Romania: Between National Politics and European Hopes

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Introduction

Romania organized elections for the European Parliament (EP) for the third time since joining the European Union (EU) in 2007. This time the elections overlapped with Romania holding the six-month rotating Presidency of the EU. During this Presidency, Romania organized different meetings with representatives of the member states, intensively covered by national media. As a result, the European agenda became more visible in the public debate, the peak being reached during the informal summit of heads of state or government of the EU organized in Sibiu to discuss the EU strategic agenda for the post-election period.

Political context

Romania is regularly mentioned as one of the most pro-European countries in the post-communist area (Clapp, 2017). Since 1995, in the name of the national interest, there has been a strong convergence among all mainstream parties on pro-EU positions, implicitly inducing radical parties to moderate their stances (Pytlas and Kossack, 2015). Occasionally, critical voices have emerged within different parliamentary parties; however, parties’ official positions have regularly been aligned on a stable pro-EU discourse. This positioning echoed the high level of endorsement of EU within the society. A closer look at the Eurobarometer pinpoints to decline in this support over time. By the early 2010s, the previous trans-party consensus started to crack. To wit, the topic of Europe has been indirectly politicized by the 2018 referendum on changing the definition of family in Romania’s Constitution. The campaign for the referendum staged the opposition between Romanian values based on Christian-Orthodox morality and cosmopolitanism and EU values. Progressively, the EU has become a confrontational theme with regard to the maintenance of the safeguard mechanism for Romania (the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism); with different intensities, the decision received criticism from all parliamentary parties. Note that numerous extra-parliamentary parties took hard Eurosceptic positions (Soare & Tufiş, 2019).

For this year’s EP elections, 23 parties/alliances and 7 independent candidates registered initially. After the control of eligibility, only 13 parties/alliances and 3 independent candidates have hit the campaign trail for the 32 Romania’s seats in the EP (+1 after Brexit). The initial increase in the number of parties is connected to the 2015 changes in the party regulations, which decreased the minimum number of members necessary for the registration of a party from 25,000 to 3 members, without any territorial diffusion criteria (Popescu and Soare, 2017)[1]. If we compare the 2014 and 2019 effective number of parties/alliances and independent candidates, there are no significant changes to be reported.

However, the supply of parties in competition has changed in a relevant manner. Among the new competitors, there are the Union Save Romania (USR), a pro-European new party created in 2015 with a platform focused on the fight against corruption, and the Party for Freedom Unity and Solidarity (PLUS) founded by the former Prime Minister and former European commissioner for Agriculture and rural development, Dacian Cioloş, with a liberal and pro-European program[2]. Two new parties share origins with the Social Democratic Party (PSD): it is the case of ProRomania Party, a party recently created by former Prime Minister Victor Ponta and Prodemo founded by a former social-democrat MEP, Catalin Ivan. If Prodemo’s program is explicitly focused on defending national values, ProRomania’s program officially promotes a modern and pro-European version of social-democracy.

The campaign

As in the previous EP elections, the electoral campaign has been marked by a strong national twist. Although the institutional commitments of the EU’s rotating presidency induced an increased visibility of EU themes in the national media, the campaign remained focused on domestic politics. Part of the explanation is connected to President Klaus Iohannis’s decision to call a consultative referendum on the issue of justice to be hold on the same day of the EP elections. The president’s initiative followed a long series of tensions around controversial reforms of the Criminal Code promoted by the ruling party (PSD). Note also that the presidential elections are scheduled for December 2019, with a probable run-off between the incumbent president Iohannis, endorsed by the National Liberal Party (PNL), and a possible candidate of the ruling social democrats (PSD). The organization of the referendum has been interpreted as an anticipation of the December elections, with one of the hottest topics in Romanian politics – anticorruption – in front of the stage. In this context, the declaration of the European Socialist Party (EPS)[3] expressing deep concerns on the matter of the justice system reforms in Romania promoted by the social democrats induced increased tensions. PES President Sergei Stanishev declared the affiliation of the ruling PSD party to be frozen until a clarified commitment to the rule of law, a formal discussion over PSD’s membership being scheduled in June, after the EP elections. Similar tensed relations can be found in the case of the PSD partner of government, the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (ALDE). The liberal Alliance has been explicitly threatened with exclusion from the group of European liberals on the ground of their support to the contested reform of the justice system[4]. Significantly, the leader of European liberals, Guy Verhofstadt, announced his participation to the closing meeting of the campaign of the 2020 USR PLUS Alliance.

