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Writing’s on the wall for Romanian Social Democrats

With the 2nd round of presidential elections coming up this week and municipal elections in 2020, the socialist democrats will struggle to regain their footing

  • November 20, 2019 11:30
  • Author Anton Stoyanov
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Source: Romanian Council presidency: MEPs expect focus on budget and future EU, European Parliament on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

It’s been a tough year for the recently ruling Romanian Social Democrats – and it will undoubtedly be getting tougher still. Citizens of the Balkan country will be heading to the polls later this week to vote in the second round of presidential elections and in the first half of 2020 they will be faced with a new choice – this time for their mayors and city councillors.

Given the sorry state of the Social Democrats following their last couple of years in power, it would be a miracle if they manage to hold on to their bastions across the country.

Rise and Fall

The Romanian Social Democratic Party (PSD) swept into power following the 2016 parliamentary elections. The party garnered over 45% of the votes in the country, making it by far the strongest political grouping.

Emboldened by the success, the Social Democrats embarked on a journey of sweeping reforms – but not exclusively the kind one would expect. Instead of focusing on tax policies, welfare and other similar issues which are usually untouchable without a sufficient democratic mandate, the PSD decided to re-reform Romania’s approach to corruption.

The party had recently suffered some “minor” humiliations, with its leader having recently been convicted on charges of electoral fraud. The now infamous Laura Kovesi, Romania’s chief prosecutor at the time, didn’t stop there, however, and she kept on chasing Liviu Dragnea charging him with misuse of EU funding, corruption and money laundering. The Social Democratic Party apparently believed this to be a great injustice and was ready to do everything in its power to stop the conviction and the jailing of its leader.

Fighting (for) corruption

In its attempts to safeguard Liviu Dragnea from serving jail time, the Romanian government embarked on several ambitious journeys to reform the country’s legal system and penal code. A referendum, a civil war within the party and a no-confidence vote later, Liviu Dragnea, the party’s now-former chairman, is in jail, while the PSD has been removed from power.

The problems started pretty much right after the Social Democrats were voted into power on a high-welfare, populist-conservative platform. The changes to the legal system which were planned by the government immediately drew the ire of European institutions, NGOs and of course concerned citizens. Thousands marched in Bucharest to protest the planned reforms which included the practical pardoning of corruption offences which have resulted in damages fewer than 200,000 euros.

As a move to legitimize their myriad of controversial proposals, the PSD has called two referendums over the past few years – one of the constitutional definition of marriage (held at a perfect time to rally support for the party amid the massive protests) and one on the question whether the government should be allowed to grant amnesty and pardon officials accused of corruption. The former failed because it didn’t manage to surpass the necessary threshold (despite being held over two days) while the latter was overwhelmingly rejected by voters.

It quickly became apparent that the PSD’s primary objective was not to ensure the wellbeing of the Romanian citizens, but rather the legal safety of its own members.

The next logical step by the PSD in deflecting criticism was to play the Euroscepticism card, which in turn prompted the Party of European Socialists to freeze their status as a member of the political family. Meanwhile, the European Commission signalled that it’s ready to start an Article 7 procedure against Romania, stating that the current government’s actions and attempts to dismantle the justice system were going against the values of the EU.

With everything rapidly crashing down around the Social Democrats, the final nail in the coffin was the Commission’s announcement that it will be suspending its corruption monitoring scheme for Bulgaria while leaving it in place for Romania. 

Just a couple of weeks later, the PSD government was voted out of power by the opposition within the parliament with the help of party defectors on the charges of incompetence and misuse of EU funds.

Fight for survival

Last week’s first round of presidential elections made clear that the last couple of years will have a lasting effect on one of the country’s oldest parties. Incumbent Klaus Iohannis, one of the PSD’s staunchest critics is set to secure a massive majority in the 2nd round of voting. Meanwhile, the Social Democrats’ candidate for the post, Viorica Dăncilă - the country’s former Prime Minister, barely managed to secure the 2nd spot.

The 24 November elections will be an unmitigated disaster for the PSD. Yet their troubles won’t stop there. Early next year, Romanians will be heading to the polls to vote for their local governments and while the PSD has been a dominating force for almost a decade, the 2020 elections will be something quite different.

Shaken by scandals, rattled with severe incompetence within the leadership and facing new parties which are rapidly finding their ways to the hearts and minds of voters, the Romanian Social Democrats will be bracing for heavy losses. A catastrophic result in the 2020 local elections will deprive the party of much of its base and influence on voters, potentially starving them out of funding and all-important media opportunities.

With the future looking bleak for the Romanian Social Democrats, the Balkan country is heading for a new chapter, with voters switching to centrist and centre-right alternatives. Yet it would be premature to call this the end of the PSD – on the contrary, spending some time in opposition is the perfect opportunity for self-reflection and in-party reforms – things that would certainly be to the benefit of the whole country.

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