By Veronica Anghel (University of Bucharest)

After 13 months of being led by a technocrat cabinet following the resignation of the socialist PM Victor Ponta, Romania has given once more the social–democrats a firm first chance to form the government. With a 39,49% turnout, the Social Democrat Party (PSD) won an average 46% of the vote for both Parliament chambers. Trailing at a far second, the main center – right party, the National Liberal Party (PNL) won 20% of the popular vote. The third parliamentary force, also a centrist party, will be newcomer Save Romania Union (USR) who won just short of 9% of the votes cast on December 11th. Other parties who got over the 5% threshold have also assumed a center – right position. They are the Democrat Union of Hungarians in Romania (UDMR) – 6,30%, the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in Romania (ALDE) – short of 6% and the Popular Movement Party (PMP) – slightly over 5%.

The outcome of the elections confirms a stable, limited fragmented Romanian party system. Although the PSD has gotten closer than ever before to having an absolute majority (since its over 75% win as the National Salvation Front (FSN) during the first democratic elections of 1990), any claim of a trend towards the hegemonic party system of the early 1990s is unsubstantiated. Other parliamentary parties have an indispensable coalition formation capital and retain blackmail potential.

The most likely cabinet composition is that of PSD and ALDE. Although they did not have a written coalition agreement that we know of, ALDE, a PNL splinter led by former PM and longstanding PSD partner Călin Popescu – Tăriceanu, was supported as a PSD running mate. The PSD chairman, Liviu Dragnea, reconfirmed ALDE’s inclusion in a future cabinet in his election night victory speech. The day following elections, PNL and USR announced their commitment to form an active opposition. Further acknowledging electoral failure, Alina Gorghiu submitted her resignation as PNL Chairman. The PMP, an electoral vehicle for the former president Traian Băsescu, has equally assured its voters of its intention to go on in the opposition. The UDMR remained the only one other party that showed willingness to negotiate for government participation.

2016 campaign key words: turnout, party efficiency and the quest for leadership
Turnout. The below 40% turnout is an average of the last two legislative elections of 2008 and 2012. A lacklustre electoral campaign in content, restricted by the 2015 changes to the electoral law which limited the visual impact of parties on the voter, did not overall achieve a voter mobilisation to the above 50% turnout of 2004 and before. The discussion about turnout is not without importance, as it confirms disengagement with politics in general and not only a fatigue produced by mainstream parties. For the 2016 elections, the electorate had new-fangled alternatives: parties, ranging from representatives of the ultra-conservative (nationalist) right – the United Romania Party (PRU) and Our Romania Alliance (ARN), to a perceived more cosmopolitan USR and 44 independent candidates. The independent candidates were known public figures with political experience and/or notoriety and financial resources or associated with particular causes such as environmentalist policies, children’s rights and same sex marriage or known intellectuals. The offer remained unconvincing. Also, new parties, except the USR, and all independents remained well below the needed threshold. The anti-establishment sentiment remains unhinged in its passivity. Non-participation confirms that parties, irrespective of their age, candidate competence and nuances in political programs continue to be perceived on the whole as equal agents of the state.

It remains to be studied whether the USR, an evolved version of a Bucharest based NGO associated with protest politics, appealed to new voters or mostly to disenchanted PNL sympathizers. Considering the overall turnout and the traditional percentages of support that PSD and PNL (which undergoes as of 2014 a process of unifying two individual successful center – right parties) amass, we could speculate that USR did not mobilise a significant segment of first time voters.

Policy vs. management. Party priorities have not been vote maximization through policy proposals, but through managerial efficiency. Party programs and public debates have not been about any grand or even fundamentally different ideas. Although there is a continuous search for outcome explanations which are linked to how representative parties have been for segments of societies along traditional cleavages (more senior voters vs. younger voters, rural vs. urban, college educated vs. less educated, public vs. private sector employees etc.), such divisions pale in comparison to the overall effect of the managerial skills of parties in quantifying success. The acknowledgement that cleavages are cross – cutting provided parties with the incentives to agglomerate in the center in terms of policies, with an overall inclination to satisfy the larger electorate that is more interested in leftist economic policies. In other words, it was the efficient managerial skills and experience to utilise human and financial resources of the PSD that made the greatest difference in a vacuum of policy charged debates.

Other previous useful broad polarising topics such as communism, corruption or the support for then president Traian Băsescu (2004– 2014) also disappeared. In the absence of policies and mobilising passions, the 2016 elections appeared to be a low stakes political competition.

