Progressive Futures

The collapse of Romania’s social democratic government

11 October 2019

Civil society strikes back

Claudia Badulescu-Colfer
Barry Colfer

On 10 October in the Romanian Parliament, a long-awaited no-confidence motion was passed in the PSD (Partidul Social Democrat/Social-Democratic Party)-led coalition government of Viorica Dancila, Romania’s first female prime minister. PSD had governed with the ALDE party (Alianta Liberal Democrata/Alliance of Liberals and Democrats) since the last general election in 2016, before the smaller centrist party withdrew from the government last August. This break came amid a disagreement regarding a proposed ministerial reshuffle and over a renewed programme for government. Dancila was the country’s 3rd prime minister in little over three years.

The outgoing PSD administration is the fourth to fall to a no-confidence vote since the collapse of the communist regime almost 30 years ago. The government fell despite having a majority in parliament, as five PSD deputies voted against their own party, allowing the no-confidence motion to reach the threshold of 233 votes.

While the no-confidence motion was only put forward by the opposition PNL (National-Liberal party/Partidul National Liberal) today, the PSD-led government had lost the confidence of many Romanian citizens some time ago. In May’s European Parliament elections, voters expressed their outrage at ongoing corruption scandals and government inaction, as the PSD vote slumped from 37.6% in 2014 to only 22.5% in 2019, coming second to the resurgent PNL.

This result came as no major surprise to the wider public. Just hours after his party’s heavy defeat, the former PSD leader, Liviu Dragnea, was sentenced to three and a half years in jail for corruption, and for employing party members in fake state-funded jobs . Dragnea and PSD have been criticised for trying to change the law to offer greater protection for party members sentenced to jail or who were being investigated for corruption. This included the holding of a referendum on the same day as the European elections in May that proposed to decrease penalties for corruption and to introduce stronger political controls over the judiciary, which was rejected by a staggering 85% of voters on a turnout of 41%. It could be said that the writing was on the wall for the government for at least the past five months, and it was only a matter of when, not if, Dancila’s government would run out of road.

The PSD-ALDE government had also lost the confidence of the European Union, coming under the threat of an Article 7 legal action by the European Commission with regards to the quality, standard and consistency of the country’s rule of law. Moreover, in what came as a final insult for the PSD, the party saw the rejection of its two proposed candidates for the position of European Commissioner, firstly Mrs. Rovana Plumb and subsequently Mr. Dan Nica, by the European Parliament’s legal affairs (JURI) committee only this week.

Another huge blow for the PSD was the confirmation of Laura Kovesi as the EU’s first Chief Public Prosecutor.Ousted as national chief prosecutor by the PSD in July 2018 and twice subject to ultimately spurious investigation for unspecified accusations of corruption by PSD, Kovesi mounted an impressive come-back by winning the support of the European Council and Parliament to secure this new role, in spite of the serious obstacles set out for her by her own government.

However, the recent government collapse is only the tip of the iceberg.  Romania, the second poorest country in the EU and one of the most corrupt, lags behind even many other former communist countries from the Eastern bloc in terms of education, health, levels of social protection,  life expectancy and productivity. Corruption remains deeply entrenched at all levels of Romanian society, which serves to arrest many areas of the country’s development. Many aspects of the country’s educational, medical, infrastructural, judicial and financial systems are struggling under communist-era facilities, mind-sets and bureaucracies. The depth of police corruption was recently laid bare by the case of Alexandra Macesanu, a 15-year-old-girl who was raped and murdered last July, in spite of the girl’s repeated attempts to inform police of her whereabouts. Endemic corruption has even left its imprint on Romania’s national parks and protected tree species, which have fallen victim to illegal logging, deforestation and hunting, leaving thousands of acres deforested and destroying what should be strictly protected habitats.

For progressives, the blow dealt today on the PSD government should have come long ago, and it came too late for many. As mass protests against the government went unheeded over recent years, people simply grew tired of the government’s double-standards and cronyism and many (especially younger people) moved on to some other country that could more robustly guarantee the basic rights and services too often denied to them in their home country. Here Romania witnessed an injurious exodus of its citizenry, with a jaw-dropping 16 per cent of its population (some 3.6m people) moving to other EU countries since 2007, putting the country top of the EU’s internal migration ranking.

The future of the PSD – a PES affiliate –  as it stands today, is unclear. The Romanian President Klaus Johannis must now try to cobble together a government, either from the opposition parties – most likely involving PNL– or from potential leadership challengers within PSD – including possibly involving Victor Ponta, who served as prime minister from 2012-2015.

Today’s no-confidence vote will set the tone for the forthcoming presidential elections, that is scheduled to take place in November 2019. The out-going prime minister Viorica Dancila is slated to stand as the PSD candidate against the popular and PNL-aligned incumbent Klaus Iohannis. Recent polls suggest PSD stand to do even worse in this poll than they fared in May’s European elections as many former supporters register their disgust at rampant corruption and the deterioration in public services. The party may rebrand and re-emerge under some new name, but for many the damage will be done.

Crucially, despite the country’s enormous challenges, and the ignominious end to the Dancila government, progressives can still take heart from what is happening in Romania. Next December will mark the thirtieth anniversary of the country’s violent and bloody revolution, which saw strikers and citizens threw off the brutal yoke of the Soviet dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu in the face of overwhelming odds. The country (in its current form) is still young, and has made enormous progress since the dark days of Soviet oppression, with the now routine imprisonment of senior figures including Dragnea for corruption, the failure of the outgoing government’s attempts to gain political control of the judiciary, and crucially, the successes of the country’s fledging national anti-corruption agency (Directia Nationala Anti-Coruptie – DNA). Since its establishment in 2002, DNA has won dozens of convictions over senior political office-holders including ministers, former ministers, prime ministers, and MPs, particularly during the five-year tenure of the aforementioned Laura Kovesi, the EU’s brand new Public Prosecutor.

Despite its extremely challenging environment, civil society in Romania has asserted itself effectively against government corruption and neglect. This should be seen as cause for cautious optimism as Romania enters only its fourth decade since the revolution.