Comment: The rise and fall of Liviu Dragnea, the most powerful politician sent to jail in Romania
The High Court’s decision to sentence Liviu Dragnea, the leader of the Social Democratic Party (PSD), to three and a half years in jail marks the most spectacular fall in Romanian politics. Dragnea, who is not only the head of the ruling party but also the president of the Chamber of Deputies, the third-highest position in the state’s hierarchy, is the most powerful politician sent to jail in Romania in the last 30 years. He is also the first Romanian politician whose imprisonment was celebrated in the streets.
After almost 28 years meticulously planning his ascension, Dragnea didn’t get to enjoy his hard-earned power and spent the last two years and a half in battles against the local justice system, to keep his freedom, and against president Klaus Iohannis, the opposition, the European Commission and opponents within his own party, to keep his power, becoming the most despised person in Romania. In two days, he lost everything, his power and his freedom. “Mr. Dragnea is history in Romania,” as one of PSD’s vicepresidents rushed to say on Sunday, before the party’s defeat in the elections for the European Parliament was officially announced.
The rise of a self-made autocratic leader
In the last two years, the international media dedicated many articles to Liviu Dragnea, who they depicted as one of Europe’s autocratic leaders, alongside Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban and the head of Poland’s conservative party PiS, for the way he used his power to try and break the justice system while ignoring the European Union’s principles.
However, Dragnea wasn’t always powerful. He didn’t come from the old communist leadership or benefit from the support of a powerful family, like most of his predecessors. Power was not handed to him. His ascension was a long and carefully planned process, which made him probably the most dangerous leader Romania has had in the last 30 years.
Dragnea was born on October 28, 1962 in Gratia village, Teleorman county. His father was the police chief in that village. He went to high school in Turnu Magurele and then graduated from the Transport Faculty of the Polytechnic University in Bucharest, in 1987. He then worked as an engineer at a factory in Craiova.
In the years immediately after the Revolution, as he was nearing 30, Dragnea opened several village bars in Teleorman. He would carry beer kegs with an old ARO car and serve draft beer himself in small improvised bars, according to a biography written by Recorder.ro, one of the few ones about the PSD leader.
However, from the beginning he knew how to use other people to reach his goals and then throw them away, Recorder.ro emphasized. As the state was giving away its assets, Dragnea took over the management of a hotel and several restaurants in Turnu Magurele, a town of 22,000 people in southern Romania. He then bought them for almost nothing. He continued to build on those businesses and, by 1995, he had become one of the top businessmen in Teleorman county.
He then turned to politics. In 1996, at the age of 33, he became prefect of Teleorman county, namely the Government’s top representative in the county. To achieve this goal, he pumped money into the elections campaign of the Democratic Party (PD), led at that time by former prime minister Petre Roman (and one of Dragnea’s teachers at the Polytechnic University).
Dragnea, the local baron
In 2000, Dragnea became head of the Teleorman County Council, after convincing the elected members of the County Council to vote him instead of another candidate preferred by the party’s leadership for this job. To achieve this, Dragnea apparently took all of the council members to dinner at one of his hotels and promised them various positions in the administration, according to people familiar with the events quoted by Recorder.ro. One year later, Dragnea left the Democratic Party, which was sinking, to join the Social Democratic Party (PSD) of Ion Iliescu and Adrian Nastase, which had won the elections in 2000. Just months before this, Dragnea had said in an interview that he would not join the PSD or that if he did he would resign as head of the County Council. Later, he would justify his decision saying that the county’s interests were above any personal interests, according to Recorder.ro.
At the end of 2001, Dragnea made his biggest deal. In the last meeting of the County Council that year, he approved awarding a big contract for road rehabilitation to a construction company called Tel Drum, owned by the County Council, which was in charge of major infrastructure projects in the county. A few months later, Dragnea privatizes Tel Drum, the official buyer being Marian Fiscuci, a former colleague of his.
Over the years, Tel Drum received a lot of contracts from the Teleorman County Council led by Liviu Dragnea, some of them financed from EU funds. Thus, in 2016, the National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA) started an investigation against Tel Drum for EU funds fraud and Dragnea became the portrait of the corrupt Romanian politician in international media.
However, back in the early 2000s, Dragnea was consolidating his position as baron of Teleorman (the powerful regional political leaders who emerged in that period were known as local barons). He created a web of people in key positions of the local administration, subordinated the local press and managed to hold on to power from 2000 until 2012.
It was in during that period that Dragnea determined the head of the Welfare and Child Protection Direction in Teleorman to hire and pay two women who were in fact working for the local PSD office, also led by Dragnea. The direction paid the two women some RON 108,000 (EUR 23,000) although they didn’t work at all for the institution. This is what Dragnea was sent to jail for on May 27, 2019.
While Dragnea has always that he was innocent and that he hadn’t known that the two women were paid for nothing by a state institution, witnesses heard during the trial depicted him as a very powerful leader that nobody dared to dispute.
While not being something uncommon (other local barons probably did similar things), this shows Dragnea’s operating mode, namely using influence, money and positions to control people and make him obey him. This is how he got to control the party and the Government even when the odds seemed against him.
The leap to the big league
In July 2009, Liviu Dragnea made the leap into the party’s management team, as interim secretary general of PSD. The party’s leader at that time was Mircea Geoana. At the party’s congress in 2010, he supported Victor Ponta to win the internal elections against Geoana. He became secretary general of PSD.
