11 general election, winning more than 45% of the vote. Together with its smaller ally, the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats, it holds a majority of the seats in Parliament.
Ordinarily, the leader of the largest party is designated by the country’s president to become prime minister. But the Social Democrats’ leader, Liviu Dragnea, would have been a problematic choice - he was convicted of electoral fraud and given a two-year suspended sentence in April.
With President Klaus Iohannis saying the country’s next prime minister should be untainted by criminal convictions or continuing investigations, the Social Democrats have turned instead to Sevil Shhaideh.
“It’s a surprising choice,” said Sergiu Miscoiu, a professor of political science at Babes-Bolyai University in Cluj. “People were expecting somebody controlled by Dragnea, but from the party’s upper levels, not a relative newcomer.”
“Picking Shhaideh suggests that Dragnea will control the government without taking direct responsibility,” Professor Miscoiu added. “She is not stained in a direct way, so Iohannis has no official reason to reject her.”
The nomination of Shhaideh took many observers by surprise.
“We have seen many names put forward in the last days, but her name was not among them,” said Paul Ivan, a senior policy analyst at the European Policy Center in Brussels and a former Romanian diplomat.
Shhaideh is thought of as more of a manager than a politician, Ivan said. “She is seen as a technocrat,” he said. “She’s an economist who has worked in local and regional administration for many years.”
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% of Romanians are Orthodox Christians, while fewer than 1% are Muslims.
Now that Shhaideh has been nominated, the next step is for the president to formally designate her as the next prime minister; that could happen this week. She would then need to be confirmed in office by a vote of confidence in Parliament.