The triumph and failure of Dragnea
After Ponta’s resignation from office, he predictably came under investigation by the National Anticorruption Directorate, the DNA. A powerful office created under Basescu with the support of the European Union to weed out elite-level corruption. The DNA had become one of the most popular institutions in Romania, with its head, the single-minded Laura Kovesi, becoming one of the most popular people in Romania. Ponta was forced out of the PSD leadership as a result.
He was replaced by Liviu Dragnea, who had particular purchase with the PSD’s regional barons. It was Dragnea who presided over the victory of 2016, but he inevitably ran into a problem — he had a suspended sentence for electoral fraud, relating to the second Basescu impeachment referendum. Iohannis quickly announced that he would not make anyone who had an outstanding criminal record Prime Minister, effectively ruling Dragnea out. BUT parliament had a majority in favour of a PSD PM, which had to be respected under Romania’s semi-presidential constitution, as any new PM needed to survive a vote of confidence. So Dragnea attempted to find a surrogate while he served as President of the Chamber of Deputies. The new PSD government was hence notionally headed by Sorin Grindescu, but in reality, it was Dragnea who everyone understood to be in charge.
Dragnea’s priority was simple: expunge his criminal record so that he could become Prime Minister on his own terms. In an attempt to facilitate this, the government attempted to pass into law, in the dead of night, a law allowing for the pardoning of corrupt politicians.
Romanians are a rebellious bunch. The revolution taught Romanians that if you want something done, the best thing to do is to organise fifty of your mates and to start direct action. When Raluca was still new to Britain I remember she was intensely annoyed about a political issue, I forget what. She started talking about the protests she was going to organise. ‘Have you considered writing to your MP’ I asked. ‘Pardon’ ‘Have you considered writing to your MP. Your MP is Dianne Abbott, she would probably agree with you’. This had literally never occurred to Raluca before.
Walking around Bucharest on an average day it’s quite often the case that you’ll bump into protests. And protests and the politics of the street have repeatedly made and effected change in Romania, whether its causing a new dog on sheepdogs to fail after shepherds storm parliament, the forced resignation of the Ponta government or the energy of the Rosia Montana protests, protests in Romania are often significant events.
So, this naked attempt to use a point in the constitution designed to pass legislation in times of national crisis in an attempt to get the ability to pardon corrupt politicians passed came to light you better belief Romanians weren’t going to take it lying down. At first protests were small, but they quickly gained steam, peaking at half a million protesters with 300,000 in Bucharest alone (a city of less than 2m in a country of less than 20m). On one of our visits Raluca’s mother proudly showed me the signs she’d made up. She’d protested Iliescu in the 90s. Half annoyed, half wistfully she simply said ‘I can’t believe I’m still protesting this shit’.
The mobilisation scared the PSD rotten, and the attempt was withdrawn, but the government claim it would pass the legislation through ordinary means instead mobilised people further. In the end the legislation was withdrawn, and eventually Grindeanu was no confidenced by his own party as Dragnea sought to replace him.
The protesters may not have been so successful if Iohannis had not used the limited powers of the Presidency, but particularly its legitimacy — joining the protests himself.
Alongside all this anti-corruption politics was beginning to mobilise. The 2016 local elections had been a rousing success for the PSD, especially as a change of the mayoral electoral system hurt a splintered opposition. But in Bucharest a new local party had been formed called the Union to Save Bucharest, headed by a civic activist and mathematician called Nicusor Dan on a varied platform but particularly an anti-corruption theme. The USB became the USR, with the Bucharest switched to Romania, soon after the locals, mobilising itself in cities and gaining popularity with young educated voters, linking into new movements. The party had managed to win 8.9% of the vote in the 2016 parliamentary election, giving it a small, but inexperienced causus of MPs. They quickly broke into infighting as a party marked by agreement only on anticorruption became increasingly divided on ideological issues (Dan himself would leave the party over same-sex marriage). It became clear that the party had an increasingly liberal bent to it, reflecting its activist base. But after this early infighting began to quickly professionalise.