During the campaign, the cracks in the pro-European consensus have become more visible. This is particularly obvious in the patriotic-centred campaign of the three main parliamentary parties: PSD, ALDE, and PNL. With the slogan “Patriot in Europe”, the PSD has organized its campaign on the need to guarantee a representation in Europe that “knows how to speak, that desires to speak, has the courage to speak and to defend the country’s interest”. [5] A similar view echoes from the liberals’ campaign whose slogan “Romania above all” recalls the slogan of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. Note also that the PNL recruited to open its candidate list a famous journalist, Rareş Bogdan, known for his provocative style and nationalist themes.[6] ALDE’s campaign also put a strong emphasis on the need to guarantee the respect for Romania in Europe (“In Europe with dignity”). This focus is coherent with the vehement criticisms voiced by ALDE head of the list, the MEP candidate Norica Nicolai, targeting “the double standards” of the EU in judging Romania and the old Member States with regard to the justice system reform.[7]

The results

Taking into account the votes from overseas, the total turnout for the EP elections in Romania was 51,07% a significant increase from the turnout in the previous round of elections in 2014 (32,44%). There are two main factors that account for the significantly higher turnout. First, the elections came after two and a half years characterized by pressures from PSD to modify the Criminal Code, on the one hand, and by significant street protests organized by the civil society trying to prevent PSD from implementing these changes, on the other. This prolonged confrontation polarized the population to a higher extent than before and acted as a mobilizing factor for segments of the electorate that were previously less inclined to vote. Second, the referendum initiated by the president organized the day of the EP elections also increased the turnout for this round of elections. It should be noted that these two factors combined increased turnout particularly in the urban areas, which accounted for 57,40% of the total votes.

PSD and ALDE, current governing partners in Romania, recorded significant losses. Despite opinion polls constantly crediting ALDE with about 10% of the voting intention, the party failed to reach the threshold and it will not be able to have any European MPs. At the 2014 elections, PSD received 37,6% of the votes and had 16 European MPs. In 2019, although it received a similar number of votes as in 2014, about two million, the increased turnout decreased the relative share of PSD to only 22,6%, sending the party on the second position and awarding it only eight European MPs.

 

Table 1 – Results of the 2019 European Parliament elections – Romania
Party EP Group Votes (N) Votes (%) Seats Votes change from 2014 (%) Seats change from 2014
National Liberal Party (PNL) EPP 27.3 10 +12.2 +4
Social Democratic Party (PSD) S&D 22.7 8 -14.9 -8
2020 USR-PLUS Alliance (USR-PLUS) 21.9 8 +21.9 +8
PRO Romania 6.4 2 +6.4 +2
Democratic Union of Hungarians in Romania (UDMR) EPP 5.4 2 -0.9 +0
People’s Movement Party (PMP) EPP 5.7 2 -0.5 +0
European Liberal and Democrats Alliance (ALDE) ALDE 4.1 0 +4.1 +0
Gregoriana Carmen Tudoran (Independent) 1.1 0 +1.1 +0
George Nicolaie Simion (Independent) 1.3 0 +1.3 +0
Peter Costea (Independent) 1.5 0 +1.5 +0
Other parties 2.7 0 -7.4 +0
Democratic Liberal Party (PDL) EPP 0.0 0 -12.2 -5
Mircea Diaconu (Independent) ALDE 0.0 0 -6.8 -1
Total 0 100 32
Turnout (%) 51.07
Legal threshold for obtaining MEPs (%) 5

 

The National Liberal Party was the winner in this round, increasing its share of the vote from 15% in 2014 to about 27% in 2019 and increasing the number of European MPs from six to ten. The second undisputed winner is the alliance between the Union Save Romania (USR) and the Party for Freedom Unity and Solidarity (PLUS). The former became a parliamentary party only in 2016 while the latter was officially registered as a party only recently (October 2018), but both have roots in the civic movements that have fought against the judicial reforms intended by PSD. The newly formed alliance managed to obtain over 21% of the votes, winning eight European MP seats.[8]

Despite PNL’s recent history of governing in coalition with PSD, over the last four years the liberals and USR-PLUS have been the main opposition forces in the Romanian Parliament against PSD, although it remains to be seen how the relationship between them will evolve. The first test will come by the end of this year during the presidential race, when both parties will have to decide if they will have a common candidate or if they will each propose their own candidate. For now, it is important to note that PSD lost the first position in all but one of the largest 20 cities in Romania, while USR-PLUS placed on the first position in 15 cities and PNL in the remaining 4.

