(Un)surprising Romania and the 2020 parliamentary elections

The post-election Romanian picture reveals a country that, in addition to finding better responses to the pandemic challenge, has to solve the complicated equation of coalition politics. All in all, the recent legislative elections are a blend of knowns and unknowns.

Let’s start with the predictable

First, even before the elections, it was a high degree of certainty that the incumbent party, the Liberals (PNL), will form a governing coalition with the USR-PLUS Alliance, a center-right party, and, potentially, with the party of the Hungarian minority, UDMR, and with the party of former President Traian Basescu, PMP (provided that this party will pass the electoral threshold). This is the most likely outcome of the election. The prediction has to do with the isolation of the Social-Democrats, who, although the main political party of the country, cannot find a partner to form a stable and functional majority.

Moreover, the role of President Klaus Iohannis is decisive in contexts in which no party gets over 50% of the seats, as he has the constitutional prerogative to designate a candidate to seek to form a majority in the Parliament. Iohannis’ activity during the electoral campaign did not improve the chances of the liberals, quite the contrary. But it was only party leader Ludovic Orban who took the heat for the political defeat and resigned as prime minister, clearing the way for Iohannis faithful Nicolae Ciuca as interim prime minister. Ciuca was defense minister in Ludovic Orban cabinet and is likely to continue in the military portfolio under a future coalition.

Second, given the government’s handling of the sanitary and economic crisis, it was expected for the PSD to increase its support from the abysmal score obtained in the 2019 European elections. Indeed, the party did well and is very close to the 30% bar, but still well below the 46% score obtained in the previous legislative elections. The Social-Democrats will be the main opposition party and are hoping to score big in 2024 when four different types of elections are scheduled (local, European, parliamentary and presidential).

Despite the rhetoric, the left does not seem really interested in governing, given the envisaged magnitude of the pandemic and the fact that no one really wants to be associated with potential spending cuts or raise taxes – kryptonite in Romanian politics, based on the 2010 experience.

Let’s move to the unpredictable

A new party, AUR, that is described by some as having extreme-right undertones, took the Romanian politics by storm and got around 9% of the votes. After a lackluster performance in the local election, they reinvented themselves and assembled a coalition of the left-behind: strong cultural conservatives, nationalists, unionists, anti-vaxxers, anti-globalization supporters, all united under the same flag.

AUR took advantage of the general dissatisfaction with politics in the Romanian public and in particular of the incoherent response to the pandemic. The party got traction in the polls only a few weeks before the elections, and it remains to be seen how the parliamentary experience will normalize its discourse.

For now, they reject any discussion with established parties and seek to consolidate their brand in the opposition. It remains to be seen whether the party will survive contact with the parliament’s activity. It is not clear what the AUR policy agenda involves, beyond some points about the environment and the relationship with the Republic of Moldova; so, no straightforward ideas about the fiscal policies of the party, for example.

Moreover, the party could have the fate of PPDD, a similarly populist party that entered Parliament with 14% of the votes in 2012 and ended up being destructured by the PSD and its allies to secure a majority without the Liberals. So, AUR could become a reservoir of parliamentary voters for the PNL in case the relationship with the USR – Plus Alliance does not work.

ProRomania, the party of former prime ministers Victor Ponta and Calin Popescu-Tariceanu, and PMP did not manage to clear the electoral threshold (the results remain to be confirmed for the PMP, which is close to 5%, but still below). The PSD now remains uncontested on the left, while the PMP will probably merge with the Liberals in 2021. The ProRomania merger with ALDE, the party of Tariceanu, was not a sign of strength, but rather a confirmation that things are not on the right path: association with Tariceanu did not help Ponta.

Currently, as the easy part of elections is over, the negotiations for the government can start and a realistic plan for the next four years will have to be put together. It will not be a smooth process. The PNL and USR-Plus Alliance have very different electoral bases and philosophies of doing politics, and the multi-dimensional crisis will only exacerbate the tensions. The UDMR is a professional and experienced minority party who will likely be wise and let the other two argue and then balance the coalition compromises.

The PNL has been forced to change and adapt, especially after the 2016 poor result in the parliamentary elections. Given the pressure coming from the USR and PLUS, the party has sought to transform its image, especially in Bucharest and the major cities; however, in order to gain the majority in the parliament in 2019 and to obtain a good result in the September 2020 local elections, the Liberals have attracted a significant number of former PSD mayors and MPs. Now, the liberals will need to both govern and try to reinvent themselves.

In context, Ludovic Orban, who is no longer prime minister, but is still party leader, can focus on party reform, while the PM proposal of the liberals, current finance minister Florin Citu can focus on the health and economic crises and as-quickly-as-possible recovery. Budget consolidation will be on the menu in the first quarter of 2021.

The history of center-right coalitions in Romania is not happy nor successful, so the pressure is high. For the sake of the country, let’s hope for better results this time. Policy clarity, political consistency and empathetic strategic communications will be key for success.

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