Romania’s Social Democrats poised for comeback

Romania’s Social Democrats poised for comeback
Liviu Dragnea (left) and Victor Ponta have hinted the PSD may take power before the elections.
By Clare Nuttall in Bucharest June 10, 2016

The success of Romania’s Social Democratic Party (PSD) in the local elections on June 5 has increased the likelihood that the party may not wait for this autumn’s general election before ousting Prime Minister Dacian Ciolos’ technocratic government.

The party – which was the majority partner in the coalition government that stepped down in late 2015 –  has given out mixed messages, but there have been hints from top PSD officials that it could try to retake power sooner rather than later.

In the days before the local elections, both PSD president Liviu Dragnea and his predecessor former premier Victor Ponta talked about a possible confidence vote in the current government. On June 1, Dragnea said the party “will not hesitate” to file a no-confidence motion against the government if it “poses risks to national security”, local media reported. (How Ciolos’ government presents a risk to national security is not clear.) He added that the party plans to carry out a “serious analysis of the efficiency of such an action” after the election.

At the time, Dragnea also said the PSD was in talks with the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (ALDE) on a possible no-confidence motion after the elections, which would pave the way for the creation of a new government.

At least one quarter of all MPs are needed to initiate a confidence vote, and a majority at a joint sitting of both houses of parliament must approve the motion for it to be successful. Together with ALDE and its other ally the National Union for Progress of Romania (UNPR), the PSD would hold a majority in both houses.

On May 31, Ponta also argued in favour of a no-confidence motion, citing the “disastrous system”. “The fact that the whole country is blocked due to a clear case of incompetence and slacking is a situation so grave that parliament must punish it (through a motion of no confidence, but also a special commission of inquiry)!” Ponta wrote on his Facebook page on May 31.

However, after the PSD’s strong performance in the local elections, Dragnea indicated he was backtracking on the plans for a confidence vote. He told journalists on June 7 that he would analyse the situation together with the leaders of ALDE and the UNPR, but he feared that even if the current government was ousted President Klaus Iohannis might refuse to nominate a member of the PSD as the next prime minister given the rivalry between the PSD and Iohannis’ PNL.

“During the talks I held today with [UNPR leader] Vali Steriu and [ALDE leader] Calin Popescu-Tariceanu, I noticed they have the same preoccupation – that we shouldn’t make things worse. This is why we are analysing these days the best option,” Dragnea said, according to Agerpres. “Having no guarantee that the president will sign our proposal, things can go from bad to worse,” he added.

Despite this, on June 8, three days after its election victory, the PSD started upping the pressure on the government, when its MPs, together with those from ALDE, initiated a motion against Agriculture Minister Achim Irimescu. The motion was adopted with 189 votes in favour. While this will not force Ciolos to sack Irimescu, it is still bad news for the government, which has lost four ministers recently over issues ranging from a major scandal over procurement in the healthcare system to a spat over public sector pay.

Weak position

The technocratic government was originally installed in November 2015 after Ponta and his cabinet stepped down following mass protests over the deadly Club Collectiv nightclub fire.

Many Romanians initially welcomed the technocratic government as an alternative to the old corrupt party politics. There were hopes Ciolos and his team could - in their limited time in office - at least initiate lasting changes in areas such as public administration reform and the management of state-owned enterprises. However, these high hopes have been largely disappointed and in fact the technocratic government went ahead with several populist (and inflationary) policies initiated by the former PSD-led government.

This puts Ciolos’ government, which in any case will only rule until the autumn general election, in a weak position, a situation the PSD is using to its advantage.

Adrian Moraru, director adjunct of Bucharest-based think tank the Institute for Public Policy, believes that returning to power now would put the PSD in a much stronger position to compete in the general election.

“I think after the [local] election, the socialists will try to topple the government,” he said in an interview with bne IntelliNews shortly before the election. “They will try to get together a coalition in the parliament then force a vote of confidence. That will mean they will have a new government in place before the next elections, which will allow them to make populist decisions to persuade people to vote for them. It’s easier to get elected when you are already in office and can project an image of power and control.”

The PSD is already part way there through its strong performance in the local elections, reinforcing its power bases across the country. According to the Central Electoral Bureau, the PSD took around 37% of votes cast in the mayoral and local council elections, comfortably ahead of its main rival the National Liberal Party (PNL).

The PSD even swept the board in Bucharest, a city where voters traditionally favour centre-right candidates. Former journalist turned PSD candidate Gabriela Firea is the new Bucharest mayor - an influential post whose former incumbents include ex-president Traian Basescu - and the PSD also won at least five of the district mayor elections in the capital (the result of the sixth has been disputed).

Local administrations control a total budget of RON67bn (€14.9bn) a year as well as having access to EU development funds, thereby giving the parties that control local administrations the ability to woo voters by upping their spending in advance of the election.

The PSD already benefitted from its strong networks across the country and its unmatched ability to mobilise its supporters to go out and vote. Changes to the electoral rules introducing a single-ballot system also favoured the party. It is also believed to have been helped by the recent VAT cuts and public sector pay increases, mostly carried out by the technocratic government but initiated under Ponta. These have helped to boost spending power and create a consumer boom as Romania heads towards the elections.

By contrast, the PNL performed worse than expected and will have a lot of ground to make up in the months before the election. In Bucharest, it lost out to the newly-created Save Bucharest Association (USB), as the centre-right vote was split between the two, leaving the path open for the PSD’s Firea. President Klaus Iohannis’ popularity has also declined recently, according to an April opinion poll by INSCOP-Adevarul, though he remains more popular than either Ciolos or Ponta.

On the other hand, the corruption scandals surrounding Dragnea, Ponta and a number of local PSD candidates do not seem to have harmed the party in the June 5 election. The public outrage that erupted during the 2014 presidential election which led to Ponta being defeated by Iohannis, and again in November 2015, seems to have petered out, as shown by the low turnout on June 5 - around 48% of the electorate voted across the country, and just 33% in Bucharest.

The USB, which performed better than expected, has presented itself as a cleaner alternative to the long-established PSD and PNL and has already announced plans to go national. However, it is not clear whether its leader Nicusor Dan has the clout or the charisma to really make an impact at national level.