Under Liviu Dragnea, the Social Democrats became a byword for corruption and graft. Now a new crop of leaders says that the party has changed.
Liviu Dragnea’s release from a Bucharest prison after serving two-and-half years for corruption on July 15 received little fanfare.
Five years ago, Dragnea was considered the most powerful man in Romanian politics. By 2021, he was just an angry ex-con, ranting to the few journalists willing to listen that his former colleagues in the Social Democrats were “cowards”.
It had been a spectacular fall from grace for the man who had led the PSD to a landslide victory in parliamentary elections in 2016, winning over 45% of the vote.
Dragnea was prevented from becoming prime minister due to a conviction for vote-rigging but he effectively ran the PSD -- and Romania -- via his proxies.
His personal approval ratings were high, and he was even compared to Jaroslav Kaczynski, the leader of Poland’s Law and Justice (PiS) party, which had taken power a year earlier in 2015.
It was a good time for nationalist-leaning European populists, buoyed by Brexit and Viktor Orban and energised by the 2015 migrant crisis, which had led to a furious backlash against the European Union.
But a PSD law that restricted the ability of the courts to investigate and convict lawmakers for abuse of office in 2017 led to the biggest anti-government protests in Romania since the end of Communism, and was the beginning of the end of the PSD’s resurgence - and Dragnea’s political career.
Over the next year, the PSD had three prime ministers, two of them ousted by their own party for falling foul of Dragnea. By 2019, the PSD’s reputation was in tatters - and Dragnea was in jail.
Voters punished the PSD during parliamentary elections in 2020, when it suffered its worst election result since 1996, winning 28.9% of the vote. It was some consolation that its rivals fared just as badly, with the National Liberal Party (PNL) of Ludovic Orban winning just 22%.
Despite being the biggest party, the PSD was not asked to form a government by PNL President Klaus Iohannis, and a coalition deal between the PNL and a new party, USR Plus, was inked.
“The PSD was strategically isolated. It was considered toxic,” said Costin Ciobanu, an analyst in Bucharest.
Yet, as of November 2021, the PSD is back in power in Romania, as part of a coalition deal with its most bitter rivals, the PNL. The deal will see the PSD and PNL rotate the prime minister position for 18 months each and share cabinet posts, bringing them up to the 2024 elections.
There has even been speculation that the alliance could even hold for seven years, two more parliamentary terms, and enact constitutional reform that would transform Romania into a parliamentary -- rather than a presidential -- republic. That would mean that the president, currently directly elected (as in France), would be appointed by parliament (as in Germany).
That would be favoured by the PSD, which has failed to win a presidential election since 2000.
PSD Spokesperson Radu Oprea told Euronews that the days of Dragnea and the PSD's association with corruption and graft were now behind it.
"Today, there's a new PSD. When we published our election list there was nobody on it that was linked with corruption. Everyone was clean," Oprea said.
"But we accept our history," he added, "what happened in those days with the PSD, we have to know it, in order that it doesn't happen again."
It has largely been the failings of the PNL that have enabled the PSD's unlikely comeback. The liberals are riven by internal fighting, with those loyal to the former prime minister, Ludovic Orban, facing off against his replacement, Florin Citu, and President Iohannis.
In 2021, the PNL also burned its bridges with its natural allies, the pro-European USR Plus - now known as USR - after Citu fired USR Justice Minister Stelian Ion in a row over a 10 billion euro infrastructure bill.
The move led to the collapse of Citu’s government and two failures, the first by USR and the second by PNL, to form a new one capable of winning parliamentary support.
A third failed attempt would have triggered early elections, an outcome that none of the three major parties in Romania wanted during a resurgence of COVID-19, a bitterly cold winter, and growing frustration with the political class on the part of Romanian voters.
Indeed, the only party that did want new elections was the far-right Alliance for the Union of Moldova and Romania.
The AUR came out of nowhere in 2019 to seize 16% of the vote and its criticism of the government’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis - and in particular, the lockdowns that Bucharest implemented to deal with the spread of the virus - has seen its support grow in recent months.
