European elections in Romania did not take place
Written by Florin Poenaru
The contest for the European Parliament in Romania defied predictions and managed to alter the political life of the country in just about 24 hours. What many observers foreseen to be a low-key affair in line withprevious balloting for the European elections, turned out to be a pivotal moment for the country’s internal political dynamics. Despite initial bewilderment at the unfolding of events, this moment was not entirely unexpected, however.
At the same time, these elections had very little to do with European issues. In fact, they were more akin to an internal Referendum in relation to the SPD leader Liviu Dragnea and his politics after he came to power together with ALDE following a landslide win of the 2016 Parliamentary vote. One of the goals of the coalition was to amend the anti-corruption laws in order to put an end to what was considered to be abuses of the judiciary. Some changes to the Penal Code were requested also by the Constitutional Court which found that several legal provision are unconstitutional and urged the Parliament to promptly modify them.
While the changes were extremely needed, the people who had to implement them lacked the credibility to do so. Liviu Dragnea, for example, was sentenced to two years without imprisonment for vote rigging during the 2012 Referendum. In addition, he was indicted for abuse of office and found guilty by the first court. Just as the vote for the European elections was approaching, so was the verdict in his case by a superior court whose verdict would be final. Similarly, many members of his party have been accused in corruption cases. The Social Democrats, considered to be the offspring of the former Communist party, have always been a synonym for corruption in Romania. Naturally, when they attempted to change the legal framework beginning in February 2017, especially in relation to anti-corruption, their opponents took to the streets in some of the biggest protests the country ever witnessed. This immediately exacerbated an older cleavage between the supporters of anti-corruption and the Social Democrats that sought to bring more political oversight to the judiciary after years in which these institutions became increasingly autonomized. The intensity of this struggle and the noise surrounding it reached unbearable levels prior to these elections as the two sides became more entrenched and determined.
This was, in brief, the larger background of the European elections in Romania. There were no real discussions during the campaign about European issues, albeit TV programs tried to organize debates among MEP candidates, but they lacked any real interest and substance to be worthy of mentioning. It was simply a matter of coming out to vote against Dragnea and his party. Since they also displayed a sovereignist message in relation to the EU, it became even easier to frame the vote as one between pro- and anti-EU forces, with the fate of the anti-corruption campaign generally at stake.
In the event this simple polarization of the political forces functioned spectacularly. Over 49% of the eligible voters came out to vote, unprecedented numbers for EU elections, which rarely elicited the interest of more than 30% of the electorate. Given this high turnout, comparable only to Presidential elections in Romanian politics, the Social Democrats lost spectacularly. In 2016 they gained close to 50% of the vote. Two and a half years later they managed to muster only a fraction, a bit over 22%. What is worse, their coalition partners, ALDE, did not even manage to pass the 5% threshold the Romanian electoral system demands for political parties to enter the European Parliament. The magnitude of the defeat of the Social Democrats became clear when it was revealed that they lost in urban areas of Moldova (a eastern region) where they traditionally had comfortable majorities. Clearly, the local party structures also felt that the time is up for Dragnea and his acolytes and did not mobilize the voters as they usually do for other elections. In absolute numbers, the Social Democrats lost over a million voters from 2016 to 2019.
When exit polls were announced, Dragnea appeared well beaten and tired. However, this was just the beginning. On 27 May, just few hours after the election ended, he was sentenced to 3 and half years in jail and was immediately incarcerated among cheers of his political rivals. A much-maligned figure of the local political scene was exiting the stage in dramatic circumstances. This, however, raised serious questions about the neutrality of the judicial system and its sensitivity to political developments and power shifts. While many cherished his imprisonment as a triumph of justice it was impossible not to sense the irony that exactly the political nature of the judicial system Dragnea constantly decried became visible during his arrest. Dragnea’s fate, however, is not dissimilar to similar developments in countries outside of the EU such as Ukraine and Georgia, where political actors that lost elections were eventually sent to jail. Equating EU with the rule of law and neutral justice was questioned in Romania just the election results wanted to be an assertion of it.
Surely, Dragnea made a series of mistakes after assuming power, both within the party and in the government. Unable to become Prime Minister albeit his party won the election because of the previous conviction, Dragnea tried to play the master puppeteer with the prime ministers he appointed. He failed each time spectacularly and had to take down two governments headed by his own party– an unprecedented gesture in Romanian politics. Under his leadership the Social Democrats implemented a wage-led growth agenda, with significant results. Economic growth remained steadily and salaries increased, even though modestly and unequally across social categories. However, he continued to remain subservient to global capital and corporations, offering renewed incentives and a flat 10% tax. His strong stance against Brussels, admittedly expressed only rhetorically and at home, was doubled by incredible levels of servitude in trying to gain the approval of Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu. He failed spectacularly in this respect while creating a strong pro-EU alliance against him. This was in the end his own undoing: a hands-on approach to government, arrogance and amateurish political mistakes made him a completely undesirable figure that united against him both staunch opponents but also supporters of his own party. His political end was near, without a doubt, but the mobilization occasioned by the European elections brought that end quicker.
