Good riddance to the PSD.

Chris Terry
Nov 9 · 25 min read

This weekend sees Romania go to the polls to elect (or re-elect) its President. I did think about writing quite a lot about this election but, alas, the campaign has been incredibly boring — leading candidates have refused to participate in TV debates and there’s a sense of inevitability about the whole thing as President Klaus Iohannis looks to drift towards a practically certain victory, (polling in Romania is often unreliable but he leads by around 10–20 points for the first round in most polls and 20–30 for second round match-ups).

But elections are often a chance to talk more broadly about a society. The election itself might be dull, but this particular one also represents an important moment in post-communist Romanian history — the very probable worst election result in a Presidential or parliamentary poll for the Social Democratic Party (the PSD) ever. This comes on the heels of its greatest legislative result ever in 2016 when it was easily able to form a majority government with its smaller ally the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (ALDE). The PSD has been the dominant party of the post-communist period, understanding how we came to this moment is vital to understanding Romania, helpful in understanding wider post-communist societies and most of all important in stopping me getting an aneurism when half of twitter decides to do hot takes about the death of social democracy in Europe.

So let’s explore Romania post-communism a bit, and perhaps we’ll learn along the way why I’ve fallen a bit in love with this sometimes absurd Southeastern European country.

The unfinished revolution

A little over 30 years ago, a baby was born in the sixth sector of Bucharest, Romania’s capital and by far largest city. Her parents named her Raluca, a fairly common Romanian name. 22 years later she and I would meet and fall in love.

The circumstances of Raluca’s birth are telling. Despite contraception and abortion being illegal, in a vain attempt to boost the low birthrate, friends asked her parents why they would have a baby, an extra mouth to feed, at a time when food was hard to find on the shelves. Raluca was born at an incredibly dirty hospital in the centre of Bucharest and her mother contracted a virus which meant she couldn’t breast feed. They needed formula milk, but it simply could not be purchased. Eventually they secured the aid of a neighbour, who may have been an informer for the secret police, Ceausescu’s ruthless Securitate, who secured formula from the black market for them.

Modern-day, Drumul Taberei, South West Bucharest, where Raluca grew up.

The milk was Chinese, and needed to be cooked with rice water. But rice was rationed and one flat could not cook enough rice, so for a while, every flat in Raluca’s block of flats would come to her parents to cook their rice, taking their rice away in a sieve and leaving the water behind.

This was the society Raluca was born into — public services falling apart, goods difficult to access, breaking the law practically a way of life just to survive, yet knowing that you were also under the watchful eye of one of the most intense security apparatuses in all of the Warsaw Pact and perhaps in the history of the world.

Ceausescu’s state visit to Britain, 1978.

Unlike countries like Poland or the Czech Republic Romania was unable to develop a true internal opposition. The regime was too hardline. In his latter years Ceausescu had visited North Korea and began to see it as a model. The relative liberalisation of the 60s and 70s when Ceausescu was briefly feted by the West, visiting Nixon and the British Royal Family had gone, running up sizeable debts had scared him and he was running an intense austerity programme aimed at repaying all debt by selling every export possible (not to the extent, however, that he was willing to halt construction of the Palace of the People — the heaviest building in the world). No one saw Romania is a regime likely to fall. It was simply too hardline. Too tough, there was no organisation, no Solidarity, no Civic Forum.

Bucharest’s Palace of the Parliament (built to be Ceausescu’s Palace of the People). The heaviest building in the world.

The revolution started far in the West in December of 1989, two months after Raluca’s birth. The local authorities tried to evict László Tőkés, an ethnic Hungarian pastor from his church in the Western city of Timosoara. He criticised government policy on Hungarian TV. In response the local ethnic Hungarian community began an uprising. Ceausescu was away visiting Iran at the time, and unbothered enough that he carried on his visit. When he returned to Bucharest he had a rally organised in his honour in the centre of the city so he could give a speech condemning it live on TV. At the rally, some people began to boo, the boos began to spread throughout the crowd. Ceausescu’s dumbfounded expression and attempts to placate the crowd with promises of pay rises fell on deaf ears. Today we sometimes use the expression ‘Ceausescu moment’ to refer to a moment when a dictator very visually loses control.

