Monday, January 24

‘We are clean now’: Back to power, Romania’s PSD wants to leave behind its toxic past

Liviu Dragnea’s release from a Bucharest prison after serving two and a half years for corruption on July 15 received little fanfare.

Five years ago, Dragnea was considered the most powerful man in Romanian politics. In 2021, he was just an angry ex-con, railing at the few journalists willing to hear that he was a “political prisoner” and calling his former colleagues the Social Democrats “cowards.”

It had been a spectacular fall from grace for the man who had led the PSD to a landslide victory in the 2016 parliamentary elections, garnering more than 45% of the vote.

Dragnea was barred from becoming prime minister due to a vote rigging conviction, but he did run the PSD, and Romania, through his proxies.

His personal approval rating was high, and he was even compared to Jaroslav Kaczynski, the leader of the Polish Law and Justice (PiS) party, who had taken power a year earlier in 2015.

It was a good time for nationalist-leaning European populists, buoyed by Brexit and Viktor Orban and energized by the 2015 migration crisis, which had sparked a furious backlash against the European Union.

But a PSD law that restricted the ability of the courts to investigate and convict lawmakers for abuse of power in 2017 sparked the largest anti-government protests in Romania since the end of communism, and was the beginning of the end of the PSD’s resurgence. : and Dragnea’s political career.

During the following year, the PSD had three prime ministers, two of them dismissed by their own party for missing Dragnea. By 2019, the PSD’s reputation was in tatters and Dragnea was in jail.

Voters punished the PSD during the 2020 parliamentary elections, when it suffered its worst electoral result since 1996, winning 28.9% of the vote. It was a consolation that his rivals fared just as badly, with Ludovic Orban’s National Liberal Party (NLP) winning just 22%.

Despite being the largest party, the president of the PNL, Klaus Iohannis, did not ask the PSD to form a government, and a coalition agreement was signed between the PNL and a new party, USR Plus.

“The PSD was strategically isolated. It was considered toxic, ”said Costin Ciobanu, an analyst from Bucharest.

However, as of November 2021, the PSD returns to power in Romania, as part of a coalition agreement with its most staunch rivals, the PNL. The agreement will see the PSD and the PNL rotate the post of prime minister for 18 months each and share cabinet positions, leading up to the 2024 elections.

It has even been speculated that the alliance could even last seven years, two more parliamentary terms and enact a constitutional reform that would transform Romania into a parliamentary republic, rather than a presidential one. That would mean that the president, currently directly elected (as in France), would be appointed by the parliament (as in Germany).

That would be favored by the PSD, which has failed to win a presidential election since 2000.

PSD spokesperson Radu Oprea told Euronews that the days of Dragnea and the PSD’s association with corruption and bribery are long gone.

“Today, there is a new PSD. When we published our electoral list there was no one related to corruption. They were all clean,” Oprea said.

“But we accept our story,” he added, “what happened in those days with the PSD, we have to know, so that it doesn’t happen again.”

In large part, it has been the failures of the NLP that have allowed the unlikely return of the PSD. Liberals are divided by infighting, and those loyal to former prime minister Ludovic Orban face his replacement, Florin Citu, and President Iohannis.

In 2021, the NLP also burned its bridges with its natural allies, the pro-European USR Plus, now known as USR, after Citu fired USR Justice Minister Stelian Ion in a row over a 10,000 infrastructure bill. millions of euros.

The move led to the collapse of the Citu government and two failures, the first by USR and the second by PNL, to form a new one capable of gaining parliamentary support.

A third failed attempt would have triggered snap elections, an outcome none of the three main parties in Romania desired during the resurgence of COVID-19, an extremely cold winter, and growing frustration with the political class on the part of Romanian voters.

In fact, the only party that wanted new elections was the far-right Alliance for the Union of Moldova and Romania.

The AUR came out of nowhere in 2019 to seize 16% of the vote and its criticism of the government’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis, and in particular, the blockades that Bucharest implemented to deal with the spread of the virus, has seen your support grows in recent months.

