Romanian Ruling Coalition Employs Maneuver To Suppress Opposition In Elections

Politics - March 6, 2024

For the past three years, Romania has been ruled by its two biggest and oldest parties since the collapse of the communist regime. Once enemies, the National Liberal Party (PNL) and the Party of Social Democrats (PSD), have shook hands in 2021 to create a mammoth coalition in the name of “stability”. The danger cited by them was the “war at the border”, a reference to the situation in Ukraine. Many citizens and NGO’s protested the move, calling on decision-makers to abstain from bringing back what they viewed as “the one-party state”.

Another argument invoked by the newly formed coalition (comprising over 60% of parliament votes) was that such maneuver was necessary to combat the rise of “extremism”, referring to the other two smaller parties in the Romanian parliament – USR (The Save Romania Union) and AUR (Alliance for the Unity of Romanians).

No proof of said “extremism” was displayed other than the fact that the two smaller parties have become too vocal in criticizing the government during a time of uncertainty. The tactic of portraying one’s opponents as extremists is, however, as old as time, and not too many Romanians have swallowed it up how the governing coalition was expecting them to.

Time passed by and USR (rather progressive and member of Renew Europe) started gathering more leverage in the national polls, as did AUR (that claims itself conservative and attempts to join the ECR). Moreover, smaller parties appeared on the political stage of Romania, even though the current legislation throws numerous obstacles at their participation in elections. Despite the 500.000 signatures required to run, despite the overwhelming gap in financing that is created by the fact parties in parliament receive state financing (millions of euros) and newborn parties don’t, some of the newcomers managed to push through and gain a foothold of popularity in the country.

Ten years ago, the national liberals (PNL) would represent the only solution against the ever-ruling social democrats (PSD) who made a habit out of expanding social security, making the government apparatus larger, giving benefits and privileges to state employees and, worst of all, raising taxes on the private sector in order to finance all the Santa Claus policies aimed at their electorate.

However, the rise of new opposition parties has been an issue mostly for the PNL. Even if AUR and USR diverge in the progressive against conservative spectrum, both seek votes from the private sector and from the people generally displeased with the lack of meritocracy and with the abundance of government corruption. The new parties that formed, with an epitome for this being Alternativa Dreaptă, took the economic reform agenda even further, proposing a total cut-off from the nanny-state policies of the past.

Threatened by this new reality, in 2021 the national liberals were quick to jump on the boat of those who they described as mortal enemies just a few months before. Needless to say, once arrived in this mammoth coalition, the main focus of policies was the state apparatus, with the private sector being the one to pay the bill. Part time work was taxed higher, small business was stripped of economic incentives and taxes were raised. Meanwhile, the grand coalition kept employing new public servants, creating new institutions and generally placing party members in the most highly payed (from the citizens pocket) positions.

But recent polls grew more and more negative towards PNL (member of the EPP political family). If the 2020 elections saw them earning 25% of the popular vote, some of the most recent polling showed them as low as 15%. A nearly-half decrease in support from a population that felt the promises made by the so-called economic liberals were betrayed.

With their now bigger brother, the socialists, stuck around 30%, the future of the mammoth coalition was starting to come into question. But holding the reins of government comes with enormous privileges in Romania, such as being able to decide on how elections will be organized. And so, PNL started persuading their partner to a plan that would throw a huge obstacle in the momentum of their common enemies.

Having been the only two major political forces for the past decade, PNL and PSD have a monopoly on the mayors and county presidents of Romania. Not even 10% of the local administration is controlled by the current opposition, with their exposure being mostly at the national level. Theoretically, the elections for the European Parliament should have been held in summer, followed by local elections in autumn. The two ruling parties figured out that allowing the opposition (and the smaller parties not yet in parliament) to run free in the EP elections would offer them the advantage of criticizing failed foreign affairs endeavors of the government, such as the refusal of ascension to Schengen, or the constant voting against national interests in Bruxelles and Strasbourg.

Their decided course of action, which has now come to fruition, was the merging of elections. The vote for the European Parliament would be given in the exact same day as the vote for mayors and county presidents, the 9th of June. This allows the ruling parties to not only mobilize the rural masses of voters more thoroughly, but to also move the discussion from foreign policy blunders to local topics, where the opposition has little to no representation at all. These are not the only catches, however. With local elections now moved three months earlier, opposition parties have even less time to decide on local candidates.

If a certain figure would have proved popular during the European elections, he or she could have gathered the momentum to take on incumbents at the local level, given the scenario in which they wouldn’t have obtained an MEP seat. Now that option is gone. The opposition cannot propose the same person for multiple roles, having to provide full lists of potential MEPs, mayors, county presidents and municipality council members. All at once, with the penalty of disqualification looming if they fail to do so.

Even worse, the ruling coalition has refused to change the electoral rules from a one-round system (winner takes all, even if he/she does not reach 50% + 1 of the votes) to a two-round election for mayors. In certain areas the opposition could make a common front in the second round against an incumbent, but that option is not on the table. Say X (incumbent) gains 34% of the ballots, Y 33,5% and Z 33%. It does not matter if Z is willing to support Y (both being opposition candidates) in a potential second round between him and X. It does not matter if they are willing to cooperate and share power post-elections. The seat of mayor will go to X, even if the majority of the vote was against him. This is highly undemocratic and major setback in uniting opposition figures.

And to top it all off, PNL and PSD have decided to run common lists of candidates at the European level and, in some important places, at local levels. Those who for years pretended to be the champions of the private sector are now slowly melting into the big old socialist party that stems its root from the former communist apparatus. Some commentators believe that this will help them emerge over 50%, as one entity, proving so that the average Romanian citizen still trusts established politicians more than newcomers. However, not everyone believes this. Some analysts have warned the mammoth coalition that this undemocratic move might backfire, resulting in a vote of protest that favors the opposition. All in all, the coming summer will represent something worth watching for those interested in Romanian and Eastern European politics.