In the summer of 2012, he coordinated the party’s campaign in the referendum for dismissing former president Traian Basescu for alleged breach of the Constitution. His efforts to bring more people to the polls to vote for Basescu’s dismissal later brought him charges of electoral fraud and a 2-year suspended prison sentence in early 2016.
In December 2012, he won a seat in the Chamber of Deputies. PSD leader at that time Victor Ponta also gave him a portfolio in his Government, as administration and regional development minister. This was the perfect position for the ambitious Dragnea, who used it to consolidate his power over the party’s local leaders. The administration minister distributes the government funds to the local administration, thus having a significant control over mayors and county council presidents in Romania. Dragnea even created a national development program – PNDL worth several billion RON, through which he allotted funds to local authorities for investment objectives, as an alternative to EU funds.
In 2013, he was elected executive president of PSD, second-in-command after Ponta, but it was him who controlled the party’s local leaders, not Ponta. Later, after he stepped down as PSD leader and was forced to resign as prime minister amid street protests, Ponta admitted that one his biggest mistakes as head of the party was letting Dragnea deal with the local barons, a thing he didn’t particularly like to do himself.
Ponta resigned as head of PSD in the summer of 2015, as he was being investigated by the anticorruption department in a case of fictitious legal services also involving his former colleague and cabinet member Dan Sova (in which he was acquitted this year). The fact that he was being on trial for electoral fraud didn’t stop Dragnea from taking over as head of PSD.
Then, in November 2015, after the Colectiv club tragedy in Bucharest, which brought thousands to the streets to protest against the Government, Dragnea reportedly forced Ponta to step down as prime minister. He accepted the solution proposed by president Klaus Iohannis, that of a technocrat cabinet led by Dacian Ciolos, to prepare for the parliamentary elections at the end of 2016. A smart move, as he positioned his party as opposition and won both the local and the parliamentary elections in 2016.
The struggle to remain at the top
PSD’s landslide victory in December 2016, with a score of 45%, was Dragnea’s peak moment. With a governing program that included a whole list of populist promises, such as higher pensions and salaries in the public sector, Dragnea lured his voters to believe that everything would be great when he came to power.
With the support of Calin Popescu Tariceanu’s ALDE, he had a comfortable majority in the Parliament, but the final sentence he got earlier in 2016 for electoral fraud barred him from becoming prime minister. That is when his problems started: he had to find a person within the party to name prime minister that would execute his orders and would not challenge him as PSD leader. At the same time, he had a bagful of promises to keep to his loyal supporters within the party and a couple of big legal problems (corruption allegations) that he had to get rid of.
He first nominated his loyal collaborator Sevil Shaiddeh for prime minister, without consulting anyone in his party, but president Iohannis rejected her nomination. He then went with Sorin Grindeanu, a lackluster local leader from Timisoara, and things went well for a while. The Government even passed an emergency ordinance overnight to change the criminal code and remove abuse of office from the list of criminal offenses. This would have solved his problems. But then a few hundred thousand Romanians occupied Victoriei Square asking for the Government and PSD to leave. The Government backed down and repealed the ordinance and a few months later Grindeanu rose against Dragnea. The PSD leader used his majority in the Parliament to overthrow its own Government and came with another PM proposal – Mihai Tudose. At the same time, PSD launched a new campaign, the fight against the so-called shadow state, aiming to discredit the anticorruption campaign carried out in Romania since 2013. All its efforts turned to changing the justice laws and criminal codes and having the heads of the main prosecution bodies in Romania removed.
However, the internal power struggle within the party continued and Tudose also went against Dragnea only to be defeated and dismissed. The PSD leader somehow convinced president Iohannis to appoint a third social democrat as prime minister, Viorica Dancia, a former member of the European Parliament with almost no political background in Romania. She seemed like the safest bet, loyal to the bone to Dragnea and with no political ambitions whatsoever. Her lack of experience and her many gaffes, however, turned her into the perfect example for president Iohannis and the opposition to highlight the incompetence of the PSD ruling.
At the same time, the political battles he won within the party, including with the influential Bucharest mayor Gabriela Firea, also made him a lot of enemies, who were just waiting for him to fail. The European elections were the perfect moment for his adversaries to get back at him. Many PSD leaders saw the defeat coming and didn’t go through much effort to prevent it. On the day of the elections, even before the results were announced, they were already asking for Dragnea’s resignation.
After the sentence was announced on Monday, few people at the top of PSD expressed their sympathy for their leader. Most of them were concerned with who would lead the party after Dragnea went away.
Liviu Dragnea left the scene with no glory. As the Police came to his house in Bucharest to pick him up, he first sent a decoy car to mislead the media and the people waiting for him to be taken to jail. Some people tried to hit his car while dozens others booed him as he went to the Rahova Penitentiary. Hundreds went to Victoriei Square to celebrate.
To all his faults, Dragnea also has a merit: he motivated millions of Romanians in the country and abroad to go and vote and show that they embrace the EU and its values, and maybe his fate will discourage others from following his example.
by Andrei Chirileasa, Editor-in-Chief Romania-Insider.com, firstname.lastname@example.org
(Photo source: Inquam Photos/Octav Ganea)