Ceausescu’s final speech.

Without clear leaders the revolution quickly turned violent. By the 27th of December around a thousand people had died in the most violent revolution in a Warsaw Pact state. Raluca’s mother remembers pushing Raluca’s cot into the hallway after someone else in their flat reported having a bullet fly through their kitchen window and ricocheting into a pot of sarmale (a popular dish of meat and rice wrapped in cabbage leaves). The deaths included Ceausescu and his wife, Elena, the last two people executed in Romania, condemned by a kangaroo court.

Without an opposition, something had needed to fill the vacuum — enter the National Salvation Front (FSN) of Ion Iliescu. Iliescu had been a favourite and heir apparent of Ceausescu’s who had served as Youth Minister until his patron began to fear his influence and ejected him to lower ranks. He represented the FSN’s core of middle-ranking communist bureaucrats and former secret police. Iliescu promoted himself as a reformist, who would move Romania towards democracy and capitalism slowly and carefully. In reality his first term represented a semi-authoritarian regime in which state and media was bent to his will. In April of this year he was charged with crimes against humanity for using his position to sow disinformation and fear which created yet more violence.

The FSN would later split, as part of a conflict between President Iliescu and his first Prime Minister, Petre Roman, who sought power for himself and hoped to attain it by pushing further with reforms. Iliescu’s part of the FSN would evolve into the PSD, Roman’s into the Democratic Party (PD) which through a complex series of mergers and splits would largely become part of the National Liberal Party (PNL), Romania’s principal opposition party.

It is de riguer in many post-communist states to complain that the new elite often looks a lot more like the old one than would be preferable, in Romania this is perhaps truer than most others. Whether looking to the world of politics, business or media, most elites are those who were favoured under the Communist regime, often those are the same people (consider Dan Voiculescu, owner of the popular Antena 1 and Antena 3 TV channels, who formed the Conservative Party, a former PSD allied party, who now sits in jail).

One of the most debated questions in Romanian society is this: was the revolution ever truly completed. Was the revolution even a revolution? Or was it simply a palace coup in which one set of elites overthrew another.

The PSD as a Party

“When you talk about politics in Britain” Raluca said to me once, “you say, Labour did this, or the Conservatives did this. When we talk about politics in Romania, we say, did you hear what Basescu did, or Ponta, or Antonescu”.

Former PSD leaders Liviu Dragnea and Victor Ponta, with Rovana Plumb, one of the party’s more senior politicians.

Romanian politics is personalised, intensely so. Some figures flit from party to party forming alliances of convenience. Parties themselves are often weak. Ideology is especially so. The age of Wikipedia has promoted an age in which we can read about parties anywhere in the world on a moment’s whim. Some helpful wikipedian will provide cute little ideology boxes telling us what the party stands for. As of the time of writing this it is possible to find references on Wikipedia to the PSD as having the following sets of ideologies: Social Democracy, Economic Liberalism, Left-wing nationalism, Left-wing populism, Social Conservatism, Soft Euroscepticism, Christian Left, Catch all. So it is a social democratic party but economically liberal and socially conservative, with populist, nationalist and Eurosceptic tendencies!

Confused? The reality is Romanian parties are traditionally not ideological, especially not in the terms we’re used to thinking of parties in the West. In some ways its best to think of the PSD as a network of elites. The party is dominated by barons, regional officials and especially Romania’s influential mayors. In power the PSD takes government (and often European) money and attempts to distribute it to those mayors. They then use it for pork-barrel politics (and often quite a bit of corruption on the side). Mayors then mobilise votes at elections. One of the easiest mistakes foreigners can make about a country like Romania is too often imagine that corruption is incidental. For PSD leaders, corruption is not an unfortunate by-product of governing, it is the point of governing. The PSD thus is a vast network for the redistribution of funds and power.

