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The Romanian Electoral Spleen

The Romanian Electoral Spleen A concise political map and chronicle in a spicy year for voters

The European and presidential elections to be held this year in Romania will be heralded as a turning point, but despite their importance – particularly for the broader European context, where populist parties might tip the political balance – they fall into a familiar post-communist pattern: a battle between a corrupt, populist, but highly effective governmental force and a fragmented, noisy, but often equally tarnished, incompetent and amateurish opposition, not very worthy to govern either. Although Romania is usually classified as a relatively new democracy in international political analyses, because of the totalitarian and authoritarian interlude, this pattern runs deep in the country’s history, sociology and institutional make-up, encompassing pre-communist as well as post-communist elements, despite the superficial novelties of one-time electoral contests. 

The post-communist cleavage 

The political cleavage between the governmental parties and the opposition in Romania is of post-communist origin, but the make-up of the opposition is of pre-communist origin. The left-side of the cleavage, labelled as governmental parties, pertains to the political parties or allies which took and exercised power when a democratic regime was re-established in Romania, in the first part of the 1990s. The right-side of the cleavage, labelled as the opposition, pertains to the political parties and allies which opposed the first, criticizing their legitimacy to hold power, the unfair political process establishing new institutions and the flaws in the democratic nature of the new regime. In the middle of the 2000s, this grand cleavage in Romanian politics was declared dead by politicians and political scientists alike, but despite some rearrangements and a few “transcendent” political personalities along the axis, it remains operative and deeply engrained in the most ideologically committed part of the electorate, in the political speech as well as in partisan structures, notwithstanding significant volatility and changes in labels. The current pre-electoral political row over revelations regarding the role of Romania’s General Prosecutor, Augustin Lazăr, in the trial and condemnation of a political dissident, Iulius Filip, during the final decade of the communist regime, which the social democratic government wants to dismiss as part of its campaign to curb the independence of the judiciary, as it has done with the Anticorruption Prosecutor Laura Codruța Kövesi, underscores both the persistence and the confusing mutations of the country’s main political cleavage.

The political cleavage between the governmental parties and the opposition in Romania is of post-communist origin, but the make-up of the opposition is of pre-communist origin.

In 1990, the governmental forces of communist extraction were initially one big party, the National Salvation Front (FSN), formed by the provisional revolutionary government that took power in the aftermath of the December 1989 events, while the opposition was fragmented between several re-established so-called historical political parties and new civic organisations turned political, the most important being the National Christian Democratic Peasant Party (PNTCD), the National Liberal Party (PNL) and the Civic Alliance Party (PAC). This fragmentation of the opposition will be encouraged further by the proportional representation voting system, which proved to be more of a poisoned apple concession than a higher democratic blessing offered by the FSN at its demand two months after a decree replacing the one party principle with that of a multiparty system. FSN broke in two before the 1992 elections, the second electoral competition since the fall of communism and the first after a non-communist Constitution was ushered in, but its main group – the direct ancestor of the current Social Democratic Party – won the election with a plurality of votes and learned to use the political fragmentation induced by the proportional representation voting system to its own advantage, by governing with the informal parliamentary support of a bewildering array of “satellite” parties, which featured a close ideological blend of socialism, nationalism and agrarianism, but which emerged from the fringes rather than the mainstream communist establishment and its FSN conversion. The opposition – divided between the two main pre-communist forces (the Liberals and the Peasant Christian-Democrats, with the historical Social Democrats playing a minor role before being absorbed by the governmental force in the 2000s) as well as the Civic Alliance Party of communist epoch petite bourgeoisie and intellectuals – thereafter pursued a strategy of coalitions, which eventually won it the 1996 elections. To this day, the opposition remains captive and dedicated to this strategy of coalitions, because no single party in its composition can win a majority; historical, ideological and personal divisions run too deep to be bridged by the creation of a unitary partisan structure resembling a Gaullist-style rassemblement; and many of its strategists entertain the flawed idea (supported only by the independent dispersion effects of the PR voting system) that a more diverse ideological and partisan landscape gathers more votes in its collective basket.

The European relevance of this year’s Romanian elections consists in whether parties critical of prevailing EU norms, whether with regard to shared sovereignty, outside immigration or rule of law, will gain a majority or at least a plurality in the European Parliament. Their national relevance consists in whether the cyclical slide from the left-side of the axis of the cleavage towards the right-side that occurred during the 1990s and the 2000s will occur once again after the mutations at the turn of this decade, which seemed to put in doubt not only the ideological significance but also the empirical reality of the cleavage. 

