By Mihail Chiru (University of Oxford)
The elections held this weekend produced the lowest turnout in Romania’s history: 33.3% and a number of outcomes which were not predicted by the opinion polls. This was supposed to be an election which would swiftly confirm the rule of the National Liberal Party (PNL, member of EPP) and offer them the chance to choose among various other smaller right-whing parties as junior coalition partners. PNL has been governing Romania since November 2019, under the single party minority cabinets of Ludovic Orban and they won the local elections in September 2020, with 34% of the vote, the highest ever share for a right-wing party. The governing party decided to go ahead with the parliamentary election despite record number of new infections and daily COVID-19 related deaths in November, afraid that a postponement would lead to further erosion of support. To mask the proportions of the health crisis and convince citizens that the measures taken are working, the number of daily tests was halved in the last campaign week.
Both Prime-Minister Orban, and the President Klaus Iohannis had tried to frame the elections as a historical chance for Romania’s modernization. Under their leadership, and careful administration of the €80 billion earmarked for the country by the new EU Budget and The Recovery Fund a modern infrastructure would be built, and the country transformed. The first signs that the government was delivering already were the inauguration in the last two weeks of the campaign of two new stadiums in Bucharest and of 30 new km of highway, the latter ahead of schedule. The other type of foreseen modernization was a political one, which was explicit in the President’s and PM speeches: a substantial weakening of the parliamentary contingent of the nominally leftist Social Democratic Party (PSD), portrayed as an illegitimate and undemocratic force.
But the election results did not conform to the opinion polls and saw PNL winning only around 26% of the votes, compared to almost 30% for the PSD. PNL had managed to alienate both those who thought the restrictions imposed were stifling the economy or did not make sense (e.g. closing down grocery markets) and citizens concerned by the decision not to impose a second lockdown. Similarly, a high-profile case of patronage appointment covered by the media, made PNL’s claims about the professionalization of the civil service considerably less credible. PNL’s disappointing score meant the end of the road for PM Orban and will be followed the coronation of another party leader and PM who has the backing of the President. A center-right coalition with USR-PLUS and UDMR or PMP seems the most likely outcome now.
PSD (part of S&D in EP), the winner of the elections, had governed Romania for three years between 2017 and 2019, after a landslide win in late 2016. Their win 4 years ago was fueled by a ‘magic tree’ type of campaign that promised hikes in wages, pensions, major public investment projects as well as tax cuts and facilities for business. But after the elections, the government’s agenda was shaped by the personal goals of the party leader, Liviu Dragnea, and of other controversial figures, who either had pending trials or were moonlighting as lawyers of citizens accused of corruption. This led to repeated attempts to decriminalize certain corruption acts and weaken the anti-corruption fight, which in turn sparked massive protests and unprecedented levels of unpopularity. Dragnea could not serve as PM due to a previous suspended sentence and had to rule through proxies. The first two appointed ‘surrogate Prime-Ministers’ developed in time a certain autonomy from Dragnea’s agenda and they were removed either by a motion of censorship initiated by their own party or by being forced to resign. PSD had also sought to limit some of the President’s prerogatives and the independence of the Competition Council.
The PSD leadership had hoped that their wage-led growth economic policies (i.e. increases of minimum wage and pensions raising consumption levels and leading to higher levels of economic growth) would ensure the social peace needed for the judiciary ‘reforms’, a logic not very different from that of PiS in Poland. But this was not the case and the party lost spectacularly the 2019 European Parliament elections, obtaining only 22.5% of the vote – their lowest ever at any election. The second day after those elections Dragnea was sentenced for past misconduct in public office and soon PSD’s cabinet was toppled by motion of no confidence.
PSD started slowly distancing itself from the anti anti-corruption agenda. Led by the inexperienced Marcel Ciolacu, PSD did retain elements of the nationalist and traditionalist discourse propagated during the Dragnea era and used these frames to criticize the pandemic related restrictions measures of the Orban cabinet and its impact on Romanian businesses and Romanian small producers. Several medical doctors were nominated on the party’s lists, some of whom had become highly visible and popular during the pandemic. The party’s economic policies are mostly a continuation of the past promises.