Radu Mazăre, a classic local baron. Mazăre was Mayor of Constanta for the PSD, having previously been a MP for the Democratic Party. Mazăre is currently serving a nine year jail sentence for corruption, after a period in self-imposed exile in Madagascar where he attempted to claim political asylum. The Malagasy government repatriated him under an international arrest warrant.

It is easy to imagine with a name like ‘social democratic party’ that the PSD in power carries out policies that would be recognisable as such to Westerners. But the party is ruthlessly and intimately connected to big business. In power it has at times floated the ending of minimum wage laws, and supported the controversial Rosia Montana mining project. It has refused to consider ending Romania’s incredibly low flat tax despite advice from noted socialists, the World Bank, in favour of a progressive taxation system. The party often takes more socially conservative stances than those of its opponents — last year it gave backing to a referendum on banning same-sex marriage in the constitution, and its stances towards minorities can be discriminatory or even racist. The party does tend to support increased pensions and public sector pay packets in power (both of these being key voter groups) but it is difficult to reconcile its overall governing agenda with the usual tenets of Western social democratic thought.

Nonetheless there is a tendency to explain away the PSD’s success on the part of members of the Romanian intelligentsia. PSD voters are often rendered as uneducated idiots who vote for the PSD because of its habit of handing out bags of flour at election time. There is sometimes a refusal to engage with the reality of the depths of poverty experienced in the Romanian countryside, and that this very old population is often dependent on the modestly higher pensions that the PSD promises. While the distribution of funds by PSD governments to mayors might be corrupt there’s often a view that those same mayors get things done. They are descurcăreţ in the Romanian vernacular ‘street smart’. There is also a refusal to engage with the legacies of former non-PSD governments, the chaotic reformist Presidency of Emil Constantinenscu, the corrupt demogogery of Traian Basescu’s (which ended in the country seeking an IMF bailout in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, leading to cuts of 25% to pensions and some public sector servant salaries), or the simple failure of the transition to capitalism to boost living standards for many people in parts of Romania. There is also a fairly to engage with what corruption is, and why and how it exists.

The corruption culture war

It has become normal to speak of culture wars in the West of late. In Britain we talk of how Brexit has split the country. Donald Trump has done similar in the United States and across Europe we have become used to elections becoming cliched barometer readings of the strength of national populists. In recent years Romania has accelerated into a culture war of its own, a very different one, focused on corruption and the rule of law.

For many of us from wealthy Northern European countries, it is taken as read that corruption is a bad thing, and it most often is. Corruption, whether in the forms of bribes or the leveraging of connections is a way of subverting official or legitimate processes for self-gain. That’s fine and well and good, until those processes cease to function properly.

Telling the story of the months after Raluca’s birth, it is a story of corruption, but it is also a story of a family doing what it had to do to help its only daughter survive. Its also a story of a community coming together, in shared understanding of mutual help. When the rules don’t work, when society doesn’t work, then it becomes understandable, desirable even, to subvert those rules. Corruption for many poorer people in a country like Romania becomes a safety net.

One of the culture shocks as a relatively introverted Brit of spending time in even relatively urban environments in Romania is how everyone in a small area comes to know one another. Infamous in my relationship is the time Raluca and I visited her local cornershop on a cold December morning to pick up some goods for her mother. The next day Raluca’s mother visited the same shop. She returned to announce that I had won the approval of the local shopkeep who apparently had determined that I was a “nice guy” and “seem very chill” and that I “mostly do what Raluca tells me to do”. In part there’s a Romanian nosiness here, bred by a regime in which information can be powerful, it’s also because people are used to depending on each other if they need to. When official systems malfunction the will of those systems can seem brutal and random. Who knows when you might need to borrow money from a neighbour, or need a friend of a friend of a friend to help you. Scarcity breeds networks of mutual understanding.

