Wednesday

26th Jun 2019

Romania backs president's justice reform gamble

  • President Klaus Iohannis called for the government to resign after Romanian voters dealt an electoral blow to the governing Social Democratic Party (Photo: Romanian EU Presidency)

Romanians dealt an electoral blow to the governing Social Democratic Party (PSD) in the European elections on Sunday (26 May), as centre-right parties surged to over 50 percent of the vote.

Leading with 27 percent of the vote was the National Liberal Party (PNL), part of the European People's Party and backed by the Romanian president Klaus Iohannis, with almost all votes counted.

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The results saw a nascent political movement enter the European Parliament for the first time - the liberal 2020 Alliance, a combination of a grassroots anti-corruption party Union to Save Romania (USR), and an initiative called Plus, run by Dacian Ciolos, former EU commissioner for rural affairs and an ex-prime minister.

A broad church of mostly liberal and centre-right politicians, businesspeople and activists, the 2020 Alliance has a similar make-up to Spain's Ciudadanos party, and captured 23 percent of the vote.

"The vote today shows a Romania reborn," said Ciolos. "There was an exceptional mobilisation [of voters], including the Hungarian communities."

Turnout was 49 percent, a massive rise on the 32.4 percent in the last elections in 2014 and even the 39.5 percent for parliamentary elections in 2016.

As support for the ruling Social Democrats collapsed from 37.6 percent in the EU elections In 2014 to 23 per cent this year, the party president Liviu Dragnea said the vote was "a storm of hate, but yes, maybe we are guilty".

Also looking to enter the European Parliament are the centre-left ProRomania party on 6.7 percent, the centre-right PMP on 5.9 percent and the Hungarian party the UDMR on 5.5 percent.

No far-right parties were close to passing the threshold to enter the EU parliament.

Many citizens saw this as a chance to punish the government on national issues such as a failure to tackle corruption.

"This is a protest vote against the governing coalition [of the PSD and the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (ALDE)]," said Sorin Cucerai, political analyst.

Referendum

At the same time as the vote, president Iohannis launched a referendum asking citizens to choose whether they wanted to stop the rollback of Romania's justice reforms favoured by the PSD.

The referendum, which asked citizens to oppose legislation that granted an amnesty and pardon to those guilty of corruption, was designed to send a "sign" to the government not to dilute its justice reform. However the result carries no weight in law.

Iohannis's gamble appears to have paid off, with 80 percent of voters approving justice reform, and a turnout that passes the 30 per cent threshold of validity.

"'You [Romanians] voted clearly and firmly for correct politics, for independent justice and for a good government for Romanians and Romania," said the president.

Around five million Romanians live abroad and, despite a record number of 441 international voting stations, there were queues that lasted up to eight hours, due to understaffing and a lack of resources.

Traditionally the diaspora votes heavily against the governing PSD, and yesterday its members were full of contempt for the government's organisation of the vote, with only four percent voting for the party.

In Freiburg, Germany, the president of the local electoral commission came out to the citizens, and pleaded for calm, saying he had asked Bucharest to extend the hours for voting. But the crowd shouted back: "Thieves! Thieves!".

"We always queue, there is always poor organisation, this is normal, unfortunately," said Leonid, 32, who works in Freiburg. "I came to vote both for the referendum and the European parliament. We are against the fact that those guilty of corruption escape from going to prison" he told EUobserver.

However many voters were not enthused by any of the candidates. In Copenhagen, Claudia Byrne, 34, a communications specialist, waited six hours to vote.

"I wanted to make sure I played my part in not allowing Europe to sway right," she told EUobserver. "I wasn't satisfied with it because none of the parties had satisfactory campaign themes. There isn't much on post-Brexit strategies, green energy and recycling policies, education, health, including mental and maternity health, or for the diaspora. I feel like it's the same old discourse, repackaged and resold".

Confronted by the news of the long waits across Europe and how to remedy the failures, prime minister Viorica Dancila stated: "I took all the measures for a successful organisation. I cannot intervene".

Part of the reason for the Social Democrats' failure in the vote was due to its rhetoric, which was nationalistic and critical of the EU.

"The PSD made a strategic mistake moving to an illiberal message and with an anti-EU speech, in a country where the vast majority of people are pro-European," said political analyst Sorin Cucerai. "Corruption seems to be an important issue on the people's agenda, and the combined anti-corruption and pro-European feeling among the people is a vote against the PSD and its allies."

The PSD government only has a minority support in the lower house of parliament, and analysts argue that the party's poor showing in this vote might cause the government to collapse.

President Iohannis called for the government to resign, calling the PSD leadership "an accident of Romanian democracy".

Echoing the head of state, Dan Barna, president of the USR, argued: "The government must leave, be it through resignation or impeachment."

Dragnea said, after the vote, his party "must not concede the government". However senior figures in the PSD were calling for the party's president to leave his post.

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