Romania parliamentary elections 2020: What is at stake and what to expect? (comment)
Romania holds parliamentary elections on Sunday, December 6, 2020. Romanians living in the country and abroad are called to vote their representatives the Parliament for the next four years. There are 465 seats at stake, 136 in the Senate and 329 in the Chamber of Deputies.
The number of candidates included on the lists for the parliamentary elections is 7.136. On average, 15 candidates compete for a seat in the Parliament.
The parliamentary elections on Sunday will determine the Romanian Parliament’s political configuration for the next four years. The party that wins the elections or a coalition of parties that will hold the majority in the future Parliament can name a prime minister and form the new Government.
The current ruling party – the National Liberal Party (PNL) – is leading in the polls and is expected to get the highest score in the Sunday elections. However, it will not form a new Government on its own as the PNL’s score is around 30%. Thus, the Liberals are expected to form a ruling coalition with the progressist USR-PLUS alliance, currently the third-biggest political force in Romania. Depending on the final results on Sunday, the ruling coalition may also include smaller parties such as the Democrat Hungarian Union (UDMR) or the Popular Movement Party (PMP), of former president Traian Basescu, to secure a solid majority in the Parliament.
The Social Democratic Party (PSD), which won the elections four years ago but lost power in November 2019, is likely to continue in the opposition. Another party with chances to getting mandates in the future Parliament is PRO Romania, led by former Social Democrat PM Victor Ponta, which also took over ALDE, the party of former Liberal PM Calin Popescu Tariceanu.
A bit of background
Romania is currently at the end of an agitated four-year cycle. After the Social Democratic Party (PSD) categorically won the parliamentary elections in December 2016, with a highly populistic ruling strategy, they formed a ruling coalition with the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (ALDE), which secured them a comfortable majority in the Parliament.
At that time under the tight grip of Liviu Dragnea, PSD immediately launched a campaign to change the laws of justice and the anticorruption laws. An emergency ordinance in this sense, passed in a late Government meeting in January 2017, triggered the largest street protests Romania has seen in the last 30 years. The Government of Sorin Grindeanu abandoned the ordinance, but PSD continued to try and change the justice laws in Parliament, and the protests continued for months. PSD’s plans to change the justice laws were regarded as an attempt to fix the legal problems of some of the party’s leaders, including Dragnea himself, who was waiting for a court decision in a corruption case. Dragnea’s legal problems also prevented him from taking over as prime minister, which would have made things simpler for him. Thus, the people he trusted with this position eventually turned against him. It happened first with Sorin Grindeanu, then with Mihai Tudose, and, in the end, with Viorica Dancila. Thus, although they had a strong majority in the Parliament, PSD removed two of its prime ministers in just one year.
This turbulent period ended in May 2019, after PSD’s categoric defeat in the elections for the European Parliament and Liviu Dragnea’s conviction. After the court sent Dragnea to jail for corruption, he lost control over his party, and PSD’s power started to decline. Eventually, PSD was removed from power after its junior coalition partner ALDE switched sides in the Parliament.
In November 2019, the National Liberal Party (PNL) came to power in Romania with a minority Government led by Ludovic Orban, with very fragile support in the Parliament. Meanwhile, PSD went into the opposition but still held almost a majority in the Parliament.
President Klaus Iohannis’ victory in the presidential elections in December 2019 also strengthened the Liberals’ position. After winning his second mandate, Iohannis wanted to trigger early elections, which would have probably brought the Liberals a majority in the Parliament. The Liberals were on track with their plan and even had the Orban cabinet overthrown with the help of a no-confidence motion in the Parliament initiated by PSD. This was in February this year. And then, the pandemic broke.
The Black Swan
Confronted with the medical crisis, the Romanian politicians had to abandon their plans. As president Klaus Iohannis declared the state of emergency and placed the whole country under lockdown, the Parliament rushed to reinstate Ludovic Orban as prime minister.