The main beneficiaries of the implosion of the Social Democrats and Dragnea were two parties, starkly different but vying to be seen as the alternative to the Social Democrats. Their message during the campaign was twofold, against the Social Democrats and in favor of the anti-corruption campaign. The National Liberals has been the main opposition party after the 2016 elections when they were harshly defeated. In free-fall and without capable leadership, the party was galvanized prior to these elections when Rares bogdan, a popular TV host was placed as head of the list. His violent rhetoric against the Social Democrats, his brash nationalism and ultra liberal ideas of society and economics energized a moribund party. In addition, he managed to play on a historical division within the country that pits the western region of Transylvania (considered historically more western, more developed and pro-European) against the backward regions of the South and East, traditionally the electoral basins of the Social Democrats. The ploy worked and the National Liberals won massively in Transylvania and ensured them an unexpected 27% of the vote and thus 10 members in the European Parliament. Formerly, the National Liberals were part of ALDE, but switched to the EPP following a conservative move of the party few years ago.
Symbolically, however, the main winners of the European elections inRomaniais the coalition USRPLUS. They won just marginally less than the Social Democrats and will have a similar number of MEPs, namely 8. USR, a newly formed political force, entered parliament in 2016 with less than 9% of the vote. In two years their progress is staggering. Their agenda was simple: total resistance to the Social Democrats by employing a series of guerilla tactics in the Parliament (sit-ins, occupation, provocations and so on) to compensate for their small numbers and in order to reach a wide audience on social media. The other pillar of their politics was a staunch support for the anti-corruption campaign, and especially for Laura Codruta Kovesi, the former chief of the National Anti-corruption Directorate, considered to be the epitome of the anti-corruption drive and a victim of the Social Democrats led by Dragnea.
In alliance with the party of the former technocratic PM Dacian Ciolos the coalition appeals to the young, prosperous and highly educated segments of the growing urbancenters (such as Cluj, where the party obtained over 60% of the vote), but it has become notorious for its highly conservative plans, such as banning communist symbols should they come to power. Also, more worryingly, some prominent voices of the party came under scrutiny for their extreme right views, especially by demonizing the voters of the Social Democrats. One of the keys to the coalition success was to mobilize a segment of the voters (those between 18 and 24) that rarely vote through a combination of anti-establishment and anti-politics messages, while genuinely setting up a campaign in favor of voting as a civic (and cool) duty. It worked unexpectedly and much of the turnout must be credited to their campaign. In the European Parliament USRPLUS will join Macron’s En Marche to form a new political group.
Dragnea’s SPD had to face not only these oppositional forces but former allies as well. In an attempt to consolidate his power within the party, Dragnea managed to alienate former PM Victor Ponta. Eventually Ponta was excluded and formed his own party attracting SPD members at odds with Dragnea’s style and politics. During these elections Ponta’s party managed to obtain over 7% of the votes (and thus two seats in the European Parliament), effectively capitalizing on the resentment towards Dragnea’s SPD. In normal circumstances these would have been votes for the Social Democrats, which would have placed them as winners. With Dragnea in jail, Ponta aims to become again the leader of the Social Democrats, so a future merger is not unthinkable.
Two other fringe parties managed to pass the 5% threshold just about: PMP, the party of the former president Traian Basescu, and UDMR, the party of the Hungarian minority, heavily propped by Viktor Orban’s support. Bothparty will have two members and both are part of EPP.
There is no real left political formation in Romania worthy of the name. The Romanian Socialist Party – founding member of the European Left – exists only on paper. Mysteriously, they managed to register for these elections (it is not clear how they managed to collect the required 200.000 signatures) but faired abysmally, gaining around 10.000 votes, less than some independent candidates. Their message campaign proposed an exit from NATO and a minimum wage across Europe but they did not reach out to any meaningful segment of voters outside the social media of some of its members.
DEMOS is the name of a left-wing party formed about a year ago. This is the only local formation that seeks to abide to a leftist agenda, albeit some of their public statements frequently contradict this stance. The party sought to run in the European elections and their messages were the most articulate and genuinely linked to the topic of these elections. However, due to a mixture of gross internal disorganization and lack of political skills coupled with an absurdly high number of signatures needed to register candidates, DEMOS was unable to enter the race and thus their leftist-oriented political stances were relegated only to the circles in the social media.
The elections for the European Parliament were accompanied by a Referendum called by the President. Hence, it might be easily affirmed that Romanians voted in fact in two Referenda on Sunday 26. In essence, the Referendum the President organized sought popular support for the continuation of the anti-corruption campaign. In practice, however, it was an attempt to both boost participation against Dragnea and to offer a chance to the President to play a part in these elections with an eye to the upcoming Presidential elections in which he seeks reelection. The Referendum is not legally binding and it proved once more that during these elections internal matters took precedence over European affairs.
Thespecter of Europe came hauntingly in the guise of the Romanian diaspora queuing up to vote since early morning and many of them unable to do so after more than 14 hours of waiting. Diaspora voted overwhelmingly for USRPLUS, casting a damning vote against the Social Democrats politics. However, those queues of work migrants (an estimated 4 million Romanians left the country in the past two decades) waiting to cast their vote for a political force that promises a restart were stark reminder of the social and political issues they, and Romania, face inside the UE.
Unfortunately, none of thesethemeswere present during these elections for the European Parliament. Romanian used this occasion to tackle issues at home rather than engage with more general European issues. Whether such a strategy is justified, remains to be seen.