Will apathy be the winner in Romania's parliamentary election?

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By Orlando Crowcroft
Romanian Prime Minister Ludovic Orban, walks on the Promenade Marie de Roumanie in Paris, Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020.
Romanian Prime Minister Ludovic Orban, walks on the Promenade Marie de Roumanie in Paris, Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020.   -  Copyright  Benoit Tessier/Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved

Romanian prime minister Ludovic Orban once made headlines for comparing its then-president Traian Basescu to Sauron, the ruler of the land of Mordor in JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.

That was in 2008 when Orban was serving an eight-month stint as transport minister in a similarly short-lived National Liberal Party (PNL) government. 

A few months later, the PNL was soundly beaten in elections and Orban returned to being a member of parliament for Bucharest.

It would be almost ten years before Orban would become the leader of the PNL, and it would take another beating at the ballot box to get him there. In 2016 elections, the rival Social Democratic Party (PSD) headed by Liviu Dragnea, swept the polls, winning almost 45.5% of the vote.

The PNL, under leader Alina Gorghiu, got less than 20%, and when Gorghiu resigned it was Orban who replaced her, with a decisive 78% of the vote in the leadership elections.

Credit: AP
Liviu DragneaCredit: AP

Orban’s subsequent journey from the leader of a relatively marginal centre-right political party in 2017 to prime minister of Romania two years later has little to do with his own political machinations. It has much more to do with the spectacular meltdown of the PSD.

After leading his party to victory in 2016, Dragnea was indicted on corruption charges and two years later sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison. Meanwhile, the PSD government’s attempt to amend the country’s criminal code led to massive street protests.

In 2019, the collapse of the government of Viorica Dancila, Dragnea’s replacement, saw Orban appointed prime minister by President Klaus Iohannis. He headed a three-party coalition made up of the PNL, the Christian Democratic People’s Movement Party (PMP) and USR Plus, itself a coalition of two smaller, liberal parties with a strong European agenda.

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic and a vote of no confidence earlier this year, that coalition and Orban’s leadership has held. But on December 6 it will face its first test of public rather than political support when Romania goes to the polls in the first parliamentary elections since 2016.

Orban and Iohannis, who is also PNL, have resisted calls to postpone the election until 2021, arguing that the safety measures - which restrict people from leaving their homes except for essential trips - would ensure that there would not be another spike in cases after the vote.

But despite the mass protests and the corruption scandal that embroiled the PSD, neither Orban nor his National Liberal Party (PNL) has generated much enthusiasm in Romania since taking office. As a result, there is only limited interest amongst the public for Sunday’s election.

Radu Magdin, a political analyst in Bucharest, told Euronews that turnout could be historically low, around 30% of total registered voters, compared to 39.5% in 2016. That is partly due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but it also reflects a disappointment amongst voters in their choices.

Credit: AP
Will COVID-19 mean turnout is lower than normal?Credit: AP

“People are obviously concerned with COVID-19 and its health and economic consequences, but many are also disappointed with what the PSD and the PNL have to offer,” Magdin said.

Although President Iohannis is a PNL member (and a former leader of the party) convention dictates that he appoint a prime minister whose party wins the largest share of the vote, or is most likely to be able to form a coalition government that has the support of parliament.

The closer the result is on Sunday, the more frenzied the political horse-trading will in parliament to put together a government, especially given reports in recent weeks that cracks have emerged between the three parties in Orban’s current governing coalition.

And despite the PSD’s very public meltdown between 2016 and 2019, the party retains a broad base of support. “The PSD seems in a weak and isolated position, but still has strong local roots,” said Magdin.

In recent days, Iohannis has disputed the idea of presidential neutrality when it comes to appointing a prime minister, likely confident that Orban’s current coalition can win enough seats to form another government after Sunday’s poll.

Indeed, it may be fait accompli: even the most optimistic expectations for the PSD do not predict it winning more than 25% of the national vote.

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