Romania’s 2012 parliamentary elections: Clear victory, uncertain mandate

The question of constitutional reforms will be one of the critical issues for the trajectory of Romanian democracy.

Tensions between the different parts of the coalition surfaced on the night of the victorious election, after Victor Ponta invited the Hungarian minority party to coalition talks but drew criticisms from several prominent USL leaders [EPA]

According to preliminary results, Sunday’s parliamentary elections in Romania have resulted in the clearest electoral majority since the sweeping victory of the National Salvation Front in the first post-communist elections of 1990: thus, the centre-left Social-Liberal Union (USL) has won almost 59 per cent of votes, which will provide the USL with over 65 per cent of parliamentary seats.

At a first glance, USL leaders would appear to be justified in interpreting this victory as a clear mandate for the new majority, given that their main opponents, the Right Romania Alliance (ARD), a centre-right coalition formed at the last moment around the former governing party Democratic Liberal Party (PDL), came in a distant second with under 17 per cent of the votes.

Meanwhile, the Popular Party (PP-DD), a newly formed populist party led by TV talk show host Dan Diaconescu, came in a close third with almost 14 per cent of the votes cast. The only other party that will be represented in the new parliament will be the Hungarian minority party (UDMR), which barely cleared the 5 per cent electoral threshold.

Important questions

However, a closer look at the circumstances of the USL victory raises a number of important questions about the mandate received by the new victors.

First, there’s the question of raw numbers: thus, when we consider that in the previous elections in 2008, the combined vote shares of the parties of the current USL coalition had been around 54 per cent. Then, the 59 per cent achieved in 2012 looks less like an electoral surge and more the result of an unprecedented pre-electoral coalition driven primarily by the leaders of the two largest parties in the coalition Victor Ponta (from the Social Democratic Party PSD) and Crin Antonescu (from the National Liberal Party PNL). 


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The USL result is even less impressive when we consider that the centre-right PDL, which had been in power for much of the past four years and thus bore the brunt of voter dissatisfaction with the fallout of the global economic crisis, lost almost half of its 32 per cent vote share from 2008 after running a lacklustre electoral campaign.

Instead, the biggest net winner was the PP-DD, a newcomer to the Romanian parliament, which ran on a textbook populist platform based on the personal appeals of its highly mediatised leader, Dan Diaconescu, who runs a remarkable one-man-show on the popular OTV television station, combined with a list of highly unrealistic electoral promises (such as giving 20,000 Euro to any Romanian citizen who wants to start a business, raising all salaries and pensions and cutting all salaries for Romanian MPs and top government officials.)

While the vote dynamics need to be analysed in greater detail based on survey data, these trends suggest that most of the voters disappointed by the PDL government did not migrate across the partisan divide to the USL, but instead either cast a protest vote (that likely benefited the PP-DD) or simply stayed at home (turnout was 41 per cent).

The second question about the USL mandate, is what the putative mandate of the USL consists of. The USL was initially formed by three main parties, whose nominal ideological positions span the full range of the political spectrum: the social-democratic PSD (which belongs to the Socialist International), the liberal PNL (which belongs to the Liberal International) and the self-declared conservative PC, which were subsequently joined by the nationalist-populist outfit of George Becali, the controversial owner of Romania’s best-known football club, Steaua Bucharest.

While USL leaders have presented the coalition as an effort to set aside ideological differences for the benefit of their country, it is unclear whether the USL has a concrete political agenda beyond its vehement opposition to the country’s President Traian Basescu.

Thus, ever since the creation of the USL alliance in February 2011, its leaders have focused most of their energy on attacking President Basescu’s alleged abuses of power and dictatorial tendencies. This obsession culminated during the failed effort to suspend President Basescu in July 2012 and dominated the electoral campaign for the parliamentary elections despite the fact that presidential elections are not due until 2014.

