UPDATED: Double blow for Romania’s ruling PSD in justice referendum, European Parliament election

UPDATED: Double blow for Romania’s ruling PSD in justice referendum, European Parliament election
By Carmen Simion in Bucharest May 27, 2019

Romania's ruling Social Democratic Party (PSD) took only 25.7% of the votes in the elections for the European Parliament on May 26, a much lower score than its 45% backing in the general election in December 2016, according to an exit poll from CURS-Avangarde quoted by local media.

While the exit poll put it in first place tied with the opposition National Liberal Party (PNL), overall it was a disappointing night for the PSD, confirming the declining support for the party. There is also speculation that the PSD could do worse than expected — possibly slipping into third place — when the votes from Romania’s Diaspora voters are counted. 

Voters dealt a further blow to the ruling party in the referendum on justice reforms. Data released by the Central Electoral Bureau (BEC) on Monday morning showed that an overwhelming number of voters had voted “yes” to both questions in the referendum. 

In the first question, voters were asked: “Do you support a ban on amnesty and pardon in cases related to corruption?” to which 1,625,321 people voted yes, to just 277,976 who voted no. 

The figures for the second question “Do you support the ban on the adoption by the government of emergency decrees in the field of crimes, punishments, and judicial organisation and the extension of the right to appeal directly to the Constitutional Court?” were similar: 1,619,681 voted yes and just 271,104 voted no.

The results of the referendum might put an end to the party’s ongoing overhaul of the justice legislation, seen by critics within the country as well as the EU and the US as weakening Romania’s anticorruption fight. The turnout in the referendum was 41.2%, above the required 30% for it to be valid.

The PSD, Romania’s largest party, has been constantly losing support since taking power in December 2016. The PSD and its ruling partner, the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (Alde), have been focusing on changing the justice legislation, despite criticism from the president, the EU and Romania’s international partners, and despite mass protests organised in the country. Many have said the changes to the judicial system were tailored to help PSD leader Liviu Dragnea evade justice.

According to the exit poll, Romania’s largest opposition party, the PNL got 25.7% of the vote, while the alliance of Save Romania Union (USR) and Plus, the party of former prime minister Dacian Ciolos, received 23.9%.

The PSD’s poor result in the elections was also influenced by the higher than usual turnout in the elections. According to the Central Electoral Bureau, the turnout was 49.02%. 

Local news channels showed long queues of Romanians living abroad waiting to vote in Europe’s largest cities. According to media reports, some queued for up to seven hours to cast their vote. However, requests that the voting time should be extended were denied. USR leader Dan Barna asked the government to resign over the poor organisation of the elections abroad. 

The PSD cannot expect a good result from the Diaspora, as Romanians living abroad usually do not vote for the Social Democrats. In addition, an anti-government rally organised by the Romanian diaspora ended brutally with tear gas and violence last August.

Clinging on to power 

The results of the elections for the European Parliament will have important implications for the Romanian political scene.

Despite its poor result and falling popularity, the PSD seems determined to stay in power. “The Romanians trust the government. It was a vote for the European parliament, not for the parliament,” Prime Minister Viorica Dancila said after Sunday's vote.

However, the PSD comes out of the May 26 elections as a weakened party, whose efforts to attract voters though populist measures, such as wage hikes, and populist discourse did not yield the expected results. 

A further blow to the party could come today, as its leader Liviu Dragnea awaits the final sentence in a lawsuit. 

Last year he was guilty of using his influence to have two women hired at a public institution when they were, in fact, working for his party. He was given a three and a half year sentence for the offence, and already has a suspended sentence in a separate case. 

Following Dragnea’s appeal against the verdict, the final decision in the case is due to be announced today, and should it go against Dragnea he will most likely have to serve a prison term, putting an end to his political career. 

Previously, Dragnea has been contested from inside his own party several times, but he managed to remove those who had challenged him. However, there is speculation that now the party may move to change its leader. The leader of the Vrancea branch of the PSD, Marian Oprisan, said that Dragnea should resign if the party got under 30% of the vote.

PNL leader Ludovic Orban announced on May 26, after the results of the exit poll were announced, that his party and probably other opposition parties will seek a no-confidence vote against the government in parliament.

The ruling coalition, which initially enjoyed a comfortable majority in parliament, has started to lose support as some of its members left the party to join that of former PSD leader and prime minister Victor Ponta. The Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania (UDMR), which also backed the ruling coalition, has announced it will not support it any longer.

The elections showed that the PSD’s ruling partner, Alde, also has low support among Romanians. According to the exit poll, the party led by former prime minister Calin Popescu Tariceanu only got 4.7% of the votes. Tariceanu has been considered as a joint candidate for the PSD and Alde in Romania’s upcoming presidential elections.

After speculation that Dragnea might announce his own run for the presidency after polls closed, there was no such announcement as the vote went badly for the PSD. 

Instead, Dragnea said late on May 26 that the PSD would consider Bucharest mayor Gabriela Firea for its presidential candidate — a surprising choice given the public falling out between the two last year. Firea has already responded, criticising Dragnea and saying she does not plan to run for the presidency.