The Current Party Line-Up 

The main Romanian political forces today are, with two notable exceptions, the same as those at the beginning of post-communist democracy, although the shape and weight of each has changed more or less. The Social Democratic Party (PSD), currently in power, is one of the direct descendants of the National Salvation Front (FSN) which governed between 1990 and 1992, and indirectly of the Romanian Communist Party (PCR), still the country’s single largest party by membership as well as votes and MPs, although its share of the vote has dropped from 45% in the 2016 national elections to around 23-31% at present. The National Liberal Party (PNL), chaired by Ludovic Orban, is currently the leader of the opposition, the party behind President Klaus Werner Iohannis’ future electoral run and PSD’s main contender to form a new government. Unlike the National Christian-Democratic Peasant Party (PNȚCD), which was the largest single party of the opposition in the 1990s, PNL has not only survived the National Democratic Convention (CDR) coalition government of the opposition in the late 1990s, but has ably and sometimes even cunningly risen and grown from a little over 5% of the vote to around 25% at present, despite having been torn apart by many splits since its reestablishment and until today. According to the – sometimes unreliable or biased – recent election polls, it is expected to capture between 16% and 23% of the vote in the 26th of May European elections, with one of the most recent poll putting it in first place with 25.2% of the votes cast[1], almost 4% above PSD.

The Save Romania Union (USR) led by Dan Barna is perceived by most observers as a new party, and officially it is, a sort of Romanian lock-stepped version of a very diverse wave of upstart parties that have appeared in Europe since the Great Recession, ranging from the far left Spanish party Podemos, to the far right Alternative für Deutschland or the rather centrist En Marche of French President Emmanuel Macron. However, in reality, USR is actually only the most successful project to date to “recycle”, regroup and update former Christian-Democrat, Civic Alliance, Democrat and broke-away Liberal groups’ creeds, spirit and electorate by a younger generation. These were partly tutored by the old generation and partly rebelled against its failures, after the implosion of the Liberal-Democratic Party assembled in the late 2000s around former President Traian Băsescu. This new old party made a surprising breakthrough in the 2016 local and parliamentary elections, gaining almost 9% of the vote, precisely when there was a collapse of the previous – quite promising for a while – attempt to engineer a broad right-wing non-PNL party around the – gradually right-moving, on the cleavage’s axis – FSN faction known as the Democratic Party (PD), first led by former Prime Minister Petre Roman and then by former President Traian Băsescu. This void-filling party, in alliance with other groups and individuals close to the late Liberal-Democratic Party, most notably that of former independent Prime Minister and European Commissioner for Agriculture Dacian Cioloș (PLUS) is credited with between 12.9% and 17.9% (when unadjusted for absentees) of the vote, although a poll conducted only in Bucharest gives it a score above PNL[2]!

The main Romanian political forces today are, with two notable exceptions, the same as those at the beginning of post-communist democracy, although the shape and weight of each has changed.

In the 2004 and especially 2008 election, it was Traian Băsescu’s firebrand politics that helped the Democratic Party (allied with PNL) and then the new Liberal-Democratic Party (PDL) gain most of the electorate of the populist and rhetorically anti-system Greater Romania Party (PRM). Led by an unscrupulous pamphleteer, Vadim Tudor, this party was the most long lived and archetypical of the several “satellite” parties of the Social Democratic Party (PSD) and the second notable party to have disappeared from the Romanian political scene after PNȚCD. It emerged out of the fringes of the Communist establishment and the National Salvation Front to reach second place (~20% of the vote) in the 2000 parliamentary elections, after the dissatisfaction produced by the Democratic Convention (CDR) coalition government. In 2012, a new, more benign populist party founded, named and run by a one man TV-show personality, Dan Diaconescu, gained around 15% of the vote, which was again used as a “satellite” in typical PSD fashion, but this time by the new, “transcendent” and since failed, governmental party built around Traian Băsescu (it finally merged, through another “satellite”[3], with his last creation, the Party of the Popular Movement, PMP, whose current prospects of crossing the 5% threshold, as it did in the 2014 European elections, should not be taken for granted[4]). However, this time around, PSD is openly carrying the mantle of populism as never before instead of outsourcing the most blatant parts of it to other parties, apparently with little consideration to preserve the appearances of belonging to an old and respectable stream of European social-democracy, a claim in which it invested considerable capital during the previous decade. Nevertheless, there may still be a significant percentage of votes to be gathered from this spectrum of Romanian political sensibility and this is what the new party of former Prime Minister Victor Ponta, Pro România, seems to be after, but with less fanfare than its predecessors, especially if it makes a deal with a PRM-style[5] national-populist group, United Romania Party (PRU), led by MP Bogdan Diaconu, also a former PSD member.

