Romania – EU Parliamentary Elections

Political Background

Romania joined the EU in 2007, along with Bulgaria. It had initially been slated to join in 2004, but its admission was delayed due to doubts about the integrity of its political and economic system.

Communist Romania was governed by the leadership of Nicolae Ceausescu. Ceausescu ran a particularly repressive regime with one of the most brutal secret police, the Securitate, in the world. Ceausescu’s regime was marked by an extreme cult of personality and nepotism on his part. In the words of the academics Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan, Ceausescu’s regime was not so much totalitarian and communist – aimed at the reorganisation of society along Marxist-Leninist lines – but in reality Sultanistic, aimed at the glorification of Ceausescu himself. For instance, while pursuing stringent austerity to the point of introducing food rationing in the 1980s, Ceausescu continued with his pet project, the Palace of the Parliament (which houses Romania’s parliament to this day). A staggeringly opulent and massive building (the heaviest in the world) filled with the finest marble, gold, chandeliers and hand-woven carpets.

Ceausescu’s brutal repressive regime did not allow for the formation of any kind of dissident groups, such as Poland’s Solidarity or the Czechoslovak Charter ’77.

When revolution came to Romania it was spontaneous, leaderless, and violent. Romania experienced the only violent revolution of the Eastern Bloc states, with 1,104 deaths and 3,352 injuries. Hoping to calm the revolution, Ceausescu made a speech to an assembled crowd in Bucharest. Eight minutes into the speech, the crowd began to jeer and boo him, an unthinkable reaction for decades. Ceausescu’s uncomprehending expression remains a defining image of the fall of Communism.

Ceausescu fled the next day, only to be captured by the Police. Ceausescu and his wife, Elena, were executed on charges of illegal gathering of wealth and genocide.

Romania’s new provisional government was known as the National Salvation Front, or FSN. As Romania had lacked any meaningful dissident movement, the FSN was principally drawn from the middle ranks of the Communist infrastructure, former bureaucrats and members of the Securitate. The FSN’s leader, and the new President, Ion Iliescu, was a former member of the Communist Party’s Central Committee and a Minister for Youth who had been side-lined by Ceausescu decades previously. It is still a subject of some argument in Romania over whether there was ever a true revolution or whether it was simply a coup as so many of Romania’s modern-day elites are still drawn from the former ranks of the Communist Party.

The FSN thus maintained some of the culture, if not the ideological content of Communism. Iliescu’s rule was corrupt, slow to engage in much needed economic reform, and moderately authoritarian. The FSN maintained extensive control over mass-media and Iliescu encouraged violent counter-protests by miners against anti-FSN protesters.

President Iliescu’s infighting with his Prime Minister, Petre Roman, led to a split in the FSN between the two figures. This split would eventually form the basis of Romania’s two major parties. Iliescu’s faction, which was more opposed to change, became the Social Democratic Party (PSD), whereas Roman’s more reformist faction became the Democratic Liberal Party (PDL).

Iliescu would rule until 1996, and then rule again from 2000-4 after defeating the far-right leader Corneliu Vadim Tudor in an election battle compared by many to Jean-Marie Le Pen’s entry into the second round in France two years later.

Romania suffers from massively entrenched corruption, a legacy of the Communist and FSN eras. Romania is ranked joint 69th in the world in the Corruption Perceptions Index, joint with Kuwait and Italy and below countries such as Montenegro, Ghana and Jordan. However, recent high profile arrests and sentencings, such as that of former Iliescu PM Adrian Nastase on corruption charges suggest that corruption is beginning to be punished in Romania, though there are accusations that these trials are politically motivated.

Romania has a very weak civil society and democratic political culture and protests are almost constant. Violence is often seen as the only way to solve political problems – a legacy of the violent revolution of 1989 – though recent campaigns around subjects such as a controversial mining project in Rosia Montana have acted to widen civil society participation into more constructive engagement.

Romania suffers from an exceptionally partisan media and a conflation of political and corporate elites. For instance, the founder of the small Conservative Party, Dan Voiculescu, is one of Romania’s richest men and owns the highly partial Antena 3 television station. It makes it exceptionally difficult for the government to deal with vested interests when Voiculescu is so clearly one of them.

While 88.6% of Romanians are ethnically Romanian there are sizeable minorities. Hungarians (6.5%) and Roma (3%) are particularly notable. Hungarians are predominantly based in Transylvania, especially in the centre of Romania, where they form a majority, and make a sizeable minority along the border with Hungary.

An issue with some currency in Romania is the subject of the neighbouring Republic of Moldova. Most of Moldova was annexed from Romania after WWII by the Soviets and Romanians often view the small country as a lost piece of Romania, Bessarabia. Romanian nationalists desire the eventual reunification of the two countries, and Romania often adopts a ‘big brother’ mentality towards Moldova. Romania has granted citizenship to a significant number of Moldovans, causing fears of Moldovan immigration into the EU (Moldova is the poorest country in Europe).

Mainstream political parties, in reality, barely differ. Romania has stringent party registration laws, 25,000 signatures are needed to register a party. Genuinely new competitors are therefore rare. Politics is very personality focused and parties often act more as patronage networks than genuine political representatives. Romania has not seen the quick rise of unknown parties only to see them combust and collapse in power, but it also means that major political parties lack challengers to their rule.

That said, new parties do appear, but they are often simply splits from existing parties. The current parliament has seen particularly rapid changes of party affiliation amongst political parties and it is now said that some politicians do not even know what party they are supposed to be a member of anymore.