Leadership. For the first time in Romanian electoral history, all parties decided to run individually. There were no relevant electoral or political alliances officially registered, but coalition strategies were in the back of all party leaders’ minds. Also, uncharacteristically, the PSD did not propose a candidate for the prime ministership. The PNL and USR announced their support for the incumbent technocrat PM Dacian Cioloș who was reluctant to de facto join any of the two parties, but endorsed this arrangement. The PSD had a savvy manager in Liviu Dragnea, who did not openly assume PM candidature before the results came out so as to avoid potential attacks from the opposition on the grounds of a recent two year suspended sentence for electoral fraud. The PNL and USR reasoned that Cioloș, as an outsider to internal politics, would muster more of the anti-establishment sentiment to their benefit. Cioloș was thus only groomed to assume the leadership of the PNL following elections. This was not a winning bet. Apart from the confusion created, the lack of a more personalized ring of competition contributed to the overall disengagement and low turnout which benefited the PSD.

Looking to the future: nationalism and democratic consolidation
The are two significant areas into which this campaign has shed some light: (1) the use of nationalism in public discourse and (2) the consolidation of democratic institutions and processes.

(1) Although nationalist themes along the major lines of “Romania belongs to Romanians” and “foreigners should not tell Romanians what to do” appeared to find a fertile ground for escalation within the Romanian society, they are still to encourage any organised extreme movements or mobilise the electorate as a stand-alone topic. Both mainstream parties, PSD and PNL, have a history of using such rhetorical elements, which so far appeared to have worked as a dilutor for new radicalism. The inclusion of the PSD in the government would also work as a neutralizer of isolationist rhetoric in the future, which automatically becomes less necessary. All things equal, the parties who are most likely to remain in the opposition have also not shown interest in intensifying such speech. There are no significant identity crises thus far on Romanian territory (no refugee challenges, no anti-Brussels sentiment). However, in preparation of the 2018 Romanian Centenary since the end of the First World War, which resulted in the incorporation of Transylvania from the Kingdom of Hungary in the then Romanian Kingdom, restraint in the bilateral relations with the Hungarian neighbouring state is particularly crucial. All in all, although Romania has shown proclivity for nationalism, it has so far escaped its more dire manifestations.

(2) The major concern with a PSD led government rests in the inability of the party to prove that it could distance itself from members associated with acts of corruption and more general penal issues with the law, be they under investigation or having already received sentence. Their partners of choice, ALDE, have also disputed the independence of the legal process in cases of high level corruption. As the anti-corruption fight has been one of the most appreciated advances in the consolidation of democratic institutions, the constant questioning by PSD and ALDE voices of the fairness of the judicial process raises concerns regarding their willingness to politically endorse its continuation. The first trial would be the PM nomination they decide to put forward. The first speculated option is the victorious chairman Dragnea. Should the PSD force his nomination by president Klaus Iohannis, they would not only breach a consensus of ethics but also challenge the Law for the functioning of the government which stipulates under Art. 2 that citizens who have a penal sentence cannot become members. Some Romanian constitutionalists consider there could be just cause for a challenge of this law, but a lengthy process in which the Constitutional Court would act as a mediator of political conflict would once more emerge, confirming the start of a belligerent cohabitation period. In addition, the president already expressed that he would not nominate (see art. 103 of the Romanian Constitution) anyone with judicial problems at the helm of the government. The PM nomination will be a first sign of how the PSD understands to govern.

In matters of other challenges to liberal democracy, there is less cause for suspicion. The first message addressed by Liviu Dragnea following the election results has been directed at Romania’s foreign partners, containing a pledge to uphold all international treaties and partnerships the country is a part of, with an intrinsic undertone of continuous adherence to the liberal Euro-Atlantic family of values. Also, in public discourse, there have been no attacks on the rule of law or on liberal democracy as a whole and no enfeeblement of the pro-European and pro- NATO stance. However, as there was little content in public debates during the campaign, especially on issues related to foreign affairs, one cannot be fully sure of the strength of these commitments.

To sum up, the picture of the post – 2016 parliamentary elections in Romania is less valuable than the trends it uncovers. The emergence of USR, which now benefits from parliamentary status and has the opportunity to grow and acquire political experience in the opposition, is an encouraging sign that the party system accepts newcomers who won by not bolstering a populist or anti-establishment discourse. The PNL, the main force of the opposition, has to reclaim public trust and act as the main guardian to the balance of powers should the PSD stray from the norm. Part of the reformation of their strategies should be the acceptance that the president they endorsed in 2014, Klaus Iohannis, acts far less in their particular interest than anticipated. All in all, although there are some positive developments, this is not a time for complacency at the hope of stability and the lack of nationalism or radicalism in mainstream politics. In this respect, the battle is won, but the preservation of liberal democracy is not to be taken for granted as an irreversible process.

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