Voters will decide the fate of Romanian democracy

This year’s European elections could be of great importance, given the pressures and challenges within the EU, the United Kingdom’s possible exit, and other international tensions. With less than two million citizens, Latvia has only eight mandates in the European Parliament; how can it best stand for their interests and for solidarity and cooperation? A new article from our special series on the European elections.

In Romania, the electoral campaign for the European Parliament is beset by internal political issues. These issues are rather serious, to say the least. Since 2016, Romania has been ruled by a government formed by the Social Democratic Party (PSD) and the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), supported in Parliament by the political wing of the Hungarian minority (UDMR, Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania).

For the past 2 years, the PSD-ALDE coalition has amended several laws concerning the organisation of the judicial system: for instance, a special department for investigating the conduct of magistrates was established within the General Prosecutor’s office. This department is viewed by magistrates’ professional associations as a force of intimidation, aiming at political control. Among other actions, this department launched a criminal inquiry against Laura Codruța Kövesi on the very same day that the European Parliament was evaluating her candidacy for the position of European Chief Prosecutor. The amendments to the judicial system have been strongly criticized by the European Commission, the Venice Commission and the Group of States against Corruption (GRECO).

The current government has also introduced several controversial economic measures, such as extra fees on banks and telecom companies, new taxes on businesses, and salaries exceeding labour productivity levels. Such measures have led to rising inflation and could cause a recession, according to business analysts.

With such concerns weighing heavily, interest in European matters has fallen. The opposition – formed by the National Liberal Party (PNL) and a coalition of two new parties (USR-PLUS) led by Dacian Cioloș, former European Commissioner for Agriculture – has not managed to bring any new topics to centre-stage, since its main focus is counteracting the government’s current activities, especially the attacks on the judicial system.

At PSD electoral rallies, the main topics are the level of economic growth over the last few years, and the increase in wages and pensions. Recently, PSD leader Liviu Dragnea gave a speech in which he criticized European institutions (for “trampling on Romania’s sovereignty”) and multinational companies (for “exporting their profits”), and recommended checks on imported fruit and vegetables from other EU countries because they are “more expensive and less good than ours”. For a long time now, PSD has been fond of this kind of nationalist and populist discourse, not dissimilar to that of Viktor Orbán or Matteo Salvini. In 2017, when the Romanian government tried to issue an emergency ordinance for the decriminalization of certain corruption offences, it triggered massive public protests, leading Dragnea to claim that the protesters were “paid by George Soros”. PSD was recently suspended from the Party of European Socialists (PES).

The National Liberal Party (which opinion polls credit with 20-25% of voting intentions, similar to PSD) has criticized PSD’s measures, but seems defensive and ill-equipped to publicly debate European issues. Lately, PNL has been more active, supporting the actions of Romania’s president, Klaus Iohannis, who strives to defend the judicial system from PSD’s attacks.

The USR-PLUS coalition is, for the moment, the only political force interested in European themes and issues, especially one specific issue which has been hotly debated since 2007 (when Romania became an EU member state): EU funding. For the past 12 years, Romanian governments have only been able to absorb EU funds in small portions, because they couldn’t put forward enough major projects. The best performance in this respect belongs to the technocrat government led by Dacian Cioloș, in 2016: 7 billion euros. USR-PLUS are therefore discussing EU funding issues, and also the role of the future European Parliament, in which the populist and autonomist presence looks set to be sizeable. Moreover, USR is collaborating with En Marche and ALDE in view of forming a pro-European group in the future Parliament.

Romanian public opinion has, for many years now, been very favorable to integration in the European Union. According to Eurostat surveys over the past ten years, out of all EU populations, Romanians had the highest confidence in the European Commission and the European Parliament. Lately, public opinion has been deeply divided over PSD’s interference with the judicial system. Many PSD leaders (including president Liviu Dragnea, who has been sentenced to jail and is under investigation for other offences) are facing judicial inquiries for corruption, and much of the public believes these amendments are meant to cover the misdeeds of PSD.

Others, under the influence of propaganda from several biased TV channels, believe that the ruling party leaders are in fact “political victims” of the justice system.

Thus, the public space is currently undergoing a propaganda war, which hampers the emergence of any substantial debate on other topics. Furthermore, the nationalist, anti-European discourse promoted by certain political leaders has led to a significant drop in Romanian citizens’ trust in the EU: a Eurostat survey from October 2018 showed that only 49 percent of Romanians thought that their country’s membership in the EU is a positive thing (as opposed to 59 percent in April 2018).

Against this background, the May 26 elections should provide a crucial view of Romania’s present and future course: will it remain a state of law, compliant with European values, or will it become an illiberal democracy? Everything depends on the turnout: in 2014, 32 percent of citizens voted. This time round, a slightly higher turnout is predicted (about 35-38 percent). A low turnout will favor PSD, who seem more and more inclined towards illiberal democracy.

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