So the PSD-PNL deal is a marriage of convenience - and one that has provoked criticism and allegations of hypocrisy from the opposition.
USR leader and former MEP Dacian Ciolos said he was “revolted” by the deal, which demonstrated that to the PNL "all that mattered was access to resources and power. [It is] detached from the real needs of the people".
As for the PSD, the new leadership -- the “cowards” of Dragnea’s recent outbursts -- are either those who were critics of the former leader or at least were not loyalists, including its current leader, Marcel Ciolacu.
Sorin Grindeanu, who will now become deputy prime minister in the new government, meanwhile, was one of the two PMs ousted in 2017 by his own party on Dragnea’s orders.
But not everyone is convinced by PSD’s attempt to distance itself from Dragnea and his allies.
“It is true that a few faces in the leadership of the party have changed,” Andrei Lupu, a USR lawmaker, told Euronews, “but the people in the second line, they haven’t changed.”
Lupu, who took part in the protests against the 2017 rules that would have restricted the ability to convict sitting politicians of abuse of office, points out that it was Grindeanu, the new PSD deputy prime minister, whose cabinet introduced the law that sparked the demonstrations.
The PSD's Oprea counters, however, that while it is true that Grindeanu signed the law - known as 'Ordinance 13' - he also signed the subsequent piece of legislation that retracted it.
Ideologically, the PSD has straddled left and right in Romania, pushing for better welfare and pensions while also being critical of perceived European political overreach. But like other parties - including the PNL - the traditional left-right political axis is not a feature of politics in Romania, Radu Magdin, an analyst in Bucharest, told Euronews.
“History shows us, the most liberal, pro-business measures were adopted during the PSD's time in office and numerous social measures have been taken by the PNL,” he said.
But under Dragnea, the PSD openly courted nationalist voters, particularly after the Greater Romania Party of Corneliu Vadim Tudor came in second place in parliamentary elections in 2000 and third in 2004. Tudor even made it to the second round of the presidential election in 2000, taking 33% of the national vote.
“Dragnea heavily cultivated these voters, with his discourse on economic nationalism, the role of the traditional family, and the pride to be Romanian,” Magdin said.
Whether or not the PSD has changed since Dragnea’s fall from grace - or will change now it is in government - the party remains “one of the defining features in Romanian politics”, said Magdin, able to rely on around a third of the Romanian electorate that will vote for it whatever it does.
As other parties -- most notably the PNL -- flounder, the PSD’s popularity is rising, and it has less to lose -- electorally -- by forming a government with the PNL than the PNL does.
“If a PSD in power cannot defend the interests of its voters, if it agrees to austerity measures, if ministers are hurt by a perception of incompetence, then it will face political repercussions,” said Costin. “But at the moment, it is harder for PNL voters to accept the deal than it is for PSD.”
For USR’s Lupu, who was born in 1994, both the PSD and the PNL represent the old guard that has dominated Romanian politics since the end of Communism. In that, neither party can effectively represent the millions of Romanians of his own generation that grew up in the 90s and who see, in Europe, the only viable future for Romania.
“My generation grew up when the most important battle was between European values and pro-Russian values. At some point in time, Romania chose European values and my generation still believes in these values,” he told Euronews.
“What the PSD-PNL are trying to do in Romania’s parliament is isolate those pro-European forces and prevent them from winning an election in 2024.”
Someone else who has their eye on elections in 2024 is Liviu Dragnea, who has left the PSD since getting out of jail and formed a new political party, the Alliance for the Fatherland.
On 1 December 2021, Romania’s national day, he live-streamed on Facebook a rally of a few dozen supporters waving Romanian flags on a cold Bucharest morning.
For the PSD's Oprea, Dragnea's new political venture is evidence that the PSD is not the party it once was.
"Dragnea is out there trying to form his own party now, despite the fact that he is not able to due to his legal... issues," Oprea said. "We have completely split from the past."
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