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Election 2016 PARLIAMENTARY ELECTIONS IN ROMANIA BREAKING THE PATTERN OF RISING RADICAL RIGHT POPULISM IN CENTRAL AND EASTERN EUROPE

The December 11th 2016 Romanian Parliamentary elections witnessed a dramatic redrawing of the Romanian political map, and confirmed the inability of the radical right populist parties to be serious contenders in parliamentary politics for the coming mandate. The elections also marked the return to a system of proportional electoral representation on party lists.

Published on balticworlds.com on januari 3, 2017

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The December 11th 2016 Romanian Parliamentary elections witnessed a dramatic redrawing of the Romanian political map, and confirmed the inability of the radical right populist parties to be serious contenders in parliamentary politics for the coming mandate. The elections also marked the return to a system of proportional electoral representation on party lists. Another important change was the decrease in number of Members of Parliament (MPs) from the previous mandate. Consequently, for these elections there were only 326 mandates for the Chamber of Deputies (from previously 412 mandates) and 134 mandates for the Senate (previously 176 mandates). The high electoral threshold (5 per cent) was nonetheless maintained for both the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate. The legally acknowledged national minorities were confirmed the allocation of 18 mandates in the lower Chamber of Deputies, regardless of their electoral score. The communities of Romanians leaving abroad elected directly 4 MPs for the Chamber of Deputies and 2 MPs for the Senate.

 

NONBELIGERENT ELECTORAL CAMPAIGNING

The electoral campaign had a rather unusual pattern. The two main political adversaries, the center-left Social Democrats (Partidul Social Democrat, PSD) and the center-right National Liberal Party (Partidul Naţional Liberal, PNL), rarely contested one another’s political programs for winning the elections. Several observers argue that the PSD learned from its defeat in the 2014 Presidential elections that too corrosive a political campaigning may in fact help mobilize the right-wing voters, and chose to focus on its own political offer, which seemed to be a surprising potpourri of traditionally left-wing economic and social policies with right-wing capital friendly outbursts, such as slashing over a 100 different types of taxes and encouraging local capital to develop. The PNL had a more consistent right-wing political program, but the party was rather ambiguous on its position concerning corruption. Instead, it was the recently founded Save Romania Union (Uniunea Salvați România, USR) that most successfully called attention to the issue of pervasive corruption and the imperative to strengthen the mandate of the National Anticorruption Directorate (Direcția Națională Anticorupție, DNA), which is the agency tasked with the prevention, investigation, and prosecution of high- and medium-level corruption. Somewhat paradoxically, the USR succeeded to be both the anti-system party of these elections, while at the same time supporting outright the outgoing Prime Minister (PM) Dacian Cioloş. Reflecting the radical right populist mood that sweeps across Europe at the moment, the issue of ethnic minorities’ rights  in Romania and that of refugee quotas that Romania should accept were heatedly debated during the campaign. Even more so, a smear campaign alleged that PM Cioloş may be the illegitimate child of American philanthropist of Jewish origin George Soros. Cioloş has previously been the EU Agriculture Commissioner (2010-2014) and assumed the PM position of a technocratic government in November 2015. Although Cioloş declined to join in the electoral campaign himself, he expressed his support for a governing coalition reuniting the right of center political forces centered on a post-electoral collaboration between the PNL and USR. Although a right-wing party, the People’s Movement Party (Partidul Mișcarea Populară, PMP) of former president Traian Băsescu positioned itself critically to Cioloş.

 

DWINDLING ELECTORAL INTEREST

The Romanian citizens with voting rights appear to have replied in kind to the electoral campaign; a mere 7.25 million cast their ballot out of the 18.4 million entitled to vote. The voter turnout was thus less than 40 per cent. There was a clear lack of enthusiasm among the Romanian younger citizens to participate in the elections, which was interpreted as not only disillusionment with what the political parties offered in terms of political platforms and candidates, but also as a sign of an imminent intention to join those over 3 million Romanian citizens living abroad. In other words, this may be a sign of a quiet but assumed exit strategy. The majority of those mobilized to vote were middle aged and elderly voters, inhabitants in small urban centers and rural areas, which traditionally have favored the mix of left-leaning economic policies and staunch conservatism of the PSD. Somewhat surprisingly, in this context, when comparing the data from this year’s local elections that took place in June and the one analyzed here, the number of voters in rural areas decreased significantly with more than 1.5 million; in smaller cities their number went down with almost 400 thousands, whilst in the larger urban centers the number of voters surprisingly increased with some 15 per cent to bit over 2 million[1]. Interestingly enough, the PSD seems to slowly attract voters in these urban centers as well[2], confirming in a sense the trend noted in the local elections, when the PSD even won the key position of mayor of Bucharest, which for several mandates seemed to be out of reach and a comfortable win for the center-right.