At this lower level, such behaviour is completely understandable, rational, commendable even. It can represent the best of humanity as neighbours come together to form communities of interest. Of course, some lose out: those of the wrong ethnicity (especially Roma), those with disabilities, those who come across as weird. Such behaviour also breeds a wider culture. Those same principles applied at a higher level become much more clearly what we normally think of as corruption. A mayor and his friends set up a series of backhanders relating to the building of a new road. A teacher falsifies a test result for a child after their parents bribe them. A bishop helps to support a political candidate in exchange for patronage.

The film Bacalaureat is an example of the new wave of Romanian cinema. Released in 2016 the film follows a Doctor attempting to fix the exam results of his daughter, who has won a place at Cambridge, after he fears she will not be able to gain the necessary result after her hand is injured in an accident.

Corruption doesn’t just become an issue, it becomes the issue. Consider the question of economic development. On paper, Romania is a fantastic place to do business — the population is highly educated, multilingual and will work for a fraction of what similar staff elsewhere will do. Taxes are low and markets are free. But interactions with government officials breed obvious expectations for bribes, imposing hidden unpredictable costs. If you do not pay you might suddenly incur random penalties which make it difficult to do business, or simply strange halts. If you pay your international reputation might be damaged if its exposed and encourage more demands for bribes.

Consider health policy — the system in Romania is theoretically universal healthcare, but poorly paid doctors often expect ‘tips’ for care. Some choose to go through the private system reasoning it will be cheaper than the public one to get proper care.

Iohannis’s campaign ads proclaim that he is ‘for a normal Romania’ and feature people getting on with life unencumbered by the concerns Romanians normally encounter in the day to day. A good illustration of both his appeal and how people feel about the corruption culture war.

The near miss of 2014

When I met Raluca, the public enemy number one for many young, educated, liberal youngsters was President Basescu. A vocal demogogue who attacked institutions that got in his way the foreign press often described him as the Eastern equivalent of Silvio Berlusconi. His presidency was polarising, mired in accusations of corruption and breaches of the rule of law and his opponents tried to impeach him twice. In Romania this is a slightly absurd process in which the President is recalled via referendum. That referendum itself needed, until recently, a 50% turnout for validity.

The defacing of a Basescu election poster.

Our second date featured much discussion of Romanian politics and of Basescu. At the end of it Raluca turned to me, smiled and said “I like you, because when I rant you know what I’m talking about.” As it happened, she later said I didn’t know what I was talking about at all in our first ever major fight, caused by my matter of fact statement that if I had a vote in Basescu’s second impeachment referendum I would vote no.

The 2009 Presidential election was particularly noxious as opponents of Basescu, whose party was descended from the Petre Roman splinter of the FSN, attempted to unite against him. They failed, by the skin of their teeth, Basescu won the 2009 election by a mere 70,000 votes with opponents accusing him of rigging expat voting booths (a claim courts found insufficient evidence for). As the state of Romania’s finances became clear, and some of the most brutal austerity conditions in Europe came into swing Basescu became incredibly unpopular, leading to a historic uniting of the PSD, and the National Liberal Party (PNL), then essentially the favoured party of the intelligentsia.

Their alliance, the ‘Social Liberal Union’ would win power under PM Victor Ponta of the PSD, a charismatic young PSD reformer who spoke of modernising the party. Once in power, however, Ponta quickly revealed a tendency to work against the rule of law himself, gaining rapid rebukes from Brussels. The PNL would leave the government, much dimished, and Ponta would carry on until protests caused by the controversy over the burning down of a nightclub in Bucharest, Colectiv, (which I had in fact visited myself) where 64 mostly young people had died, exposing the incredibly poor state of Romania’s health and safety regime.

Tributes lain outside the site of the former nightclub Colectiv.

