The co-president of Romania’s National Liberal Party (PNL), Vasile Blaga, has resigned after the National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA) started an investigation into his alleged involvement in bribe taking.
Blaga played a key role in the PNL’s campaign for the December general election, and the launch of the case just over two months before the vote forces the PNL to review their leadership at short notice. It also raises credibility issues about the party, although Blaga’s quick resignation might limit the damage. The timing of the scandal visibly helps the rival Social Democratic Party (PSD). However, it also raises integrity issues abut the PSD which, in contrast to Blaga’s resignation, is in the process of reinstating former Prime Minister Victor Ponta (under investigation for corruption) and is still headed by an indicted person (Liviu Dragnea).
Blaga said he has given up plans to run for another term in the senate in the December 11 parliamentary elections after the probe was revealed, but he has not stood down as an MP.
Blaga and Gheorghe Stefan, at that time influential members of the then senior ruling Democratic Party (PDL), are suspected of receiving around €700,000 in 2011-2012 from a businessman who won a RON25mn (€5.5mn) contract from a state-owned company under an auction faked at the order of the two, the DNA explained in a September 28 note.
It is not clear whether Blaga took the money for himself or his party. However, prosecutors elaborated on the mechanism used by the parties that formed the ruling coalition in 2009 for financing their electoral campaign from companies that later received contracts from public administration or state owned companies.
Blaga was appointed PNL co-president after the party merged with the Liberal Democratic Party (PDL), the successor to the PD, in 2014. A close partner of former President Traian Basescu, Blaga previously led the election campaigns for first the PD then the PDL. He served as secretary general of the PD and the PDL, before becoming co-president of the PNL alongside Alina Gorghiu.
The PNL is now considering its options. It might appoint another co-president, call a congress to tackle the issue or have the leading body appoint a single president, unofficial sources told hotnews.ro.
None of the three options are easy. Blaga’s role as political coordinator of the party, particularly during the electoral campaigns, makes his resignation critical for the Liberals. Holding a party congress less than two months ahead of the elections does not seem to be a practical choice. Appointing a single president for the party looks like an impossible mission since the two parties - the old PNL and Blaga’s PDL - have not merged at local level yet.
Overall, voters’ sentiment might be that neither of Romania’s two main parties have genuinely reformed during the one-year period of technocratic rule, and this leaves the door open to new parties. However, Romania’s new parties have not gained enough traction among voters and do not have the same local infrastructure.
Already lagging 10pp behind the PSD, the Liberals are likely to seek political support from President Klaus Iohannis, who headed the party before the November 2014 elections. They might also seek closer cooperation with the government of technocrats led by Prime Minister Dacian Ciolos with a view to taking advantage of its supposed credibility among centre-right voters.
Ciolos has firmly rejected any involvement in politics ahead of the elections, but does not rule out political cooperation. Ciolos taking over the Liberal Party after the elections looks like a credible scenario, particularly if the party performs well and manages to strike an alliance with, for instance, the Save Romania Union (USR) – one of the newly emerged parties with no credibility issues.