Even among the Romanians living abroad the participation rate was surprisingly low, perhaps a sign of disillusionment in the aftermath of the 2015 Romanian Presidential elections that brought the center-right Klaus Johannis to power. To avoid the situation from the aforesaid Presidential elections, when people had to queue for hours and eventually did not manage to vote, a much larger amount of voting bulletins had been distributed at the voting stations abroad[3], which were also more numerous this time around. In addition, the much debated mail voting was enabled for the first time. Despite all these efforts, according to media reports[4], only some 110 thousands people voted and consequently some 882 thousands unused ballots were annulled.  These low numbers notwithstanding, these election results come to cement the assumption that the Romanian diaspora has some preponderant right-wing voting preferences. Among the political forces that attracted their votes, the majority preferred the USR, with the PNL coming in as a close second. Third most votes collected the PMP, and the PSD scored slightly over 10 thousands votes for both the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate. The PSD’s poor showing in the diaspora illustrates the disconnection between the PSD’s strongly conservative with strong nationalist accents political stance and the more emancipatory European and internationalist views of the left-leaning members of the diaspora. The latter chose to boycott the elections altogether. In other words another form of exit strategy, doubling their physical departure from Romania with their political refusal to vote the only party to the left of center in Romanian politics.

 

DISAPPEARANCE OF THE RADICAL RIGHT FROM PARLIAMENTARY POLITICS

Party Electoral results (%) Mandates
Chamber of Deputies Senate Chamber of Deputies

(329 MPs)

 

Senate (136 MPs)

 

Social Democratic Party (Partidul Social Democrat, PSD) 45.48 45.68 154

 

67
National Liberal Party Partidul Național Liberal, PNL) 20.04 20.42 69 30

 

Save Romania Union (Uniunea Salvați România, USR) 8.87 8.92 30 13
Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania (Uniunea Democrată Maghiară din România, UDMR/ Romániai Magyar Demokrata Szövetség, RMDSZ) 6.19 6.24 21 9
Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (Alianța Liberalilor și Democraților, ALDE) 5.62 6.01 20 9
People’s Movement Party (Partidul Mișcarea Populară, PMP) 5.35 5.65 18 8
National Minorities’ representatives (18 MPs) 17*
Table 1. December 2016 Romanian Parliamentary election results, with parties ordered according to the results announced by the Romanian Central Electoral Bureau (BEC). *1 MP mandate for the national minorities is allocated automatically to the UDMR/RMDSZ as representatives of the Hungarian minority. ©Norocel

In total, only 6 parties (their results centralized in Table 1 herein) succeeded to pass the electoral threshold and confirmed two parallel trends. The first pertains to the PSD, which came out of the elections as the major political player in Romanian politics with a bit over 45 per cent of the votes for both the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate. After redistribution of the seats, this translates into 154 MPs in the lower chamber and 67 MPs in the Senate. There are some voices[5] however that evince a rather surprising detail: it is not necessarily the exceptional campaign that returned the PSD to power, rather the implosion of the right of center field and the incapacity of the emerging parties in that part of the political spectrum to put forward a coherent governing program that, by contrast, made the PSD political offer to appear as most appealing. The PNL came in as a distant second with just about 20 per cent for both chambers, still struggling to fit into its newly acquired conservative center-right ideological frame. In terms of seats, the PNL has 69 MPs in the Chamber of Deputies and 30 MPs in the Senate. These election’s newcomer, the USR succeeded to gather enough votes to pass the parliamentary threshold without emotions, with just under 9 per cent for both chambers, which after the redistribution translates into 30 deputies and 13 senators. The fourth political force to enter the Romanian Parliament was the Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania (Uniunea Democrată Maghiară din România, UDMR/ Romániai Magyar Demokrata Szövetség, RMDSZ) who secured parliamentary representation for yet another mandate, despite a dwindling Hungarian population. The UDMR/RMDSZ received a bit over 6 per cent of the votes and thus has 21 MPs in the Chamber of Deputies and 9 MPs in the Senate. The PNL-breakaway wing of Călin Popescu-Tăriceanu, the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (Alianța Liberalilor și Democraților, ALDE) polled rather well collecting a bit over 5.5 per cent for the lower chamber and just over 6 per cent for the Senate. This means that the ALDE will have 20 deputies and respectively 9 senators. The last party to pass the electoral threshold was the PMP that received over 5 per cent of the votes for both chambers, and consequently has 18 MPs in the Chamber of Deputies and 8 MPs in the Senate.

