BUCHAREST (Reuters) – Romania’s centrist ruling coalition faced possible collapse on Thursday as a junior party withdrew support for the prime minister in a row over the sacking of its justice minister, threatening economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The dismissal of Stelian Ion deepened rifts in the centrist coalition formed between Prime Minister Florin Citu’s Liberals, the centrist USR-Plus and the ethnic Hungarian Party UDMR after the national election in December 2020.

While early elections are not expected, a rupture in the coalition that controls 56% of parliament could endanger the government’s agenda to reduce the budget and current account deficits and curb the pandemic.

“We ask for swift negotiations to designate a new premier to form a new government,” USR-Plus, one of whose ministers was Ion, said in a statement late on Wednesday. “Should coalition talks fail to agree a new prime minister, USR-Plus will support a no-confidence vote against the government.”

No coalition talks were scheduled for Thursday; parties were set to meet separately.

Ion was fired late on Wednesday after USR-Plus opposed a government decree to set up a 50 billion lei ($12 billion) regional infrastructure development financing scheme which would give local mayors access to funds with limited oversight.

Citu said the scheme was a means for the European Union’s second poorest member state to modernise dilapidated villages that lack roads, plumbing and utilities, and said Ion had undermined the initiative.

Critics have said similar development schemes were used by previous premiers as a way to leverage mayoral support, crucial during general election campaigns.

The regional development scheme could also help Citu – a relative newcomer but backed by centrist President Klaus Iohannis – win the Liberal Party leadership during an internal election later this month.

Ion was the second USR-Plus minister Citu has ousted this year without consulting the junior party. Iohannis, who needs to sign off on his removal, said on Thursday he was still considering it.

Ion’s dismissal could also hamper moves to appoint top prosecutors to elite units tasked with fighting organised crime and corruption, a priority for Brussels as it seeks to ensure eastern member states adhere to rule-of-law standards.

($1 = 4.1634 lei)

(Reporting by Luiza Ilie; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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