So the PSD-PNL agreement is a marriage of convenience, and has drawn criticism and accusations of hypocrisy from the opposition.

USR leader and former MEP Dacian Ciolos said he was “disgusted” by the agreement, which showed that for the NLP “the only thing that mattered was access to resources and power.” [It is] detached from the real needs of the people. “

As for the PSD, the new leadership – the “cowards” of the recent Dragnea outbreaks – are those who were critical of the former leader or at least not loyal, including its current leader, Marcel Ciolacu.

Meanwhile, Sorin Grindeanu, who will now become deputy prime minister in the new government, was one of the two prime ministers overthrown in 2017 by his own party on the orders of Dragnea.

But not everyone is convinced of PSD’s attempt to distance itself from Dragnea and its allies.

“It is true that some faces in the party leadership have changed,” Andrei Lupu, a USR lawmaker, told Euronews, “but the people on the second line have not changed.”

Lupu, who participated in protests against the 2017 rules that would have restricted the ability to convict sitting politicians for abuse of power, points out that it was Grindeanu, the new PSD deputy prime minister, whose cabinet introduced the law that sparked the protests. .

Oprea, from the PSD, responds, however, that while it is true that Grindeanu signed the law, known as ‘Ordinance 13’, he also signed the subsequent legislation that repealed it.

Ideologically, the PSD has moved from left to right in Romania, pushing for better welfare and pensions, while criticizing the perception of European political overreach. But like other parties, including the PNL, the traditional left-right political axis is not a feature of politics in Romania, Radu Magdin, an analyst from Bucharest, told Euronews.

“History shows us that the most liberal and business-friendly measures were adopted during the PSD and the NLP has taken numerous social measures,” he said.

But under Dragnea, the PSD openly courted nationalist voters, particularly after Corneliu Vadim Tudor’s Greater Romania Party came second in the 2000 parliamentary elections and third in 2004. Tudor even reached the second round. of the 2000 presidential elections, taking 33% of the national vote.

“Dragnea cultivated these voters a lot, with his discourse on economic nationalism, the role of the traditional family and the pride of being Romanian,” Magdin said.

Whether the PSD has changed since Dragnea’s fall from grace or not, or will change now that it is in government, the party remains “one of the defining characteristics of Romanian politics,” Magdin said, able to count on around than a third of the Romanian electorate. that he will vote in favor whatever he does.

As other parties, notably the NLP, fail, the popularity of the PSD is increasing and it has less to lose, electorally, by forming a government with the NLP than the NLP.

“If a PSD in power cannot defend the interests of its voters, if it accepts austerity measures, if ministers are hurt by a perception of incompetence, then it will face political repercussions,” Costin said. “But right now, it is more difficult for the NLP voters to accept the agreement than it is for the PSD.”

For USR’s Lupu, who was born in 1994, both the PSD and the NLP represent the old guard that has dominated Romanian politics since the end of communism. In this, neither party can effectively represent the millions of Romanians of their own generation who grew up in the 1990s and who see, in Europe, the only viable future for Romania.

“My generation grew up when the most important battle was between European values ​​and pro-Russian values. At some point, Romania chose European values ​​and my generation still believes in these values, ”he told Euronews.

“What the PSD-PNL is trying to do in the Romanian parliament is isolate these pro-European forces and prevent them from winning the elections in 2024.”

Someone else with an eye on the 2024 elections is Liviu Dragnea, who has left the PSD since he got out of jail and formed a new political party, the Alianza por la Patria.

On December 1, 2021, Romania’s national day, he broadcast live on Facebook a demonstration of a few dozen supporters waving Romanian flags on a cold Bucharest morning.

For Oprea of ​​the PSD, Dragnea’s new political adventure is proof that the PSD is not the party it once was.

“Dragnea is trying to form its own party now, even though it is unable to do so due to its … legal problems,” Oprea said. “We have completely separated ourselves from the past.”

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