Ponta was still Prime Minister in 2014, however, when the last Presidential election set off. He entered it as the favoured candidate. With the PNL massively diminished, and without any credible leaders, it seemed he would beat any opponent. The PNL tied up an alliance with Basescu’s party, who themselves were trying to distance themselves from their former leader (the party would later merge into the PNL). They nominated Klaus Iohannis, the little-known Mayor of the small, incredibly picturesque city of Sibiu (seriously, I cannot recommend Sibiu enough as a holiday destination, it is amazing). Iohannis, a member of the small ethnic German minority in Romania had done a superb job as Sibiu mayor, which in his tenure became European City of Culture, after a programme of intense rejuvenation of the city centre. Iohannis was not a party man per se, having won his position standing for a tiny ethnic German party despite the city, a historic ethnic German centre, having only 1% of the population identify with that ethnicity.

Seriously, visit Sibiu. I don’t know why you’re reading this, why aren’t you booking travel to Sibiu right now.

Technocratic, but dull and stilted in public appearances, Iohannis came across as a decent, but uninteresting man and perhaps unready for prime time especially next to the charismatic Ponta. His debate performances were notoriously poor. Nonetheless, he won the support of Raluca and family due to his technocratic and anti-corruption credentials. Raluca, who in British politics sits decisively on the centre-left both economically and socially (though, for understandable reasons, has something of a single-issue anti-Brexit bent now) had qualms about his economic liberalism but supported him anyway.

Iohannis in 2014. The PNL and Democratic Liberal Party (PDL) supported him under the ‘Christian Liberal Alliance’.

The day of the first round Raluca and I headed to Kensington where the consulate polling station was and came across the most gigantic queue. ‘Maybe it’ll be fast moving’, I suggested. We waited and waited. ‘Are you hungry or thirsty’ I asked after an hour, Raluca asked me for a coffee. I returned after an hour coffee in hand, Raluca barely budging. By this point, the crowd had gotten restless and was chanting anti-PSD slogans.

In Romania something was happening. Like many countries, Britain included, broadcasters cannot report on policy or campaigning on election day meaning political reporting tends to devolve into ‘people are turning up at polling stations and voting. Voting is brisk.’ (I have never heard of voting at any election in Britain being described as unbrisk). But a scandal was brewing. Cameras appeared outside the consulate, and this became the major topic of discussion. Raluca herself queued in the end for 6 hours… and didn’t get to vote. Being a member of the Romanian intelligentsia she, with others, did what any Romanian would do and held an impromptu protest outside the consulate, but to no avail. She had been denied her vote.

Romanian voters queueing to vote in 2014 in Paris.

Ponta won the first round easily, 40.4% voted for him, more than 10 points more than Iohannis. Polls heavily favoured Ponta in the second round. Raluca asked me if I thought Iohannis could win. I said I thought it was unlikely. Indefatigable to the last, she told me she would prove me wrong.

Questions remained open about the expat voting scandal. It became clear that the polling stations at consulates had been undersupplied with voting stamps used to mark ballot papers. Was this incompetence? An attempt to cut costs gone wrong? Was it something more nefarious — after all expat voters were known for various reasons to be extremely anti-PSD in their votes. Either way Ponta and the PSD gave little sign of caring much.

For the second round, Raluca set off early, alone. She arrived at the consulate at 10am, determined to vote for Iohannis no matter what. After 12 hours, she got to vote, she was amongst the last to do so at that polling station.

This time the broadcasters had been prepared. Every news station in Romania was broadcasting images of long queues at consulates around the world. The scandal was literally the only thing anyone on TV was talking about. The first round had seen a turnout of 53%, fairly standard for Romania where turnouts are typically low, a facet of post-communist democratic malaise. In the early afternoon it became clear turnout was accelerating. Higher and higher, and particularly in areas where the PNL was typically stronger. In the end turnout hit 64%, the highest since 1996. And Iohannis won by 10 points. Exit pollsters later revealed figures which suggested that in the morning Ponta had been winning the election and by the afternoon he was losing it.

Raluca, satisfied, that this was her victory in many ways would later post on Facebook that collectively she had spent 18 hours in the queue hoping to vote for him and he had better earn it.