Political disaffection is high. The most recent parliamentary election saw a turnout of 47%. Incredibly this was 8% higher than the prior election.

Romania’s President since 2004 has been Traian Basescu. Basescu was initially of the PDL. Basescu has been a controversial leader, who often falls out with his own colleagues. He has been compared to Silvio Berlusconi due to his anti-establishment rants against newspaper owners, and against parliament which he has previously called a “physical wreck, shortly before death”. He has made derogatory comments about Roma, and has been accused of abuse of the constitution (though he mostly ‘bends’ established precedent rather than explicitly breaks the constitution).

Basescu has a fiery temper, and a habit of falling out with his own allies. While being elected on an anti-corruption ticket, he has totally failed to live up to expectations in this area and has been criticised by opponents as having autocratic leanings. Basescu has a notorious motor-mouth, often going on foul-mouthed tirades against opponents in the parliament or press, or making offensive off-the-cuff comments.

Basescu has been a divisive, controversial and polarising President, however he remained popular with a sizeable minority of the population until 2009, when he barely won re-election by less than 1% of the vote.

Romania, already the second poorest EU country after Bulgaria, was not affected by the financial crisis overly badly, but poor growth and a sizeable public deficit brought in the EU-IMF. In exchange for a €20 billion loan, Romania has had to implement harsh austerity conditions. Public sector workers have seen wage cuts of 25%, VAT has been raised by 5% and public benefits have been cut by 15% (pensions were only saved from this fate by the action of the Constitutional Court).

Austerity was extremely unpopular in Romania and opposition politicians in the Social Democrats and the other major opposition party, the centre-right National Liberal Party (PNL) united in a vast coalition, the Social Liberal Union (USL), recruiting other politicians such as the controversial former far-right leader and billionaire football club owner Gigi Becali and the former green leader, Remus Cernea. Such politicians are only united by opposition to Basescu.

Through defections the USL was able to achieve a parliamentary majority, and the PSD leader, Victor Ponta became Prime Minister. The USL attempted to impeach Basescu, for the second time (a referendum on impeachment had already failed in 2007). The impeachment referendum failed however as, even though 89% of voters voted in favour, the referendum fell 4% short of the necessary 50% turnout (the PDL encouraged people to boycott the vote).

The USL and Basescu were thus thrust into cohabitation. USL rule has been dominated by infighting between Basescu and Ponta who both accuse each other of authoritarian penchants and corruption. On several occasions the Constitutional Court has had to be drafted in to resolve the division of powers between them. The EU has accused Ponta of breaking the country’s constitution, of threatening judges and tampering with democratic checks and balances.

Since the USL won 58.6% of the vote in the 2012 parliament election, giving it a massive majority in parliament, there have been increasing strains in the USL due to its own internal contradictions as an alliance of parties to Basescu’s left and right, united only by opposition to him. The contradictory ambitions of Ponta and PNL leader Crin Antonescu have also served to divide the alliance. Early in 2014 the PNL withdrew from government. The PSD now rules with smaller allied parties and the Hungarian minority party, the UDMR.

The parliament has written a new constitution for Romania which will be put to referendum on the same day as the European election. The new constitution is principally notable for significantly reducing the powers of the President. While this is clearly partially motivated by anti-Basescu feeling, Basescu’s term ends in November of this year and he is term-limited. The new constitution may also be targeted at the PNL’s Antonescu, and maintaining the currently dominant position of Ponta.

However, despite all the infighting the government has quickly gotten the deficit under control and the economy is now performing well. In reaction to British concerns about Romanian immigration the Economist declared “Romania is booming” in 2013, noting economic growth of 4.1%, low unemployment, and rising wages.

Romanian public opinion was broadly pro-European but has become more Eurosceptic due to the support of prominent EU leaders, especially Angela Merkel, for Traian Basescu and his austerity programme.

Electoral System

Romania elects 33 MEPs to the European Parliament.

Romania elects its MEPs in closed-lists. Voters simply vote for parties who receive seats broadly in line with their vote percentage. Seats are filled based on the rankings of political parties. Parties must receive more than 5% of the vote to receive seats, however this threshold does not apply to independent candidatures.

There is a high barrier to entry in European elections in Romania. To run an independent campaign requires 100,000 signatures.

This year Romania’s European elections take place over the entire weekend.

The Romanian European election will take place simultaneously with the referendum on the new constitution.

2009 Election Result

Party European Political Party Votes Seats
Social Democratic Party (PSD) & Conservative Party (PC) Socialists and Democrats 31.1% 11
Democratic Liberal Party (PDL) European People’s Party 29.7% 10
National Liberal Party (PNL) Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe 14.5% 5
Democratic Union of Hungarians in Romania (UDMR) European People’s Party 8.9% 3
Greater Romania Party (PRM) None 8.7% 3
Independent – Elena Basescu (Joined PDL on election, now PMP member) European People’s Party 4.2% 1

New parties since 2009:

Civic Force (FC)

Popular Movement Party (PMP)

People’s Party – Dan Diaconescu (PP-DD)

Likely results

Polls show the PSD and its allies streets ahead of the competition, on course to win between 40% and 45% of the vote. The PNL is in a distant second place, on around 15%-17%. The split in the PDL has hurt both parties, with both the PDL and the PMP polling around equally with around 10% of the vote a piece. Civic Force is polling around the threshold, and may just miss out on seats, whereas Diaconescu’s People’s Party is polling just below the threshold but may succeed if low turnout benefits them.

The PRM’s polling numbers are now negligible.