Thus, in the last eight months, the Liberals were in the uncomfortable position of managing the pandemic while the Social Democrats made their mission as hard as possible by passing populist laws through the Parliament.
One such law, which hasn’t been enforced yet, forces the Government to increase pensions by 40% at once, instead of a gradual increase as proposed by the Executive. Such a decision would have significant negative consequences for Romania’s economic stability in an already negative context due to the pandemic. Thus, the international rating agencies and investors are now waiting for the outcome of the December 6 elections before deciding if they keep Romania’s rating in the investment-grade category or downgrade it to junk, with severe consequences on the economy. Their expectation is that a Liberal majority in the Parliament could review the populistic measures passed by the Social Democrats.
What do the polls say?
As expected, the last eight months have worked against the ruling Liberals and somehow in favor of the Social Democrats. The Liberal Government has received many critics for the way it managed the sanitary and economic crisis. Meanwhile, the Social Democrats blocked or delayed some of the Government’s measures in the Parliament and then criticized the Government for the outcome. President Klaus Iohannis abandoned the neutrality requested by his position and campaigned alongside Ludovic Orban and the Liberals while blaming the Social Democrats for all the bad things.
The campaign for the elections was mainly a PNL-PSD match, with the other parties commenting from the sidelines. The special conditions determined by the pandemic, which banned public campaign events, have made it more difficult for the smaller parties to spread their messages.
According to the Europa FM Barometer, while PNL is still leading in the polls, its score went down to 28.5% in November, from 32.6% in October and 34.7% in September. In January, the support for PNL was at 47.4%. Meanwhile, PSD is second, with a score of 23.6% in November, up from 21.7% in October and under 20% in September.
The USR-PLUS alliance is third, with a score of 18% in November, down from 20.4% in October, but up from 17% in September. Next comes PRO Romania, with a score of 9.5% in November, while ALDE is measured separately, with 3.3%. The two parties, which have decided to merge, thus have a combined score of 12.8%. UDMR and the Popular Movement Party (PMP) are under the electoral threshold of 5%, according to the same poll.
However, these poll results have a significant margin for error. Thus, the results of the local elections in September could be a more accurate indicator of the support enjoyed by the local parties. In the elections for the county councils and Bucharest’s General Council, PNL took a score of around 31% while PSD (alone and in various local alliances) took close to 26% of the votes. Meanwhile, the USR-PLUS alliance had an overall score of around 9%, significantly under the scores indicated in the polls, and PRO Romania plus ALDE got 7.6% of the votes together, also lower than in the polls. PMP, on the other hand, got a score of just over 6%, higher than in the polls, due to former president Traian Basescu’s active involvement in the campaign.
What can we expect after the Sunday elections?
In two words: not much. Due to the special context in which these elections take place, the focus has been mainly on short-term goals, such as managing the pandemic, lifting the restrictions, and avoiding economic collapse. The long-term strategies proposed by the leading parties don’t bring any major changes or reforms. Both PNL and PSD promise major investments in infrastructure, healthcare, education, mainly financed with EU funds, and high economic growth in the coming years. However, they don’t explain how they plan to achieve these objectives. Meanwhile, USR-PLUS offers a more detailed strategy and fewer numbers.
The likely outcome is that PNL and USR-PLUS will get a majority in the Parliament and form a ruling coalition. Still, things are not likely to run smoothly between these coalition partners. USR-PLUS has ambitious reform goals that the Liberals don’t necessarily share and there have been many frictions in the past between the two parties. Their scores on Sunday will thus be essential for the balance of power and how things will progress in the coalition. If they need a third party to secure a majority in the Parliament, the equation will become even more complicated.
Meanwhile, the PSD will probably remain in the opposition and wait for the crisis to pass. Should the Social Democrats unexpectedly come to power at this moment, the outcome would be even harder to predict.
(Photo source: Inquam Photos / Alexandru Busca)