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Romania lurches into another political crisis as Florin Citu clings to power

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By Orlando Crowcroft
In this Nov. 6, 2019 photograph, Romanian Finance Minister Florin Citu speaks to the media during his first press conference after the government was sworn in, in Bucharest.
In this Nov. 6, 2019 photograph, Romanian Finance Minister Florin Citu speaks to the media during his first press conference after the government was sworn in, in Bucharest.   -   Copyright  Credit: AP
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It has been just nine months since the elections that saw the National Liberal Party (PNL) narrowly cling to power in Romania by forging a coalition with political newcomers and kingmakers, USR-Plus.

That election saw the end of the tenure as prime minister of Ludovic Orban and his replacement by his finance minister, Florin Citu. The PNL won 41 seats to the Socialist Party’s 47, but the 25 seats won by USR-Plus and its willingness to support Citu made the difference.

Now Citu’s government is on the verge of collapse after his decision to fire his justice minister. The dismissal of Stelian Ion, a member of the USR-Plus, led to the withdrawal of the smaller party from his coalition.

It not only cost Citu his slim majority but a strong rebuke from his predecessor, Orban, whose supporters want him to make a political comeback and take back the parliamentary reins of the PNL.

The decision also led USR-Plus to lodge a no-confidence motion against Citu that could effectively have brought an end to his leadership and likely lead to Orban replacing him.

The motion was supported by the ultra-nationalist Alliance for Romanian Unity (AUR), which stunned observers in December 2020 when it took 9% of the vote in parliamentary elections.

The reason that didn’t happen this week is that Citu and his allies abstained from the vote in parliament and persuaded their arch-rivals, the PSD, to do the same. As a result, there was not a quorum in the Romanian parliament and though the motion was read it could not proceed.

In a further effort to disrupt the motion, Citu complained to Romania’s constitutional court and has argued that it should not be raised again in parliament until the court’s decision has been made.

Romania has lurched from political crisis to political crisis with alarming regularity in recent years.

In 2016, weeks after the PSD won parliamentary elections with almost 45.5% of the vote, its leader Liviu Dragnea was indicted on corruption charges for which he was later jailed.

The government of Dragnea’s replacement, Viorica Dancila, collapsed in 2019, bringing Orban to power at the head of a coalition with USR-Plus, itself a coalition of smaller, pro-European parties.

Between that and the elections in December 2020, the government weathered both the COVID-19 pandemic and a no-confidence motion brought against Orban, but an underwhelming result in the parliamentary elections saw Orban resign as prime minister to be replaced by Citu.

“I will not cling to my position as prime minister,” Orban said in his televised resignation speech.

Orban, however, has remained active in politics and remains president of the PNL. He is due to take on Citu for the leadership of the party later this month.

In 2020, Citu was poised to take over as prime minister after a no-confidence vote in Orban, but at the last minute, he withdrew his candidacy and Orban instead formed another government.

The rivalry between the two men has been revived in recent weeks over the firing of Ion and is complicated by the fact that President Klaus Iohannis is believed to be against Orban returning.

The problems in Romanian politics are, of course, far greater than the rivalry between Orban and Citu.

The country is seeing a resurgence of COVID-19 and the pandemic has highlighted the serious deficiencies in its health service, particularly after a number of deadly hospital fires.

'Nightmare scenario'

Turnout at last year’s election was just 32%, an historic low, with Romanian voters apathetic and disillusioned over the years of corruption scandals and the failure of successive governments to tackle income inequality and the exodus of Romanians heading overseas to find work and prospects.

The current spat in the PNL will do little to improve the party’s standing with the public, while Citu’s reliance on the rival PSD to prevent his ousting has already led to criticism from within his party.

Ionel Danca, a PNL MP, told Euronews that he believed the efforts to block the motion by abstaining and denying parliament a quorum was not only untransparent but anti-democratic. He said the decision to work with the PSD to do so was a violation of the mandate provided by Romanian voters.

“They asked us to govern without the Socialist Party, and so any accommodation with this party is against the vote that the party received in the last election,” he said.

Danca acknowledged that the current political crisis was a “nightmare scenario” for the PNL, which was already reeling from its underwhelming results in last year’s election. He said he believed if Citu was not the leader of the PNL, the USR-Plus MPs would return to the coalition.

Euronews has reached out to Citu for comment.