Although, given much of his rhetoric and essential support for the current PSD-ALDE majority government, one is tempted to judge former Prime Minister Călin Popescu-Tăriceanu in the same manner as Victor Ponta, his party – emphatically barrowing the official name of the centrist Liberal group in the European Parliament – is more a satellite of his own interests and convictions than of PSD. As Prime Minister during Traian Băsescu’s first term, when Romania also joined the EU, he opposed him and minority fellow Liberals’ desire to create a big right wing party affiliated in Brussels with the European People’s Party, the largest group of confederated parties in the European Parliament, unleashing a ten-year institutional war between the two branches of the Executive and Parliament. This institutional war involved two attempts to impeach Traian Băsescu, who only kept his presidential office because the procedure calls for a parliamentary vote as well as a mandatory referendum which he won twice, and a fierce anti-corruption rhetoric particularly aimed at some of his close business partners and friends. After completing his term as Prime Minister, Tăriceanu quit PNL just around the time the party started questioning its 2011 electoral alliance with PSD. He started his own party, one affiliated with the Liberal International, at about the same time as PNL absorbed the bulk of PDL, the creation of Băsescu’s Liberal supporters which once threatened to engulf it, with the only concession of switching its European Parliament affiliation from the Liberal group to the Popular one. After the 2016 election, he and his new party entered government alongside PSD, with whom he first ventured to govern in 1991, when it was still part of FSN. Nevertheless, in practice, Tăriceanu’s ALDE party, which is credited by the polls with no less than between 9 and 12.5% of the vote, thins and stretches the Liberal vote the same way Ponta’s party[6] – with which it disputes fourth and fifth place – does for PSD, resulting in a more fragmented and more personalized political landscape. In the former case, it will attract centre-right electors who disliked Băsescu’s perceived bellicose behaviour as President and praised the Liberal government’s business reforms and years of pre-recession bubbled prosperity, while in the latter case the new Pro România Party hopes to attract centre-left and populist electorate, such as that loyal to the dismissed Prime Minister Mihai Tudose, displeased with Liviu Dragnea’s heavy-handed chairmanship of PSD.

The last party to be considered is UDMR, the Democratic Union of Magyars in Romania, a fixture of Romanian post-communist politics. Although it figures in some polls with a score of less than 5%, UDMR’s typically highly mobilized[7] electorate at the ballot should normally give it representation in the European Parliament, despite internal tensions and the emergence of two more radical Magyar parties that threaten to break up the vote of the Hungarian minority in Romania. These two new Magyar parties, The Magyar Civic Party (PCM) and the Popular Magyar Party of Transylvania (PPMT) are under the heavy ideological influence of the Hungarian right (FIDESZ) and even far right (Jobbik), putting a strain on UDMR’s originally multi-ideological ethnic-interests organisational structure[8]. The now famous 2014 “illiberal democracy” speech of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, for instance, was actually given in Romania, at a youth summer school in Tușnad, which is cosponsored annually by an organisation founded by bishop László Tőkés, currently a FIDESZ party MEP and previously an independent Romanian MEP, as well as spiritus rector of the PPMT. 

European Elections, National Politics 

European elections are notoriously devoid of a European thematic in virtually all European Union countries, and Romania seems to confirm this. Even PSD’s populist slogan, “Patriots in Europe”, is not actually aimed at the EU per se, since the party never even brought up a possible “Roexit” scenario, but is aimed at Romanian MEPs and other Romanian Brussels officials, bureaucrats and clerks or even civic leaders and private persons who in its view misinform the European bodies and distort Romania’s political realities in the European public opinion, particularly with regard to the current government’s highly criticized measures to overhaul the justice system.

In fact, the country as a whole has had little individualized positions in the big European debates since the 2007 joining-in euphoria. It wants to be let in the Schengen area, for which it is technically ready, but opposed (since before PSD backslided on corruption control) by Western governments, such as the Dutch one first and foremost, blackmailed by their own populists, a situation which fuels euro-fatigue in Bucharest and talk of double standards. Despite growing calls and efforts, during the last few years, to attract back home the Romanians working in EU countries, it wants its nationals’ working rights protected after Britain finishes its EU divorce, when and if the Brexit saga ends, something Britain has basically already pledged to do since it actually needs the rather high skilled, mostly young Romanians that work there. It does not like being forced to take in refugees and immigrants from Arab and Muslim lands, but it has not joined the hard-line Visegrád Group of countries on the issue and, unlike most of these countries, or Italy, it has so far been firmly in favour of maintaining economic sanctions against Russia until it reverses its encroachments on Ukrainian territory in Crimea and the Donbas Basin. Finally, it would like for the EU to do more in the Republic of Moldova, a historic part of Romania directly relevant for its security and even prosperity (particularly for its left-behind North-Eastern region), now more than a few years before, but is aware that very few European countries are actually interested in a stretch of land for which even Bucharest lacks a real strategy… and the list of these middle-of-the road, hesitant, Byzantine, political positions can go on.

