Romania: Social Democrats won elections unexpectedly. People didn’t want privatization

The Romanian voter sent a signal that the Romanian right-wing parties are disconnected from the masses (source: Pixabay, CC0)

Małgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat

This article was published on December 7, 2020 on the Polish website Strajk.eu. On December 8, 2020, Prime Minister Ludovic Orban resigned, and the government was taken over by the minister of defense, general Nicolae Ciuca. Until now, Ciuca was an extremely influential minister on whom many decisions depended. If he continues to be the prime minister of the future government, it will probably be a sign that Bucharest is preparing for Joe Biden’s arrival in the White House, when Romania and Bulgaria are expected to be at the forefront of US efforts to contain Russia and perhaps Turkey.

The activity of Romanian social democrats resembles Law and Justice Party in many respects: it is a party politically representing smaller urban centers or rural areas rather than metropolises and people who have lost as a result of transition, rather than the middle class. It is usual for PSD to take a rather conservative position. During its last rule in 2016-2019, the PSD introduced, inter alia, an increase in pensions. However, the party was weakened by corruption scandals; at the end of 2019, it had to hand over power to the pro-European National Liberal Party (PNL), while PSD’s leader, Liviu Dragnea, was sentenced in the spring of 2019 to prison for abuses (he had committed them several years earlier as a prefect in the Teleorman region).

In the vote, PNL expected an easy success and prolongation of the government of Ludovic Orban, although it does not have much to boast about either improving the financial situation of Romanians or fighting the pandemic. The voting results (still incomplete, over 90 percent of the votes were counted) show something else: the highest result was recorded by the Social Democratic Party, which obtained 29.39 percent. votes in elections to the Chamber of Deputies and 29.83 percent. in elections to the Senate. Liberals obtained 24.2 percent. votes, the third, also the liberal Union for Saving Romania PLUS (USR PLUS) – 15.5 percent. The second big surprise is the result of the far-right Alliance of Romanians (AUR for short, or Gold), which came fourth with over 8% of the vote. The fifth-largest party of the Hungarian minority (UDMR) won 7.2 percent. votes.

The Social Democratic Party has no chance of forming a government – neither the USR PLUS nor the Hungarian party will enter into a coalition with it, the AUR will not join the Social Democrats either ideologically or organizationally, because this far-right organization presents itself as an anti-system entity, hostile to all old players Romanian political scene. Although PSD leader Marcel Ciolacu urged Prime Minister Orban to understand that people do not want him and left, Romania is now facing a bargain between right-wing formations regarding the formation and composition of the government. One thing is certain, however: he will not have a stable majority in parliament, and a large part of the public does not approve of the pro-business course that the PNL government has represented.

– Before the elections, I expected the results to seal the technocrats’ return to power with all their might. This return is likely to take place, but they will not get the comfortable majority they had hoped for. The good result of the PSD shows that the slogans of privatization and business support proclaimed by the largest right-wing parties have been met by the voters with resistance. The leaders of the right-wing parties are perceived by parts of Romanian society as privileged, arrogant and selfish people. Against this background, the image of the Social Democrats, who have so far had a specific stigma, may have warmed up, says Vladimir Mitev, a Bulgarian leftist journalist and expert on Romanian issues, to the Strajk Portal.

During the election campaign, the PSD actually tried to show itself as a force that cares first of all for the citizens. When PNL announced a 14% increase in pensions for next year, the Social Democrats introduced an amendment to the law in parliament, suggesting, due to the pandemic, a 40% increase in benefits for Romanian pensioners (which are mostly dramatically low). The right-wing government reacted to this suggestion with accusations of “economic crime” carried out by the opposition and stated that such an increase in public spending would mean a decline in Romania’s credibility in the eyes of rating agencies or the International Monetary Fund. In the campaign, the Social Democrats also proposed an increase in the minimum wage to 3500 leu (718 euro) (currently 2230 leu (458 euro); Polish and Romanian currencies are almost equivalent), the removal of taxes for those earning such an amount, the construction of new hospitals and the expansion of the network of local health centers to 800 facilities.

The fact that the social democrats’ agenda has won the approval of nearly a third of the population, the fall in the right’s overwhelming advantage in the polls, and the pandemic’s work against the government, could force the new neo-liberal prime minister to slow down with the most anti-social moves.

– Romanians voting for Social Democrats expect the government to go further with privatization, including privatization of the health service. They are also afraid of a strong austerity policy, as the right wing has repeatedly suggested that the budget deficit and insufficient tax revenues prevent the payment of salaries and pensions without incurring further liabilities. Now, however, the new majority will have to prove that it serves people, not only big capital. If it introduces pro-business reforms, it will have to do something not to antagonize the large and poor social masses, comments Vladimir Mitev and furthers adds: “The division between the elite and the masses in Romania has always been strong and may have unexpected consequences. The success of AUR is also one of them.”

What role will be played by the far-right, which has only been in existence for a year, remains a mystery to many citizens and commentators. The AUR manifesto is full of contradictions: references to Europeanness are adjacent to references to militant Orthodoxy and announcements of a fight against “cultural Marxism”, as well as visions of Greater Romania (with historical Bessarabia, now independent Moldova, within its borders, as before World War II). In one of the interviews, the leader of the party, George Simion, indicated that he was inspired by the Polish government. The AUR successfully picked up the votes of the conservative right – the PMP party, which had been managing this electorate for years, did not enter parliament this time. How much “anti-systemism” is there in this Romanian version of the alt-right? According to Vladimir Mitev, the party has a chance to take advantage of some of the dissatisfied, if the liberal right decided to implement free-market reforms, but it is difficult to see in it a real alternative.

Photo: The Romanian Parliament (source: Pixabay, CC0)

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