PM Orban quits but Romania still on track for centre-right gov’t

Liberal prime minister resigns after disappointing showing for his party, which is however poised to lead the next governing coalition.

Prime Minister Ludovic Orban's National Liberals have been defeated by the populist Social Democrats in the Romanian election [Daniel Mihailescu/AFP]

Romania’s centre-right prime minister has resigned after a general election in which voters delivered nominal victory to the left-leaning opposition party.

With 95 percent of votes counted in Sunday’s election, Ludovic Orban’s National Liberal Party (PNL) came in second on 25 percent, compared to 30 percent for the Social Democratic Party (PSD).

The progressive USR-Plus alliance, which has pledged not to be part of any PSD-led government, won about 15 percent of the vote.

Only two other parties crossed the five percent threshold to enter Parliament: the far-right AUR alliance, whose vocal opposition to coronavirus restrictions resonated with close to 9 percent of voters, and the UDMR party that represents the country’s Hungarian minority, which won about 6 percent.

Earlier on Monday, Orban said coalition talks with the PSD were out of the question but did not provide a clear explanation for how his party hoped to reach a new governing majority in the 465-seat bicameral parliament.

“I want to be very clear, we will never negotiate with the PSD, we will not let the PSD harm Romania,” Orban said.

In a televised statement, he said his resignation had “a defined purpose: Enabling the start of talks on the formation of the next government”.

Defence Minister Nicolae Ciuca has been named interim prime minister.

Romania’s legislative election is expected to restore some measure of stability after five years of political and social turbulence [Alexandru Dobre/AP]

Only 33 percent of eligible Romanian voters went to the polls, compared with nearly 39.5 percent in 2016.

Observers blamed the historically low turnout on voters’ fears of COVID-19 infection, but also on general disillusionment with Romania’s political class.

Some four million Romanians who live abroad, mostly in western Europe, have traditionally voted for reform-oriented parties that seek to ally the county with the European Union mainstream, but the coronavirus pandemic has apparently upended traditional allegiances.

Impact of pandemic

The PNL has controlled Romania’s minority government since October 2019, when the PSD lost a confidence vote in Parliament after a chaotic tenure that had seen it run through three prime ministers and dozens of ministers in the space of just three years.

The PSD-led government had drawn heavy criticism from the EU for its interference with the judiciary and a cascade of corruption scandals involving prominent members.

But it defied pre-election polls to become the nominal winner of Sunday’s vote with promises to preserve Romania’s welfare state model and after the minority PNL government faced strong criticism for its handling of the pandemic.

Romania was plagued by widespread poverty even before the pandemic, with more than 25 percent of the population of 19 million living on less than $5.50 a day.

The coronavirus crisis has exacerbated structural problems, including the near-collapse of the public healthcare system.

As a result of the pandemic and virus-related restrictions, Romania’s fiscal deficit is expected to widen this year to around 9 percent of gross domestic product, compared with 4.3 percent in 2019.

The coronavirus continues to spread in Romania, with almost two-thirds of the country’s half-a-million plus infections and nearly half of its more than 12,300 virus-related deaths registered in the past two months alone.

Source: AP