Tensions rise within Romania’s ruling PSD after protest violence

Tensions rise within Romania’s ruling PSD after protest violence
Recent polls show Bucharest mayor Gabriela Firea is the ruling PSD's most popular leader.
By Carmen Simion in Bucharest September 3, 2018

Tensions are rising within Romania’s ruling Social Democratic Party (PSD), as Bucharest mayor Gabriela Firea called on September 1 for the resignation of Interior Minister Carmen Dan, a close ally of the party leader, Liviu Dragnea, over the way she handled violent clashes between protesters and the gendarmerie at an antigovernment protest on August 10.  Following the party meeting, Firea admitted that her relationship with Dragnea is “tense”.

Firea’s attack is likely to put even more pressure on Dragnea, who has already been challenged by other party members. In August, Dragnea was asked to step down by former Romanian education minister and former leader of the Bucharest branch of the PSD, Ecaterina Andronescu. Andronescu also asked for a change of government, the current prime minister, Viorica Dancila, being a close ally of Dragnea.

Apart from being contested within his own party and facing large antigovernment protests, Dragnea is waiting for the final ruling in a case in which he has been sentenced by a first court to three and a half years imprisonment for instigation to abuse of office. Previously, he received a two-year suspended sentence for voter manipulation. This could see arguably Romania’s most powerful politician forced to serve a prison sentence. 

Meanwhile, the ruling coalition has passed bills that have been criticised for weakening Romania’s anticorruption fight, but the legislation has been challenged through the Constitutional Court. Local media claim that the government is now preparing emergency ordinances on amnesty and pardon.

Aside from the criticisms of Dragnea, the PSD has not been spared internal ructions since it returned to power at the end of 2016. These included a no-confidence vote against its own prime minister Sorin Grindeanu who was ousted in mid-2017 and the departure of his successor Mihai Tudose, though the brutal intervention of the gendarmerie on August 10 seems to have caused the most serious scandal within the party.

Firea is the Bucharest mayor, a post from which she cannot be removed by the party, and she enjoys lots of popularity in the country. A Sociopol poll quoted by Mediafax news agency in July showed that Firea was seen as the second most trustworthy person in Romania (25%), after Raed Arafat, the head of the Emergency Situation Department (50%), and ahead of President Klaus Iohannis (24%). The same poll put Dragnea’s popularity at just 15%.

Firea is also the most popular PSD leader according to polls, and her accusations against the party leader might cause Dragnea to lose even more support, both from PSD voters and even inside his own party.

Since winning the mayoral elections, Firea, a former journalist and TV presenter, has been harshly criticised by her opponents for her poor management of the Romanian capital. At the same time, she has gained popularity by offering free holiday vouchers for students and pensioners, free vouchers for bikes and financial aid for mothers, and other benefits. In addition, the city hall has been organising many free entertainment events for Bucharest citizens.

Who was responsible? 

The spike in tensions between Firea and Dragnea come amid a dispute between Dan and a key Bucharest official and Firea ally, the prefect of Bucharest Speranta Cliseru, over who holds responsibility for the treatment of protesters at the August 10 demonstration, when the gendarmerie repeatedly used tear gas and water cannon on protesters. Footage showing gendarmes hitting women and people with their hands up, or taking personal revenge on protesters later emerged on social media channels. There are also suspicions that provocateurs were among the 100,000 strong crowd. 

Afterwards Dan said the order to intervene in force was signed by the prefect at 8pm on the day of the protest. However, Cliseru said the order was signed after midnight, around an hour after the gendarmerie started the evacuate Victory Square. In a video posted on the internet a few days ago, Cliseru told a person who asked her about the events that she is “not guilty”, indicating that both Dan and Dragnea lied about the issue. 

Firea claimed after the September 1 PSD meeting that the incident was set up by Dan herself. Previously, she had said she had signed an order allowing the gendarmerie to carry out a forced intervention against the protesters at midnight, thus contradicting Dan.

“As mayor, I pointed out that for what happened on August 10, a part of the fault was also borne by the interior ministry coordinator […] who tried to pass the responsibility to the prefect of Bucharest, so that the media would speculate that she is close to the mayor because she worked for two years with me, thus saving the public image of the president [of the party, Dragnea] who proposed Dan to be minister, and incriminating me because the prefect has worked with me,” Firea said.

Firea added that she cannot say if Dragnea was behind the violence at the protest, but she knew that Dan usually holds talks with Dragnea on various issues. In addition, she accused Dan of spying on the prefect, as during the PSD meeting the interior ministry presented private text messages between Cliseru and employees in the ministry.

The Bucharest mayor also told reporters after the PSD meeting that she had been informed by European Commissioner Corina Cretu that members of the European Commission had expressed concern regarding the events on August 10. According to Firea, Commission President Jean-Claude Junker might make references to the Romanian protests in a speech on September 18. The attempts to undermine the anti-corruption fight over the last year and a half have repeatedly earned the Romanian government criticism from Brussels

“It is not a comfortable situation for our country at all, it is not easy to see how a negative perception about our country is transmitted at an international level,” Firea said.

No obvious candidate

Following the conflict with the party leader, Firea might lose her position of interim head of the PSD’s Bucharest branch. According to Hotnews.ro, Dragnea has asked for elections to be organised in all PSD branches headed by interim leaders. Other senior party members who have clashed with Dragnea have found themselves expelled from the party or politically isolated. 

In addition, Dragnea said he is not planning to run for the Romanian presidency in the election due to take place in late 2019, where, according to the PSD leader, the coalition made up of the PSD and the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (Alde) will have a joint candidate for the post. 

Yet at the moment there appears to be no obvious candidate for the two parties to put forward. Firea has said she does not want to take either the Romanian president post or that of PSD leader. Alde leader Calin Popescu Tariceanu could become the joint candidate of the coalition, according to Firea, but the September 1 meeting revealed that would not be a popular choice among PSD members. 

Firea claimed after the meeting that she would be happy to see Tariceanu run for the presidency, but that the announcement of the Alde leader as a possible candidate “was applauded by [only] two to three people in the hall”.

“For the hundreds of thousands of PSD members in the country to see this party in the situation of not having a viable candidate and enjoying the alternative offered by a governing partner, which has a much lower score in the polls, is a moment of deep sadness,” Firea said.