But the PNL was still in a poor state. After Ponta was forced out over Colectiv, Iohannis brought in a technocratic government led by Romania’s former European Commissioner, the independent economist Dacian Ciolos. Intellectuals described it as the best government Romania had ever had. The man on the street complained that for all the reforms they seemed to be getting very little for it. Iohannis seemed out of his depth, people didn’t understand what he was doing or why. Parliamentary elections followed in 2016. Winning on a low turnout even by Romanian standards, the PSD ran a moderate campaign focused on pocketbook issues, winning a great victory and forming a government with ALDE, a party formed by a former PNL Prime Minister, Tariceanu, a PSD ally.

The triumph and failure of Dragnea

After Ponta’s resignation from office, he predictably came under investigation by the National Anticorruption Directorate, the DNA. A powerful office created under Basescu, with the support of the European Union, to weed out elite-level corruption. The DNA had become one of the most popular institutions in Romania, with its head, the single-minded Laura Kovesi, becoming one of the most popular people in Romania. Ponta was forced out of the PSD leadership as a result.

Laura Kovesi, former leader of the National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA) and foe of corrupt officials throughout Romania. Kovesi was eventually sacked by the Romanian government, but was made the first ever European Public Prosecutor much to the annoyance of the Romanian administration.

He was replaced by Liviu Dragnea, who had particular purchase with the PSD’s regional barons. It was Dragnea who presided over the victory of 2016, but he inevitably ran into a problem — he had a suspended sentence for electoral fraud, relating to the second Basescu impeachment referendum. Iohannis quickly announced that he would not make anyone who had an outstanding criminal record Prime Minister, effectively ruling Dragnea out. But parliament had a majority in favour of a PSD PM, which had to be respected under Romania’s semi-presidential constitution, as any new PM needed to survive a vote of confidence. So Dragnea attempted to find a surrogate while he served as President of the Chamber of Deputies. The new PSD government was hence notionally headed by Sorin Grindeanu, but in reality, it was Dragnea who everyone understood to be in charge.

Dragnea’s priority was simple: expunge his criminal record so that he could become Prime Minister on his own terms. In an attempt to facilitate this, the government attempted to pass into law, in the dead of night, a law allowing for the pardoning of corrupt politicians using a section of the constitution for passing emergency ordinances.

In this interview with Emily Maitlis Romania’s then foreign minister claims that pardoning corrupt politicians is a way to reduce pressure on Romania’s overcrowded prisons. This video proved to be quite popular on Romanian facebook.

Romanians are a rebellious bunch. The revolution taught Romanians that if you want something done, the best thing to do is to organise fifty of your mates and to start direct action. When Raluca was still new to Britain I remember she was intensely annoyed about a political issue, I forget what. She started talking about the protests she was going to organise. ‘Have you considered writing to your MP’ I asked. ‘Pardon’ ‘Have you considered writing to your MP. Your MP is Diane Abbott, she would probably agree with you’. This had literally never occurred to Raluca before.

Walking around Bucharest on an average day it’s quite often the case that you’ll bump into protests. And protests and the politics of the street have repeatedly made and effected change in Romania, whether its causing a new law on sheepdogs to fail after shepherds storm parliament, the forced resignation of the Ponta government or the energy of the Rosia Montana protests, protests in Romania are often significant events.

Romanian Shepherds Protest. Yes, they do have the best outfits, don’t they.

So, this naked attempt to use a point in the constitution designed to pass legislation in times of national crisis in an attempt to get the ability to pardon corrupt politicians passed came to light you better believe Romanians weren’t going to take it lying down. At first protests were small, but they quickly gained steam, peaking at half a million protesters with 300,000 in Bucharest alone (a city of less than 2m in a country of less than 20m). On one of our visits Raluca’s mother proudly showed me the signs she’d made up. She’d protested Iliescu in the 90s. Half annoyed, half wistfully she simply said ‘I can’t believe I’m still protesting this shit’.

Romanian anti-corruption protests.

The mobilisation scared the PSD rotten, and the attempt was withdrawn, but the government claim it would pass the legislation through ordinary means instead mobilised people further. In the end the legislation was withdrawn, and eventually Grindeanu was no confidenced by his own party as Dragnea sought to replace him.