 

 

Party Electoral results (%)
Chamber of Deputies Senate
United Romania Party (Partidul România Unită, PRU) 2.79 2.95
Greater Romania Party (Partidul România Mare, PRM) 1.04 1.18
Our Romania Alliance (Alianța Noastră România, ANR) 0.87 0.95
Table 2. The electoral performance of the most important radical right populist parties in Romania, according to the results announced by the Romanian Central Electoral Bureau (BEC). The electoral threshold is 5 per cent of the votes for both the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate. ©Norocel

The second observation is that the electoral threshold is still a very good deterrent on the access of various extremist and ultranationalist forces into mainstream Romanian politics. The results also confirmed the complete fragmentation of the radical right section of the political spectrum in Romania (see Table 2). After the sudden death of its chair Corneliu Vadim Tudor, the Greater Romania Party (Partidul România Mare, PRM) appears to have lost all political relevance, being voted by just a bit more than 1 per cent. In turn, the new radical right populist contender, the United Romania Party (Partidul România Unită, PRU) scored just below 3 per cent for both chambers. In turn, Our Romania Alliance (Alianța Noastră România, ANR) under the leadership of Marian Munteanu did not even get 1 per cent of the votes. Munteanu is a controversial political figure that on the eve of local elections in June 2016 was nominated as the PNL candidate to the very prestigious position of mayor of Bucharest; only the immediate and strong public outcry determined the PNL leadership to change their mind and put forward in haste another candidate. Munteanu attempted to use the public notoriety thus gained but he proved unsuccessful, very much like all other radical right populist party leaders. At a glance, the scores of these three parties together hover at just about 5 per cent, but it seems unlikely that the radical right populist forces would be capable of rallying behind a common political project in the near future.

 

REDRAWNING ROMANIAN POLITICAL LANDSCAPE

In the aftermath of elections, President Johannis summoned for consultations all political parties that gained seats in the Romanian Parliament. While most of the right of center political parties replied positively, the PSD and its close ally the ALDE declined the invitation. The two parties, PSD and ALDE announced that they have sufficient votes to build a governing coalition and promptly signed a governing protocol that details among others, the task of supporting a common nomination for the future PM, the allocation of various governmental portfolios between the two parties according to a proportional system; and distribution of various political functions between the PSD and ALDE[6]. Nominating the PM proved to be a rather difficult task, since some assumed that the PSD chair Liviu Dragnea would claim that position for himself. The problem is that Dragnea has received a two-year suspended prison sentence in April 2016, after having been found guilty of voter fraud for artificially boosting voter numbers in a 2012 referendum to impeach then-President Băsescu. According to law, he is barred from holding any official position, which determined some politicians in the conservative right circles to speculate that Dragnea may be even denied his MP mandate. Dragnea was nonetheless sworn in swiftly as MP and shortly thereafter elected as chair of the Chamber of Deputies.

In a move that surprised politicians, analysts and laypeople alike, Dragnea initially announced that the PSD-ALDE nomination for PM was Sevil Shhaideh[7]. Shhaideh is a woman politician part of the Tatar-Turkish minority in Romania and a close collaborator of Dragnea. Shhaideh has rather little experience in national politics. She held the portfolio of Development and Public Administration in the Ponta IV government, from May to November 2015. Besides the comments commending the nomination (the first woman to be nominated for PM in Romanian politics, and a Muslim woman at that), there were several critical voices that warned for a Romanian version[8] of the Polish scenario, where PM Beata Szydło is considered to be the palatable façade dressing the power games of Jarosław Kaczyński, who similarly to Dragnea is the chair of the main Polish governing party, Law and Justice (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, PiS). President Johannis rejected nonetheless Shhaideh’s nomination on grounds of national security (the media had reported extensively on her husband’s close connections to the Assad regime in Syria[9]). Responding to the heavy criticism he had come under for his first choice of PM, Dragnea then nominated Sorin Grindeanu. Grindeanu has built his political career in regional politics and just like Shhaideh has a rather limited experience in national politics. He was Minister of Communications in the Ponta IV government, from May to November 2015. Grindeanu’s nomination was eventually accepted by Johannis, but it seems that Dragnea is determined to hold the political responsibility of the governing coalition. According to the PSD-ALDE governing protocol, out of the 27 portfolios of Grindeanu cabinet, the PSD has the most numerous and most important portfolios, whilst the ALDE received 4 portfolios and one vice-PM position. Shhaideh is also part of the cabinet, but as vice-PM and Minister of Regional Development[10]. The Grindeanu cabinet is expected to appear in front of the two Chambers of Parliament for the confidence vote on January 4.

In turn, the PNL leadership was forced to admit its defeat and its acting chair Alina Gorghiu resigned. There is an outspoken discontent with the series of political miscalculations of the party leadership such as the incongruous opposition to the PSD, nominating Munteanu as candidate for Bucharest then withdrawing his candidacy in haste, the tern political campaign for the parliamentary elections, and general inability to reign in the infighting between the traditional liberal wing of the party and the self-entitled conservative wing of former liberal democrats, once the two political parties had merged in December 2014. The interim chairwoman is Raluca Turcan, a front figure of the liberal democrat faction, which indicates the party’s decisive turn towards conservatism. Since assuming chairmanship, Turcan pleaded for internal unity within the party and tried to assume an offensive position in the aftermath of the elections, arguing strongly that Dragnea’s criminal record prohibits him from assuming the PM position.