Economic challenges

While this framing of the campaign may have been beneficial for the recent elections, given that Basescu’s popularity ratings have been below 20 per cent for most of the year, it is hardly a blueprint for governing a country, especially one confronting serious economic challenges in the coming two years.

Negative coalitions, such as the USL, typically start to unravel once their common enemy is gone, and tensions between the different parts of the coalition have surfaced even on the night of the victorious election, after Victor Ponta invited the Hungarian minority party to coalition talks but drew vocal criticisms from several prominent USL leaders.

None of this will be made any easier by the difficult task of guiding Romania through the coming winter and a series of tough fiscal choices, which will be hard to reconcile with the USL’s electoral promises of reversing the fiscal austerity measures introduced by their predecessors.

In addition to questions of elite cohesion, negative coalitions are difficult to sustain in terms of electoral support: a first signal in this respect is the fact that whereas (at least according to official figures) in July, 7.4 million Romanians voted in favour of the USL-initiated suspension of President Basescu, the total number of USL votes in this election was 40 per cent lower (about 4.5 million).

This centrifugal trend is likely to continue after the election given that no USL government can govern in a way that will simultaneously satisfy supporters with often radically opposed political preferences.

A third question is whether and how this electoral mandate can be reconciled with the government’s efforts to gain international credibility. On the one hand, Ponta’s post-electoral statements reiterated the country’s commitment to its Western allies in the EU and NATO. 


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On the other hand, the USL faces a serious credibility deficit in the West after its heavy-handed handling of the suspension of President Basescu, during which the USL interim government launched a number of attacks on the independence of crucial democratic institutions, including the Constitutional Court and the Ombudsman office.

In recent months, the attacks have broadened to include political pressures on the National Audiovisual Council (which regulates the mass media) and the National Anticorruption Directorate (which has vigorously prosecuted corruption cases by prominent politicians from all political parties.)

As a result, Romania has recently attracted high-level criticisms from its Western partners, including US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent concern about “challenges to constitutional processes in Romania“. These concerns are likely to grow if the new government embarks on its plan to amend the constitution.

Constitutional reforms

The question of constitutional reforms will be one of the critical issues for the trajectory of Romanian democracy and for its relationship with the West. On the one hand, despite the fact that it has been already revised once in 2003, the Romanian Constitution of 1991 could definitely benefit from revisions that would clarify the relationship between different political institutions, including a number of repeatedly contested issues such as the nature of the President’s prerogatives to name the Prime Minister.

On the other hand, many observers, both in Romania and in Western Europe, are concerned that given that the USL is close to the two-thirds majority required for amending the Constitution, it may follow the example set by the Orban government in Hungary, and fundamentally rewrite the Constitution in order to cement its temporary political dominance and eliminate the remaining institutional checks on its power.

While the interim USL government has already tried a number of such steps in the weeks before and immediately after the July referendum, it ultimately backed down following EU pressures. Having largely failed to check Orban’s constitutional power grab in Hungary, the EU is likely to continue to be much less tolerant of similar schemes in Romania.

While these external checks will be even more important given the weakness of the parliamentary opposition after the December 2012 elections, outside actors have to be careful not to overplay their cards. On the one hand, Romanians still trust the EU considerably more than their domestic institutions, which combined with the government’s need for continued EU and IMF support results in a fair amount of leverage despite the country’s EU membership.

On the other hand, if in the name of liberal democratic principles, which many Romanians embrace half-heartedly at best, the EU attempts to block political measures that (for better or for worse) the majority of Romanian support, then such measures will strengthen the nationalist hard-liners within and outside the USL, who find Orban’s brand of Euro-skepticism and nationalism appealing (unless it happens to pertain to the issue of ethnic Hungarians in Transylvania.)

Grigore Pop-Eleches is Associate Professor of Politics and International Affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University and works on elections and democratisation in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, as well as on the politics of economic reforms and IMF programmes in developing countries. He is also the author of From Economic Crisis to Reform: IMF Programs in Latin America and Eastern Europe, published by Princeton University Press in 2009.