BUCHAREST — Romanians head to the polls on Sunday to choose a president — but there’s more at stake than that.
The election will be a major test for the once-dominant Social Democratic Party (PSD) as there’s a chance that — for the first time in the country’s post-communist history — its candidate won’t make it to the second round of voting.
These are tough times for the PSD. The party is now in opposition after being thrown out of power last month and it has gradually lost public support in the wake of massive anti-corruption protests.
Former Prime Minister Viorica Dăncilă is the PSD candidate for president — and would be the country’s first female head of state if she wins. She’s taking on the incumbent, Klaus Iohannis, who is an independent supported by the National Liberal Party (PNL), which took control of the government this week.
There are 12 other candidates for the job, including Dan Barna, head of Union Save Romania, the third largest party in the Romanian parliament — after PSD and PNL — and actor and former MEP Mircea Diaconu, who is supported by two small parties featuring ex-PSD members and allies.
A day before the election, the nation’s capital was clear of any electoral posters thanks to a law that requires their removal.
Most polls put Iohannis in the lead, with between 40 and 45 percent of the votes, according to Romanian daily Libertatea. The question is who will face him in the final round on November 24, with Dăncilă and Barna in a close race for second.
While not the head of government, Romania’s president wields significant power. He or she attends EU summits, is in charge of foreign policy and is the commander-in-chief, as well as appointing the prime minister. The PSD has contested the second round of every presidential election since the end of communism (although the last two presidents have been from other parties).
“PSD always fought to win,” said Victor Ponta, a former PSD prime minister, who ran for president as the party’s candidate in 2014. “Now I think the biggest victory the PSD can see is to make it into the second round.”
Dăncilă was not available for comment because of her busy schedule on the campaign trail, one of her aides said.
A day before the election, the nation’s capital was clear of any electoral posters thanks to a law that requires their removal. All that’s left were adverts from companies encouraging people to vote while also promoting their products.
“If you walk in Bucharest you can’t tell there are elections on Sunday,” said Radu Magdin, a political consultant who has advised the PSD in the past, adding that this doesn’t bode well for a high turnout.
There has also been a lack of debate among the candidates. Radio station EuropaFM managed to get three of the 14 candidates to join a debate on Thursday evening. Barna was the only candidate to show up who has a realistic chance of making the second round.
Iohannis has been criticized for not taking part in any debates but doing so “would have been a tactical error” because of his lead in the polls, said Cristian Pârvulescu, a professor at the National School of Political Studies and Public Administration.
The only real constant of the campaign has been attacks on the PSD from all sides. But the three analysts POLITICO spoke to said it would be unwise to rule out the PSD just yet.
Magdin and Pârvulescu said the PSD’s powerful local party machinery could help Dăncilă make it to the second round and ensure the party remains relevant.
“If Dăncilă doesn’t enter the second round, only then could one speak of a profound crisis for the party,” Magdin said.
PSD vs president
In 2016, Romania was a stronghold for the center left. In a parliamentary election that year, the PSD won 46 percent of the votes thanks to a promise of increased wages and pensions.
Three years and three PSD prime ministers later — two removed by the party itself, one after losing a no-confidence vote called by the opposition — the party is struggling and has a reputation among many voters for corruption and incompetence.
The party’s constant push for changes to the judiciary was seen as a way to weaken the rule of law and damage the fight against corruption. It came to a head in October when the European Commission announced that its corruption monitoring scheme should come to an end for Bulgaria, but not for Romania.
“The attempts to push measures going against the interests of the population naturally led to PSD losing popular support, which was confirmed by the May 2019 European elections,” said Paul Ivan, a senior policy analyst at the European Policy Centre. The PSD picked up 22 percent of the vote in the EU election, down 15 percentage points from 2014. The result was at least in part because a referendum pushed by Iohannis was held on the same day in which people were asked if the government should be allowed to offer pardons and amnesty in corruption cases. Romanians delivered a resounding “no.”
“I don’t believe social democracy will disappear in Romania” — Victor Ponta
All these factors have helped Iohannis, who promotes himself as a symbol of stability in the fight against corruption.
The PSD has, however, had success against Iohannis, including when it forced him to dismiss Laura Codruța Kövesi as the country’s anti-corruption prosecutor. (She’s since been appointed the EU’s first European Public Prosecutor).
“I don’t believe social democracy will disappear in Romania,” said Ponta, who now leads his own center-left party, Pro Romania.
However, both his current and former parties will need “some years” to rebuild, “so we don’t suffer [the fate of the left] in Poland or France,” he said.
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