The Romanian results of the 2019 European Elections drew a sharp contrast between this country and its neighbours. While in Poland and Hungary populist parties took the largest share of the votes, pro-European parties in Romania saw a surge in support, with the ruling party, the Social Democrats (PSD) suffering significant losses.
There was a record turnout of 49%, with the voters also given the option to take part in a referendum as to whether the government should be allowed to offer amnesties in corruption cases. 85% voted against the government holding these powers, echoing the European Commission’s concerns about the PSD government’s judicial processes.
The large numbers of people voting in the elections and referendum reflect a growing concern about corruption in Romanian politics. Regular anti-corruption demonstrations, growing into the social movement dubbed #rezist, have been taking place in many cities since 2017, when the government proposed the ordinance bills that triggered the referendum. The writer and academic Ruxandra Cesereanu, from Cluj-Napoca, who has been documenting the movement in her journal From Hooligans to #rezist, saw the results as evidence of a newly politicised youth cohort:
‘The European elections can be seen as a success insofar as all the young people who did not vote in the last national elections (either through indifference or because they didn’t think there was anyone worth voting for) were mobilised and voted for change, for new political parties that define themselves as pro-European.
The power of the diaspora
Cesereanu also attributed the losses of the PSD in the election to the power of the diaspora, the three million Romanians living abroad, only 4% of whom voted for the party:
‘Once again the vote of the diaspora had a significant impact, something which was anticipated by the governing powers in Romania who made the voting process as difficult for them as possible.’
Throughout Europe’s major cities and beyond, Romanians queued for up to eight hours to vote, chanting ‘Down with the thieves!’ and ‘Let us vote!’, angered by what they saw as a deliberate attempt from the government to thwart their democratic right by its ineffectual organisation of the voting process.
One such Romanian ex-pat who voted in the elections is George T. Sipos, the Senior International Officer of the University of Missouri-St Louis. Although he has been living in the US for 19 years, Sipos remains very much engaged with Romania through various projects. Discussing the government’s perceived obstruction of the diaspora vote, Sipos commented:
‘If there is one thing that became clear in the way the elections for the European Parliament were organized for millions of Romanian citizens living abroad is that the current government in Bucharest – dominated as it is by the Social Democratic Party (PSD) and the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (ALDE) and their respective leaderships mired in corruption scandals and with pending prison sentences of dozens of years – is paralyzed by fear at what its own citizens have to say. The government, specifically the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Teodor Meleșcanu, whose apprenticeship in diplomacy took place in dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu's Foreign Service, and the prime minister, Ms. Viorica Dăncilă, created every obstacle imaginable to prevent hundreds of thousands of Romanian citizens from voting, ranging from limited hours of operation to insufficient voting stamps.’
The frustration of the diaspora found support with the opposition alliance USR-PLUS (which attracted 30% of the diaspora vote) as well as the president Klaus Iohannis, who stated that voting was designed in such a way as to hinder participation and asked the Minister of Foreign Affairs Teodor Meleșcanu and the Interior Minister Carmen Dan to resign. Although these resignations did not come to pass, Meleșcanu publicly apologised for what he described as the ‘regrettable situations’ which prevented Romanians living abroad from voting.
‘At last, we have justice!’
The day after the European elections, Liviu Dragnea, the former head of the PSD, began a three and a half year prison sentence after the court threw out an appeal against a corruption conviction delivered in 2018. Dragnea was convicted for creating fake jobs for some of his party workers and instructing the head of social services to pay them salaries.
During his time in government, Dragnea focused on ensuring that he will never have to face a prison sentence for his crimes. As well as setting in motion the legislation that would provide an amnesty for those accused of corruption, in July 2018 his government sacked Laura Codruța Kövesi, head of Romania’s anti-corruption agency DNA who prosecuted over 1000 public officials, a figure much applauded and revered by the #rezist movement.
The international community was united in its condemnation of the government’s proposed judicial changes which would have vindicated politicians like Dragnea. Twelve embassies issued a joint statement demanding that the amendment to the legal system does not take place, reinforced by a threat from the European Commission that it would take legal action against Romania if these concerns were ignored. Dragnea’s imprisonment was a reassuring sign for them that the fight against corruption in Romania continues. His arrest was also met with enthusiastic approval by the #rezist crowds when the verdict was announced the day after the election, with protestors chanting ‘To jail!’ and ‘At last, we have justice!’.
New parties, new hope?
If the PSD could be considered to be the losers of the European elections – the decline in their popularity reflected in the fact that they gained only 23% of the vote, in comparison to 45% in the 2016 general elections – then new parties such as USR-PLUS could be seen as the winners. The 2019 alliance, formed by the Save Romania Union (USR) and PLUScaptured over 20% of the vote, doubling USR’s share in the 2016 elections. Its members are successful professionals who have lived abroad and returned to Romania with the desire to reform its political system. Several of them were initially part of Dacian Cioloș’s technocrat government (2015-2017). PLUS’s Dacian Cioloș had been the prime minister of this government while Dan Barna, the leader of USR, had been Secretary of State for the European funds ministry. Barna described the party as ‘the most pro-European, pro-state of law and modern political party’ in Romania. He feels that the alliance – well endorsed by parties such as En Marche and Ciudadanos – particularly speaks to the diaspora and the educated, urban young.