It was helped by an alliance with Dacian Ciolos, the former technocratic PM, who had formed his own party PLUS. The Alliance between the two parties was difficult in some ways, but they had shared priorities and brought different organisational advantages. Ciolos was a policy expert and had credibility as a former PM and brought with him a network of policy experts. USR had built up a powerful grassroots network.
The USR also showed off its organisational muscle during the same-sex marriage referendum which it opposed. The USR opposed the measure, but knowing that it was unlikely to be voted down in absolute terms, the USR, Iohannis and Romanian LGBT organisations campaigned for a boycott, on the basis that if the referendum received a turnout of below 30% it would be invalid. 93% of those who voted voted in favour, but only 21% bothered to vote (one article I read at the time featured a Romanian man saying the polling station was emptier than his fridge, and nothing is more offensive to a Romanian than visiting an empty fridge). The USR showed off along the way by managing to accurately broadcast the low turnout figures before the national electoral commission, embarrassing the PSD further.
The PSD’s rule continued nonetheless. Its core concern was still attempting to be able to pardon politicians, which led to continued protests. It also began a culture war against the DNA, accusing it of political bias and falsifying evidence. Former PM Taraceanu, the leader of the PSD’s junior coalition partner, compared the DNA to the Securitate in one particularly ludicrous outburst. In the meantime, it began to rack up deficits by increasing spending without increasing the tax base, leading to increasing inflation despite a growing economy and low unemployment. This caused an increase in the cost of living leading to greater anger.
Dragnea’s anger with his own Prime Ministers caused him to fire yet another, Mihai Tudose, before settling on Viorica Dancila, leaving Romania with 3 PSD PMs in 3 years. Government instability, a sense that the PSD had become incompetent, and an unfortunate economic situation saw PSD popularity began to tumble. The same-sex marriage referendum, an attempt to gain favour with Romania’s influential Orthodox Church, angered social conservatives, who saw it as a failure by the PSD and confused most voters who while not pro-LGBT rights were hardly exercised about them compared to cost of living issues.
In the wake of this, Victor Ponta reared his head again, splitting off from the PSD with his new PRO Romania party, which he claimed stood for true social democracy. The PSD’s junior coalition partner became restless too, with Taraceanu trying to present himself as the moderate face of the government, and clearly eyeing a run at the Presidency.
The 2019 European elections turned out to be a disaster for the PSD, however on a level no one really expected. Iohannis had set up a referendum for the same day. It had two questions:
1. Do you agree with the prohibition on amnesties and pardons for corruption offences?
2. Do you agree with the prohibition of the approval by the Government of emergency ordinances in the field of offences, punishments and judicial organisation and with the extension of the right to directly appeal against the ordinances to the Constitutional Court?
In other words, should both pass, the government would not be able to pass emergency ordinances related to judicial issues or pass laws allowing amnesties or pardons for corrupt officials. But this would need a turnout of 30% which the European elections might only just pass. If PSD supporters could be persuaded to boycott just that ballot, it would not pass on a normal circumstance.
As it happened, turnout in the European election was the highest ever, higher even than the previous national parliament election by a good 12 points. 51% voted, a demonstration of how angry voters were with the ruling party. The PNL won, on an admittedly unimpressive 27%. The PSD won 22.5%, its worst result in a national election in Romania since its formation, and it only just pipped the USR/PLUS alliance to 2nd, with the latter winning just under 22.4%. Ponta’s PRO won 6%, Taraceanu’s ALDE failed to pass the 5% threshold, adding insult to misery. The referendum passed. Both questions saw turnout in excess of 40% and won more than 85% support of voters.
The next day, a court sentenced Dragnea to a three-and-a-half-year jail sentence. His political career was in ruins. The PSD settled on Dancila as its leader and Presidential candidate, but her candidacy was dead on arrival. A recent poll carried out by the PSD themselves has Iohannis on 41%, Dancila on 26%, Dan Barna (USR leader) on 12%.
A vote of confidence in parliament recently removed the PSD government, despite the party winning a huge victory at the start of the parliamentary term. Romania now has a caretaker administration led by PNL leader Ludovic Orban (no relation), with many ministries filled by technocrats.