The protesters may not have been so successful if Iohannis had not used the limited powers of the Presidency, but particularly its legitimacy — joining the protests himself.

Romanians don’t mess around when it comes to protests. In Romanian PSD is pronounced ‘pey-sey-dey’, creating this delightful play on the French national motto. ‘Muie’ is best translated as ‘suck my dick’.

Alongside all this anti-corruption politics was beginning to mobilise. The 2016 local elections had been a rousing success for the PSD, especially as a change of the mayoral electoral system hurt a splintered opposition. But in Bucharest a new local party had been formed called the Union to Save Bucharest, headed by a civic activist and mathematician called Nicusor Dan on a varied platform but particularly an anti-corruption theme. The USB became the USR, with the Bucharest switched to Romania, soon after the locals, mobilising itself in cities and gaining popularity with young educated voters, linking into new movements. The party had managed to win 8.9% of the vote in the 2016 parliamentary election, giving it a small, but inexperienced caucus of MPs. They quickly broke into infighting as a party marked by agreement only on anticorruption became increasingly divided on ideological issues (Dan himself would leave the party over same-sex marriage). It became clear that the party had an increasingly liberal bent to it, reflecting its activist base. But after this early infighting began to quickly professionalise.

It was helped by an alliance with Dacian Ciolos, the former technocratic PM, who had formed his own party PLUS. The Alliance between the two parties was difficult in some ways, but they had shared priorities and brought different organisational advantages. Ciolos was a policy expert and had credibility as a former PM and brought with him a network of policy experts. USR had built up a powerful grassroots.

The USR also showed off its organisational muscle during the same-sex marriage referendum which it opposed. The USR opposed the measure, but knowing that it was unlikely to be voted down in absolute terms, the USR, Iohannis and Romanian LGBT organisations campaigned for a boycott, on the basis that if the referendum received a turnout of below 30% it would be invalid. 93% of those who voted voted in favour, but only 21% bothered to vote (one tweet I read at the time featured a Romanian man saying the polling station was emptier than his fridge, and nothing is more offensive to a Romanian than visiting an empty fridge). The USR showed off along the way by managing to accurately broadcast the low turnout figures before the national electoral commission, embarrassing the PSD further.

The PSD’s rule continued nonetheless. Its core concern was still attempting to be able to pardon politicians, which led to continued protests. It also began a culture war against the DNA, accusing it of political bias and falsifying evidence. Former PM Tariceanu, the leader of the PSD’s junior coalition partner, compared the DNA to the Securitate in one particularly ludicrous outburst. In the meantime, it began to rack up deficits by increasing spending without increasing the tax base, leading to increasing inflation despite a growing economy and low unemployment. This caused an increase in the cost of living leading to greater anger.

Dragnea’s anger with his own Prime Ministers caused him to fire yet another, Mihai Tudose, before settling on Viorica Dancila, leaving Romania with 3 PSD PMs in 3 years. Government instability, a sense that the PSD had become incompetent, and an unfortunate economic situation saw PSD popularity began to tumble. The same-sex marriage referendum, an attempt to gain favour with Romania’s influential Orthodox Church, angered social conservatives, who saw it as a failure by the PSD and confused most voters who while not pro-LGBT rights were hardly exercised about them compared to cost of living issues.

I’M BACK!!!!

In the wake of this, Victor Ponta reared his head again, splitting off from the PSD with his new PRO Romania party, which he claimed stood for true social democracy (or was a Romanian En Marche depending on the day). The PSD’s junior coalition partner became restless too, with Tariceanu trying to present himself as the moderate face of the government, and clearly eyeing a run at the Presidency.

The 2019 European elections turned out to be a disaster for the PSD, on a level no one really anticipated. Iohannis had set up a referendum for the same day. It had two questions:

1. Do you agree with the prohibition on amnesties and pardons for corruption offences?

2. Do you agree with the prohibition of the approval by the Government of emergency ordinances in the field of offences, punishments and judicial organisation and with the extension of the right to directly appeal against the ordinances to the Constitutional Court?

