Romania’s Social Democrats strive to retain former PM Ponta after losing more MPs

By bne IntelliNews August 29, 2016

MPs continued to desert Romania’s Social Democratic Party (PSD) on August 29 despite assurances from its leader Liviu Dragnea that former Prime Minister Victor Ponta would not leave the party. 


A significant number of PSD MPs have already left the party to join the nationalist United Romania Party (PRU) set up by one of Ponta’s collaborators, Bogdan Diaconu, ahead of general elections this autumn. There is speculation in the local media that around one fifth of the party’s MPs would follow Ponta if he decides to join the PRU or set up on his own. 


Ponta will not leave the PSD, Dragnea insisted in interview with Antena3 TV station on August 28.


The PSD “has invested a lot” in Ponta, who “has a vast experience that has to be capitalised [upon]”, Dragnea said.


“Ponta is not Geoana,” Dragnea concluded, an allusion to the former PSD president Mircea Geoana, who pulled out from the party last year to unsuccessfully set up his own party.


But the flow of MPs has continued. On August 29, four more PSD MPs moved to PRU and senior member Sebastian Ghita said he is considering a move. On the other hand, Dragnea said in the August 28 Antena3 interview that he had held talks with two of Ponta’s closest partners, Rovana Plumb and Nicolae Banicioiu, who denied plans to leave the party.


After his career seemed to be ruined last November and despite facing major challenges including those related to his academic plagiarism, Ponta is again in position to play a key role in his party. 


However, Ponta will not be appointed head of the Chamber of Deputies for the remaining few months of the parliament’s term, Dragnea added. PSD refused to give this position to Ponta earlier this year, which fuelled speculation about his leaving the party.


Dragnea, the successor of Ponta at the head of Romania’s largest political party, was reacting to rising rumours that the former prime minister could be joining some of his close partners in PRU or setting up his own party. Since some of Ponta’s collaborators have already moved to PRU, the former scenario seems more likely. 


Ponta implied in a Facebook post that he would not leave the PSD at any price, but his statements have given little clarification about his political plans.


Rumours circulated in August by indicate that some 37, or nearly one fifth, of the PSD MPs would follow Ponta should he decide to leave the party to either set up own political vehicle or join some other party. Such a group of lawmakers would be larger than that of the Hungarian ethnics UDMR. The organisation of a new political vehicle for Ponta is underway, sources said.


Others claimed Ponta is using threats to leave the party as a bargaining tool. Ponta wants 50 seats in the upper part of the electoral lists for his protégées in order not to leave the PSD, sources said. Dragnea’s comments might indicate that a compromise on this has been reached.


Defections from the PSD


Ghita (MP) said in an interview with Realitatea TV on August 29 that he is contemplating joining PRU, after two fellow PSD MPs, Daniel Savu and Ion Eparu, announced their decisions to move earlier in the day. Ponta’s close partners Mirel Palada and Marius Manolache joined PRU last week. PRU already has 18 deputies and 14 senators, Ghita added. Immediately after Ghita’s interview with Realitatea, two more PSD MPs - Cristian Rizea and Mihai Sturzu - announced their transfer to PRU.


“Any politician would want to have Ponta in his party”, Ghita told Realitatea TV station. But he refused to comment on Ponta’s political plans.


Despite the various scandals Ponta is involved in, his leaving PSD to strengthen a smaller party would create significant problems for the PSD.


National Union for Romania’s Progress (UNPR), one of the PSD’s former allies and a potential partner in a future government, was recently absorbed by the newly formed party Popular Movement (PMP) of former President Traian Basescu. Aside from the Liberal Democrats led by Calin Popescu Tariceanu, the PSD now has few potential partners. 


No-confidence motion less likely 


The flow of MPs from the PSD decreases the likelihood of a successful no-confidence motion previously envisaged by the Social Democrats. However, both the PSD and its main rival, the National Liberal Party (PNL), might gain from heated debates on a no-confidence vote, which would help prevent the expansion of new or smaller parties such as PMP, Save Romania Union (USR) and PRU.


Ponta led the PSD for years, but he resigned from the position of the head of the party last summer when the National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA) started investigations and asked lawmakers to remove his parliamentary immunity for actions taken while in office. Ponta resigned in the autumn after a disastrous fire in a Bucharest night club brought public discontent with the public administration to a climax.   


The education ministry withdrew Ponta’s PhD on August 1, a few days after the National Council for Attesting Titles, Diplomas and University Certificates (CNATDCU) upheld a verdict that he had plagiarised his thesis. The lawyers’ professional association is going to withdraw his membership, possibly retroactively, in an unprecedented move, since the membership was given on basis of the PhD title.


The plagiarism scandal is not the only one the former prime minister has been involved in. Ponta is being tried on 17 counts of forgery, as well as money-laundering and complicity in tax evasion. He is also reportedly part of an investigation related to the settlement of a $600mn debt of KazMunaiGaz (KMG), the owner of Rompetrol Rafinare.


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