CEPA STRATCOM PROGRAM
THE ROAD TO BRUSSELS
14 December 2016

For whom the election bell tolls

On 11 December, Romanians voting in national parliamentary elections voted to put the Social Democratic Party (PSD) in charge of assembling a governing coalition and nominating a new prime-minister. The elections were exemplary in terms of procedures, but the outcome gave way to a lot of discussions among analysts about the future of Romanian politics. According to partial results, the PSD won more than 45 percent in both chambers. In fact, the PSD has always enjoyed the largest share of the Romanian electorate’s preference in all post-communist parliamentary elections. Romania’s National Liberal Party (PNL), the second-largest party, got only 20 percent of the vote, while the other four parties that managed to pass the 5 percent electoral threshold are at more than 10 points behind the PNL. 

The results point to a great imbalance between the center-right and the center-left, as well as between voters in Romania and those living abroad. This weakens the effectiveness of the opposition—which is crucial given the high risk of concentrating power in a few hands—and increases the volatility of smaller parties at the fringes of Romania’s political spectrum. The center-right’s efforts to coalesce and present an alternative, credible political program failed to convince and there is legitimate concern about the future of PNL. The experience of previous elections shows that new parties that rise with various political moods, some triggered by media campaigns, have a tendency to either lose their electoral base or be absorbed by other parties. This has also happened in the case of bigger parties, with the most recent example being the Liberal Democratic Party absorbed by PNL. These new parties attract voters who are either disenchanted with mainstream political programs or are more prone to populist messages. In fact, this campaign has been marred by – and to a certain extent the results of the elections are a consequence of – populist messages, disinformation campaigns and scape-goating propagated by various media. In this election cycle, three of the smaller parties—the Save Romania Party (USR), the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats of Romania (ALDE) and the Popular Movement Party (PMP)—to be represented in parliament are first-time contenders. USR, created this year, has had remarkable success given its lack of experience, funding and national political infrastructure. Fortunately, despite a visible return to a rather nativist political discourse, more nationalist parties failed to win seats in parliament.

PSD’s performance, which was not surprising but still exceeded expectations, challenges the assumption that a major shift might have occurred after the election of President Klaus Iohannis and the club fire tragedy that brought down the PSD-led government. The party was weakened by the presidential elections of December 2014 and after the Ponta government resigned in November 2015. In recent years, PSD leaders have frequently been associated with corruption scandals; some of them were indicted or even convicted, including the PSD’s current president and the potential nominee for prime minister, Liviu Dragnea). Winning nearly half the votes is a remarkable comeback. The result map shows that, unlike with previous elections, the PSD had a wider national coverage, including in areas that would traditionally lean towards the center-right.

It’s tough to predict what Romania will look like for the next four years. The PSD has not named a new cabinet or even a nominee for prime minister; speculation abounds. Dragnea’s integrity issues might prevent his appointment as prime minister, especially since the president announced he would uphold integrity standards very strictly. In general terms, don’t expect any major policy shifts, especially in the foreign policy area. Domestic policy is, however, a different story.

The main stake during the next legislature will definitely be developments in the area of good governance and anti-corruption efforts. Judging by the PSD’s track record as well as that of its main political partner, ALDE, attempts to roll back key rule-of-law achievements—especially the fight against corruption—might become the new normal. This will raise the bar for the PNL and USR to exercise effective opposition in parliament and cater to their electorate, which in the PNL’s case is visibly fading. The election and some policy choices we may see in coming months and years also put pressure on Iohannis and his team. The president will have to not only nominate a cabinet from among his opponents, but also balance his agenda and priorities against those of the new government team, and likely go into the confrontation mode that Romania’s political cohabitation typically exposes.


Europe's Edge is an online journal covering crucial topics in the transatlantic policy debate. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the Center for European Policy Analysis. 

Photo: Octav Ganea/Inquam Photos