In other words, should both pass, the government would not be able to pass emergency ordinances related to judicial issues or pass laws allowing amnesties or pardons for corrupt officials. But this would need a turnout of 30% which the European elections might only just pass. If PSD supporters could be persuaded to boycott just that ballot, it would not pass on a normal circumstance.

As it happened, turnout in the European election was the highest ever, higher even than the previous national parliament election by a good 12 points. 51% voted, a demonstration of how angry voters were with the ruling party. The PNL won, on an admittedly unimpressive 27%. The PSD won 22.5%, its worst result in a national election in Romania since its formation, and it only just pipped the USR/PLUS alliance to 2nd, with the latter winning just under 22.4% (Ciolos would become leader of the liberal group in the European Parliament). Ponta’s PRO won 6%, Tariceanu’s ALDE failed to pass the 5% threshold, adding insult to misery. The referendum passed. Both questions saw turnout in excess of 40% and won more than 85% support of voters.

The next day, a court sentenced Dragnea to a three-and-a-half-year jail sentence. His political career was in ruins. The PSD settled on Dancila as its leader and Presidential candidate, but her candidacy was dead on arrival. A recent poll carried out by the PSD themselves has Iohannis on 41%, Dancila on 26%, Dan Barna (USR leader) on 12%.

A vote of confidence in parliament recently removed the PSD government, despite the party winning a huge victory at the start of the parliamentary term. Romania now has a caretaker administration led by PNL leader Ludovic Orban (no relation to the Hungarian leader), with many ministries filled by technocrats.

What next for the PSD?

Parliamentary elections are due late next year, but of even more concern for the PSD, local elections are due before that — if it does badly, vast numbers of barons could be swept away. There is talk of early parliamentary elections, but Romania’s constitution makes it almost possible to hold them.

Is the PSD dead? Never count it out fully, while it is in trouble, it has taken a serious blow, but still survives. Some in the party are clearly thinking of adopting ideology — a populist, loosely authoritarian nationalist, socially conservative, but economically redistributive stance could have a lot of potential support in Romania if played right and its one the party has been toying with. It also retains huge institutional privileges. But for the PSD to change in any serious way it will need to be institutionally devastated, the barons will have to lose their positions and influence. The party will need an entirely new organising principle. Otherwise it will be a new coat of paint on an old problem.

Yet a future potential PNL/USR government will inevitably run into the problem that talking about reform in Romania is easy, delivering it is always more fraught, slower and painful than imagined. The USR’s socially liberal views, a minority stance in Romania, could easily prove more of an issue once in power and there are questions about whether the party is ready for the inevitable compromises and disappointments of power.

Some on the left will mourn the PSD if it goes, but to my mind the PSD is a problem for the left, not an advantage. A party willing to flirt with nationalist rhetoric but ultimately concerned chiefly with corruption is no friend of the centre-left, and the best thing that can happen for the left regarding such a party is for it to be destroyed. The working class of Romania, the ethnic minorities of Romania, the women and children of Romania, the old and infirm, anyone in need deserves better than the PSD.

Perhaps a new centre-left party will form, Romania is poor ground for Western European style social democracy, but there’s an increasing left-liberal viewpoint popular amongst the youth. The USR is not such a party, but it has many left-leaning supporters (this may be one tension if it reaches power). Where it ends up is still to be determined, especially if corruption becomes a less of an issue. A tiny new party called DEMOS recently formed. It has stances which are quite radical and left-wing for Romania and even by Western European standards (it reminds me of the Polish radical left party, Razem) but perhaps with some limited moderation and some energy it might get somewhere.

One thing is for sure though: this strange, beautiful, haunting, absurd corner of Europe is changing in important ways. Raluca likes to describe herself as ‘relentlessly hopeful’ and when I think of Romania, I can see why.

Noted Romanian patriot and optimist, Raluca Ileana Enescu at a medieval hillfort in Brasov. Seriously, visit Romania guys.

Chris Terry

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