Among the diaspora votes, the USR-PLUS alliance won close to 44% of the votes, PNL almost 32%, and PMP won 8% of the votes. PSD, usually not a favourite of Romanians living abroad, paid a particularly hard price this round, when it won less than 2,5% of the diaspora votes. It should be mentioned that the abysmal performance of PSD comes after multiple rounds of elections which made it very difficult for the diaspora to vote and after the August 10, 2018 protest organized by the diaspora in Bucharest, which ended up with the gendarmes using unnecessary violence against peaceful protesters.

At the moment it is not clear for all parties which European groups they will join in the European Parliament. For PNL, PMP, and UDMR things are clear, they will stay in the groups to which they belonged, the EPP. The USR-PLUS alliance has purposely avoided discussing this issue during the campaign, in an attempt to attract as many voters as possible. As already indicated, they are in negotiations with ALDE and it is very likely that they will join this group, especially now, that the Romanian ALDE has not passed the threshold.

The PSD membership in the S&S has been frozen prior to the elections. Considering that the leader of PSD, Liviu Dragnea, has been jailed and replaced from the leadership of the party, it is reasonable to believe that PSD will stop trying to modify the Criminal Code and it will re-enter the good graces of the S&D group. It helps that PSD, even after the weak performance in this round of elections, is still able to bring eight MEPs to the S&D group. The last unknown is the Pro Romania Party, which separated from PSD under the leadership of Victor Ponta, a former PSD prime minister. As of this moment it is not clear which family the party will join.

Summing up, the local Romanian context managed to increase turnout to the highest level recorded for the EP elections in Romania since joining the EU. Moreover, the local conflicts have somehow prevented clear anti-EU parties from becoming relevant actors in this round of elections, although PSD has adopted significant parts of the anti-EU discourse. It remains to be seen if the party will continue to go into that direction (a distinct possibility if S&D will refuse them, which is not very likely) or if being forgiven by the S&D will act as a “civilizing” factor that will bring the PSD back to a more pro-European stance.

References

Clapp, A. (2017). Romania Redivivus. New Left Review, 108, 5-41. Available at: https://newleftreview.org/issues/II108/articles/alexander-clapp-romania-redivivus

Pytlas, B. and Kossack, O. (2015). Lighting the fuse: The impact of radical right parties on party competition in central and Eastern Europe. In M. Minkenberg (ed.), Transforming the Transformation? The East European radical right in the political process (105-138). London: Routledge.

Popescu, M. and Soare, S. (2017). For things to remain the same, things will have to change. Party regulation as a form of engineering party competition and political legitimacy in Romania. In F. Casàl Bertoa and I. van Biezen (eds.), The Regulation of Post-communist Party Politics (143-174). Routledge.

Soare, S. and Tufiș, C. (2019). Phoenix Populism. Problems of Post-Communism, 66(1), 8-20.


[1] Note that the number of signatures required for the registration of candidatures has been a hot topic of debate in the pre-election period, being criticized by civil society organizations and new parties on the ground that it provides a major obstacle for participation. According to the law, registration procedures require at least 200,000 signatures for a political party and at least 100,000 for independent candidates.

[2] The two parties run together as Alliance 2020 USR PLUS.

[3] For details: https://www.pes.eu/en/news-events/news/detail/PES-closely-monitoring-situation-in-Romania/

[4]  For details: https://www.digi24.ro/stiri/actualitate/politica/tariceanu-dupa-ce-guy-verhofstadt-a-amenintat-cu-excluderea-alde-din-familia-alde-europa-1108669

[5] For details: https://m.adevarul.ro/news/politica/surse-primele-nume-psdpentru-europarlamentare-1_5c852ab8445219c57e17767e?fbclid=IwAR03JzLzLuEVcGSKPYcyjwMRdqTrBP7Z3Ql0Qht3p8YYKRROViX1rQp68pw

[6] For details: https://revista22.ro/opinii/rodica-culcer/unde-ne-sunt-liberalii

[7] For details: https://romania.europalibera.org/a/norica-nicolai-ie%C8%99ire-violent%C4%83-%C3%AEmpotriva-liderilor-alde-%C8%99i-ppe-destul-m-am-s%C4%83turat-de-dublul-vostru-standard-/29857345.html

[8] At the time of writing this chapter the votes are still being counted in Romania and the difference between the USR-PLUS alliance and the PSD is small enough that it is possible that the positions of the two could be reversed once we have the final results.