Prison sentence for party leader caps disastrous day for Romania’s ruling PSD

Prison sentence for party leader caps disastrous day for Romania’s ruling PSD
By bne IntelliNews May 27, 2019

The leader of Romania’s Social Democratic Party (PSD) and ruling coalition head Liviu Dragnea received a final 42-month sentence from the High Court (ICCJ) on May 27. 

The decision in Dragnea’s case is final and enforceable. He is supposed to start serving his sentence immediately, and has been told to surrender to the police today so that the sentence can be executed.

There is a small chance for Dragnea to escape the sentence, but in any case the political career of the man who was arguably Romania’s most powerful politician for nearly four years seems to be terminated. 

The decision came after Dragnea’s PSD was defeated in the elections for the European Parliament by the main opposition party, the National Liberal Party (PNL). Put together the opposition parties received more votes than the ruling coalition comprising the PSD and the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (ALDE), even including the Democratic Alliance of Hungarians (UDMR), which has now ended its agreement to support the ruling coalition. 

Romanians voted in a referendum initiated by President Klaus Iohannis on the ongoing justice reforms being carried out by the ruling coalition on the same day as the European Parliament election. This also went against the PSD, with voters overwhelmingly choosing to block key elements of the reforms — seen by many as tailored to helping Dragnea avoid prison. 

Although the referendum might have little if any practical impact, it could push a significant segment of the electorate, including key members in the public administration, away from the ruling coalition. 

Having been dealt three crushing blows in the last 24 hours, it is highly important how the PSD chooses to handle the crisis, but also how effective opposition is in deriving political dividends from the current situation.

"In order to escape imprisonment, Liviu Dragnea resorted to all sorts of tricks and actions profoundly harmful to the rule of law and democracy. We have all been witnesses, in these years of PSD governance, of the horrors that he and his comrade have committed against justice … But, right now, we are starting the reconstruction of normality, Romanians want it and they said it bluntly on Sunday,” said the president of the opposition Union Save Romania (USR), Dan Barna, after the verdict was announced.

Dragnea’s departure will leave a big space to fill at the centre of Romanian politics. Unable to take up the prime minister post due to his conviction in a previous case, Dragnea pulled the strings from behind the scenes in the last three PSD-led governments, ensuring the party withdrew its support from two prime ministers when they tried to assert their independence. The current Prime Minister Viorica Dancila is seen as Dragnea’s protegee. 

On top of his frequent clashes with President Klaus Iohannis, Dragnea maintained tight control over his own party, ousting or sidelining rivals such as his predecessor as PSD leader, former prime minister Victor Ponta (who has since founded his own party) and Bucharest mayor Gabriela Firea. 

Ponta wrote on his Facebook page that he is "not happy with anyone's tribulations and I do not comment on criminal sentences,” before adding that, “the [court] decision comes after the vote yesterday which showed what Romanians think about Liviu Dragnea.” 

Fake jobs for party workers 

Dragnea’s sentence was issued in a case concerning fictitious employment at Teleorman county Child Directorate: two people employed by the directorate were in fact engaged on PSD business. The politician appealed the sentence issued last year, but on May 27 the panel of five ICCJ judges upheld the lower courts’ sentence.

This is Dragnea’s second criminal conviction, following the one in the case related to the referendum against then president Traian Basescu in 2012, when Dragnea made use of his position in the public administration to increase the turnout.

However, there is still a slim chance that Dragnea could avoid prison. The Constitutional Court is expected to decide on June 5 whether the three-judge panels of the ICCJ (including the one that judged Dragnea in the first instance) are valid or, as the PSD claims, are irregular. 

In objections sent to the CCR, the head of the Chamber of Deputies, Florin Iordache, argued that special anti-corruption panels should have been set up in line with law 38/2000 on procedures related to anti-corruption. It is however unclear how the CCR upholding Iordache’s objection would impact past cases where final sentences were already given, like in the case of Dragnea.