European elections are notoriously devoid of a European thematic in virtually all European Union countries, and Romania seems to confirm this.

In short, the May European elections in Romania will be consumed by inward-looking divisive politics, which will be reinforced by President Iohannis’ decision to hold simultaneously a non-binding popular referendum[9] supporting the independence of the judiciary and disapproving of PSD’s recent legislative changes, a move taken straight out of former President Traian Băsescu’s playbook, who in the 2009 presidential elections first triggered a non-binding referendum in favour of a downsized and unicameral Parliament, not long after surviving the 2007 parliamentary impeachment procedure. Consequently, the importance of the 2019 European elections in Romania will reside mostly in gauging the atmosphere and results of the late 2019 presidential elections as well as next year’s local and parliamentary national elections.

[1] IMAS-Radio Europa FM March-April poll (sample 1010). However, the April-May INSCOP Public Opinion Barometer for the Romanian Academy – sample 1050 – basically shows a tie for the first position between PSD (26.4%) and PNL (26.1%). This poll confirms the order – but not the percentages – of electoral preferences found in the latest, March editions of the IMAS and CURS polls for the other parties, with one exception however: the Pro Romania Party (8.4%) overtakes ALDE party (8.2%) with a 0.2% margin.

[2] The CURS February-March Bucharest poll conducted on a sample of 1067 respondents gives USR-PLUS the second position in the voting intentions of Romanians at the European elections, with essentially the same percentages as the IMAS February poll – sample 1010 – adjusted for absentees awards PNL (23%). The CURS February national poll conducted on a sample of 1500 respondents puts USR-PLUS in third place with 13% of the vote, a score confirmed by a new March CURS national poll with a 1067 respondents sample.

[3] UNPR, or the National Union for the Progress of Romania – a party composed mostly of retired former police, gendarmerie and other law-enforcement and military officers nicknamed the “Securitate Party” by some journalists, first absorbed PP-DD, the Popular Party Dan Diaconescu, and then merged with PMP in 2016, but in the meantime the merger seems to have been annulled and UNPR will make an independent bid in the European elections with former World No 1 tennis player Ilie Năstase and former national football team coach Anghel Iordănescu topping the party list.

[4] PMP – officially chaired by Eugen Tomac – is credited with just 3.2% of the vote/4.4% excluding absentees in the February IMAS poll, which goes up to 4.7% in the March edition, but the CURS February poll (sample 1500) gives it 5%, which goes up to 6% in the March CURS poll (sample only 1067, but nationwide).

[5] PUNR-style, to be more exact, the Party of Romanian National Unity, a 1990s party not that different from PRM, but less histrionic and with a more regional base in Transylvania, particularly focused on the three counties in the middle of the country – Mureș, Harghita, Covasna – which harbor most of the Hungarian-speaking minority in Romania and from which Bogdan Diaconu also hails.

[6] The IMAS February poll gives Ponta’s Pro Romania Party 9.7%/13.4% of the vote adjusted for absentees, which goes down to 11.2 % in March, while the CURS February poll gives it 10% of the vote. This last poll awards ALDE 12% of the vote, while its IMAS score goes up from 12.5% in February to 12.7% in March. However, a new March CURS poll on a sample of only 1067 respondents nationwide awards ALDE 10% and Pro Romania only 8%.

[7] The INSCOP Romanian Academy Public Opinion Barometer estimates a voter turnout rate of 39% – well above the 32.44% turnout rate in the 2014 European elections held in Romania, but almost the same as the 39.49% turnout rate in the 2016 Romanian parliamentary elections – with a large percentage of undecided (19.4%) or no-answer (6.5%) voters.

[8] UDMR is now affiliated with the European People’s Party (EPP) and has observer status in the Christian-Democratic International.

[9] According to the INSCOP Romanian Academy Public Opinion Barometer, President Iohannis’ decision to hold the referendum on the independence of the judiciary is approved by 59% of the poll’s respondents and disapproved by only 23.8%.



The Romanian-American Foundation for the Promotion of Education and Culture (RAFPEC)
Amfiteatru Economic

OEconomica No. 1, 2016