Although many appreciate the potential of this new alliance, some are still uncertain about its future. USR-PLUS is only a few months old and some see their success in the elections as a reaction against the PSD, rather than a vote for a party with a coherent political direction of its own. Teodora Nichita, who studied Politics and East European Studies at UCL before returning to Romania this year, expressed such concerns:
‘USR-PLUS defines itself through opposition to the PSD Government, rather than being a fully independent entity with concrete ideas. However, anti-corruption is not a policy, nor an ideology. Without having identified itself with a set of values and ideas or proposed a series of policies and strategies, USR seems to be a rather shaky construction. There appears to be little consistency in their declarations and proposals. Also, there seem to be significant tensions within the party itself which, for such a young structure, is already a quite worrying sign. As a person who wants the best for her own country, I truly hope that their success will be consolidated by their members uniting in a much more clear and consistent direction.’
The tensions Nichita describes resulted in some members leaving while others remained yet were unable to articulate a vision for the future. In an interview in January 2019 Vlad Voiculescu ( a former health minister under Dacian Cioloș)could not confirm whether PLUS was centre right or liberal, saying that these details will be discussed after the elections. This lack of a coherent political vision was highlighted by a controversy sparked by a social media blunder of one of PLUS’s leaders, Oana-Maria Bogdan. Bogdan’s Facebook post stated that she considered the renunciation of private property an important step in the progress of humanity. While some laughed it off as merely naive idealism, describing it as Bogdan’s ‘John Lennon moment’, others were angered by its insensitivity in the light of Romania’s communist past and saw it as evidence of her confused political ideology.
Arguably, there are also inconsistencies between the fact that the parties label themselves as modern and progressive, appealing to the young, forward thinking electorate, yet their leaders have expressed some socially conservative ideas. In October 2018, the ‘Coalition for the Family’ – an umbrella organization for right-wing Christian NGOs – triggered a referendum seeking to amend the constitution of Romania to define marriage as the union between a man and a woman, hence making gay marriage impossible. Although the referendum failed to reach the required 30% turnout, it created debate between the party leaders and cast doubt over whether USR and PLUS wholeheartedly endorse the socially liberal attitudes of other European countries.
In an interview, Dacian Cioloș expressed sympathy for the ethos of ‘Coalition for the Family’. Unlike president Klaus Iohannis, who declared that he stood for ‘tolerance’ and warned that ‘religious fanaticism’ would lead the country ‘down the wrong path’, Cioloș stated that whilst he was tolerant of sexual minorities he ‘respected the traditional family’, which he described as the ‘foundation of Romanian life’. Dan Barna also implied in an interview that gay rights are not a central part of his political vision: ‘Gay marriage is not yet a subject for the public agenda, there is no initiative promoting same-sex marriage. Maybe in 20, 30 years next generations will take care of this problem, but for now, this is not a priority.’ Dacian Cioloș and Dan Barna’s stance on this topic contrasts with the attitudes of some of their typically liberal supporters, like the civil rights activists that campaigned against the referendum who clearly consider the plight of sexual minorities a ‘priority’.
A divided country?
Although the headlines about the European elections emphasised the losses of the PSD, the vote was divided almost equally between them, the National Liberal Party and USR-PLUS, reflecting a conflict between the values and priorities of different sections of the Romanian population. Dan Barna admitted that his pro-European, centre-right message has limited appeal: ‘In the rural areas we do struggle to identify the right messages and have success there because the social democrats who govern Romania now are harvesting the rural area votes because they are providing social help there.’
When asked who still supports the PSD, Ruxandra Ceseareanu concluded: ‘It is mainly the old people and the people living in the countryside. In the city, we want change, the young people are demanding change. There is a real division between urban and rural Romania, a division between the old and the young.’
Alongside the #rezist protests, there have also been some demonstrations in support of the PSD government, including a pro-government rally in June 2018 which was attended by 100 000 people. The protests were mocked by those in opposition, claiming that the PSD paid people to attend and pointing out that they attracted only the poor, old and uneducated.
Yet it is easy to see the appeal of PSD’s policies to Romania’s aging population. In 2017, the state pension rose by 18.2% and in July 2019 the PSD submitted a proposal of a draft law that obliges children to support their elderly parents. However, in a country where the total ratio between pensioners and employees is 9 to 10, and where the young are still leaving for better opportunities abroad, it remains to be seen for how long this welfare system will be sustainable.
The results of the European elections gave hope to many who have fought against corruption in Romania. Manuel Cazac, a Philosophy student at UCL, originally from Brașov, reflects:
‘I'm fairly optimistic about the future. For the past two and a half years, under the #rezist banners, hundreds of thousands of us demanded our judiciary is left untouched by petty interests. If anything, the referendum showed beyond a shadow of doubt that we are firm believers in democracy and in a free and fair judiciary that works for all. It is now up to our political parties, old and new alike, to prove that they understand what the citizens told them on election day and that they are determined to act on our mandate: we want a Romania that is part of the EU, a country that’s involved with the European debates on all levels, one that can and should be trusted by our allies.’
However, all agree that the road to progress will not be an easy one. Teodora Nichita adds that ‘the ‘rezist’ movement has to go beyond the hashtag and reflect itself in the behaviours and mentality of people.’
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The USR-PLUS alliance may provide the catalyst for this change of mentality, but it must first develop a coherent ideology that offers something to all sectors of the population and retain its integrity. Dr. Sipos concludes: ‘Although the PNL and the USR-PLUS seem like the big winners this time, several political alliances in the past have failed to maintain their promises to the electorate and ended up either disappearing after one win or forming alliances with the PSD in order to maintain their access to the ruling table. That is the biggest challenge USR-PLUS and PNL face at this moment: adding political credibility to their winning momentum.’