Concerning the USR, the third political force in the Romanian Parliament, it remains to be seen if the party would survive in this form until the end of the mandate, given its ideological amorphousness and the political inexperience of its members, aptly illustrated by a serious scandal already flaring up in the party shortly after the elections[11]. It would not be the first time when a party would not finish its parliamentary mandate. In the 2012-2016 mandate for example, the self-proclaimed anti-establishment People’s Party-Dan Diaconescu (Partidul Poporului Dan Diaconescu, PP-DD)[12], in fact a radical right populist party centered on its leader Dan Diaconescu, fell in disarray once its leader was tried and sentenced to prison; its MPs migrated to several other parties and the PP-DD was eventually absorbed into other political party at the end of June 2015. The USR is also heavily dependent on its leader Nicuşor Dan, but most problematic may prove to be the party’s systematic refusal to adopt a clear ideological positioning to the right or the left of the political spectrum.

As for the other political forces, the UDMR/RMDSZ through their chair Kelemen Hunor announced that while the party is not interested in joining the PSD-ALDE governing coalition, it is nonetheless open to a punctual parliamentary collaboration on matters pertaining to social and economic politics, infrastructure project and defense of the ethnic minorities’ rights[13]. The UDMR/RMDSZ confirms in other words its very pragmatic approach to politics, open to negotiations and collaboration with all political forces left and right in the Romanian Parliament, as long as this is beneficial to their political agenda centered on the rights of the Hungarian minority in Romania. This pragmatism notwithstanding, the party is facing serious criticism both from within the Hungarian ethnic minority in Romania for the economic underdevelopment of the regions in which Hungarians are the majority population and faces some serious challenges from the Hungarian government of Viktor Orbán, which wants to play a more active role in the political and social life of the Hungarian populations living outside the borders of the Hungarian state. The PMP, in turn, announced it would be an opposition party, though it is rather uncertain whether Băsescu would manage to compromise and collaborate with the main opposition party’s MPs, most of whom are his former party colleagues.

To conclude in a positive note, the road ahead for Romania seems to be paved with good intentions and marks a break of tempo from the more common pattern of rising radical right populism that may be discerned across Central and Eastern Europe and around the globe. It remains to be seen however if the anti-Semitic and xenophobic appeals from the electoral campaign would be proven to be just simple devices to vent frustration and anger at election times, or if Romania would embark on the same path of non-accountable leadership like Poland.

References:

[1] http://www.romanialibera.ro/opinii/comentarii/cateva-observatii-despre-alegeri-per centE2per cent94per cent82opinie-436187

[2] http://www.criticatac.ro/29319/psd-nu-a-castigat/

[3] http://balticworlds.com/citizen-mobilization-versus-ethno-nationalist-nostalgia/

[4] http://www.digi24.ro/stiri/actualitate/politica/alegeri-parlamentare-2016/rezultate-finale-psd-221-de-mandate-pnl-99-de-mandate-632969

[5] http://www.criticatac.ro/29319/psd-nu-a-castigat/

[6] http://www.mediafax.ro//politic/protocol-de-guvernare-incheiat-de-psd-cu-alde-sub-titulatura-coalitia-de-guvernare-pentru-dezvoltare-si-democratie-foto-document-liviu-dragnea-ne-vedem-si-cu-udmr-16033144

[7] http://revista22.ro/70259041/liviu-dragnea-sevil-shhaideh-fost-ministru-al-dezvoltarii-este-premierul-propus-de-psd-alde.html

[8] http://www.reuters.com/article/us-romania-government-idUSKBN14A0VF

[9] http://www.riseproject.ro/sotul-si-dictatorul-sirian/

[10] http://www.digi24.ro/stiri/actualitate/politica/lista-ministrilor-din-cabinetul-sorin-grindeanu-642666

[11] http://www.mediafax.ro/politic/sotul-lui-clotilde-armand-sergiu-moroianu-exclus-din-usr-clotilde-armand-decizia-a-fost-gresita-ce-anunta-partidul-16031363

[12] http://balticworlds.com/chronicle-of-a-quagmire-foretold/

[13] http://revista22.ro/70258992/udmr-nu-intra-la-guvernare-discutie-cu-psd-si-alde-despre-o-colaborare-parlamentara.html

 

 

 

 

 

  • by Cristian Norocel

    Is affiliated postdoctoral researcher to the Centre for Research on Ethnic Relations and Nationalism (CEREN), in the University of Helsinki (Finland), and adjunct Senior Lecturer at the Department of Political Science, in Stockholm University (Sweden).

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