The parliament is seen as one of the most corrupt institutions in the second poorest country in the EU. At least 29 of the 588 members elected in 2012 have been found guilty of criminal conduct or investigated by the National Anticorruption Directorate, says the Romanian Institute for Public Policies.
Ponta’s Social Democrats (PSD) lead the opinion polls with at least 40 percent, but current party leader Liviu Dragnea’s ambitions to become the next prime minister could be frustrated. President Klaus Iohannis, who came to power in 2014 promising to clean up politics, has vowed to stop anyone with a criminal record from becoming prime minister. Dragnea has a two-year suspended jail sentence for attempting to rig a referendum in 2012.
Neither Dragnea’s sentence nor Ponta’s indictment for corruption while he was in office have weighed too heavily on the PSD, which scored a clear win in June’s local elections. Romanians have to decide “if they prefer to have running water” or put politicians “in handcuffs,” Dragnea said at the time.
If the PSD performs strongly in Sunday’s national vote, Dragnea might make way for an alternative PSD contender. One potential candidate is Vasile Dîncu, a minister in the current technocratic government led by Dacian Cioloş. “He’s a smart, western-oriented, mature leader, with a balanced attitude, who comes from Transylvania,” said political analyst Radu Magdin, a former advisor to Ponta. Dragnea described longtime PSD member Dîncu as “a very good friend” in a media interview, but denied he was up for the premiership.
Alternatively, Iohannis’ Liberal party (PNL), currently polling in second place, could have a shot at forming a coalition with the Union Save Romania (USR), a small Bucharest-based movement to clean up politics, if they get a combined 50 percent of votes on Sunday. The two parties have promised to keep Cioloș in office for a full four-year term rather than presenting their own candidate for the job.
A former EU agriculture commissioner, Cioloș was appointed by Iohannis to lead a caretaker government after Ponta’s resignation in November 2015 in the wake of a deadly Bucharest nightclub fire that was blamed on corrupt authorities turning a blind eye to fire safety regulations. He initially vowed not to get involved in politics and focus on giving the country stability in the year leading to Sunday’s elections.
But over the past few months, he accepted, albeit hesitantly, the backing of the Liberals and Union Save Romania should they manage to form a majority in parliament. “In such a period of change, it is very difficult to remain neutral and unbiased,” Cioloș said this week.
Paul Ivan, senior policy analyst at the European Policy Centre in Brussels, described the parliamentary campaign as “anemic, with little debate,” which could produce low turnout and favor the PSD.
The mainly young, urban Romanians whose protests brought down Ponta are likely to turn out to vote, mainly for parties like Union Save Romania which has tried to put forward fresh candidates, many from civil society or who have been living abroad and are untainted by association with the old political class.
However, “the PSD remains the country’s largest party, with the strongest local organizations,” particularly in rural areas where almost half the population lives, said Ivan. Its return to power shouldn’t be interpreted to suggest that Romanians aren’t interested in combating corruption, he said, but reflects the fact that voters are also attracted by the PSD’s promise to increase minimum wages and cut income taxes and public administration fees.
Such promises could endanger the EU-mandated budget deficit ceiling of 3 percent of economic output, and potentially jeopardize economic growth which, at 5 percent this year, is the highest in Europe, according to projections by the International Monetary Fund.
Author: CARMEN PAUN