PSD could rely on a well-drilled organization and mobilize voters even in the absence of the traditional door to door campaigns that were now virtually banned. There is no secret that President Iohannis will appoint a formateur from PNL despite PSD winning the elections. Nevertheless, the likely instability of the new coalition cabinet, a feature of all right-wing coalitions in post-Communist Romania, and the austerity measures it might resort to, would ensure PSD is well positioned for a comeback.
USR-PLUS (part of Renew Europe) failed once again to reproduce the remarkable score gained at the 2019 European Elections, winning only around 16% of the votes. Like many successful new parties in Central and Eastern Europe, USR-PLUS combines the anti-corruption discourse with valence and technocratic appeals. In 2016-2017 it attempted to blur its positions on other significant competition dimensions to appeal to as many voters as possible, but it soon had to make clear ideological choices. The party was the first significant political force in post-communist Romania to adopt a socially progressive position and the only one to openly oppose the 2018 constitutional anti-gay marriage referendum. The current election manifesto was also indicative of USR-PLUS move from economically more centrist positions to openly neoliberal or libertarian stances, such as advocating healthcare privatization measures.
Again, like other similar projects in the region, the party mostly failed in the past 4 years to develop strong organizations outside the main urban areas. On top of that, the heavy-handed and often arbitrary behavior of its leadership, which marginalized internal opponents and denied access to the ballot to prominent politicians antagonized many sympathizers. A change of leadership guard might be for the time being postponed by the prospect of participating in the coalition government with PNL, but it is certainly something on the agenda of many party members and some of the well-performing party branches.
The failure of USR-PLUS to gain significantly more votes in 2020, might also be explained surprisingly by the emergence of an even newer party, AUR (Alliance for the Unity of Romanians). But unlike USR, AUR appeals to a very broad constituency with conservative and nationalist opinions. Organizationally, AUR relies on a network of football ultras known as ‘Uniti sub Tricolor’ and activists militating for the Union with the Republic of Moldova, while also drawing on the support of the socially conservative circles which have initiated the anti-gay marriage referendum. Some of its leaders have expressed in the past sympathy for Romania’s fascist interwar movement, the Iron Guard, and the party is also known for its anti-Hungarian discourse and actions. The party also embraces a form of identity based Euroskepticism relatively similar to that of Fidesz and PiS.
AUR escaped the attention of pollsters, none of whom predicted it would come anywhere near the 5% threshold. However, campaign observers have noted the strong offline presence of AUR’s campaigners despite the pandemic restrictions and questions were also raised regarding the funding sources of the party. Preliminary evidence seems to suggest AUR’s COVID-19 denial and nationalist tropes proved particularly popular among Diaspora voters and for younger males with average levels of education.
The Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania, (UDMR, member of EPP), maintained intact its monopoly on representing ethnic Hungarians. This is unsurprising given UDMR’s excellent relations in the last 5 years with Fidesz and Viktor Orban. In past electoral cycles, particularly in 2008-2012, Fidesz had supported financially and rhetorically some of UDMR’s more radical challengers. This monopoly was not threatened either by the mainstream parties. USR-PLUS, which at some point claimed it would fight to also represent ethnic Hungarian voters and be an alternative to the allegedly corrupt UDMR elites, did not perform very well in any of 5 counties where ethnic Hungarians represent a majority or sizable minority. UDMR will most likely participate in the new right-wing governing coalition.
The socially conservative electorate will be represented not only by AUR but also by PMP (Popular Movement Party, member of EPP), the party of the former President Basescu, which managed to pass marginally the electoral threshold. In the past legislative term, the party had proposed legislative initiatives such as banning gender studies from Universities. Finally, the 2020 elections also marked the exit from the political scene of Pro Romania, the political vehicle of two former PMs, Ponta and Tariceanu, which would have been the only natural coalition partner for the PSD.
The 2020 Romanian parliamentary elections illustrate that elections organized during pandemic crises often produce unpredictable outcomes and provide a fertile ground for the protest vote. Moreover, the often significantly lower turnouts inevitably raise questions about the legitimacy of those elected.
Photo source: https://www.euronews.com/2020/12/06/romanians-go-to-the-polls-following-years-of-political-uncertainty