Partial results released by the Central Electoral Bureau show the landslide victory of the Social Liberal Union (USL), an electoral bloc gathering the tiny Conservative Party and two erstwhile rivals – the Social Democrat Party (PSD), heir to the Communist Party, and the ‘historic’ National Liberal Party (PNL), the communists’ former victim. The Social Liberals gained 60 percent of the popular vote for each chamber, as opposed to their rivals, the Right Romania Alliance (ARD), which won 17 percent. The Alliance consists of the Democrat Liberal Party (PDL), which ruled the country in 2008-2012 with backing from President Traian Basescu, and several inconsequential satellites set up as tiny personal and interest parties. The partial results (available here) confirm the rise of the Popular Party of Dan Diaconescu (PPDD) as the third electoral winner with 14 percent of the vote. Besides 18 deputies representing ethnic minorities, the only other formation likely to enter parliament is the Democratic Union of Magyars, representing the 1.5 million strong Hungarian community, which barely passed the 5 percent electoral threshold. Voter turnout stood at some 40 percent.

The Romanian mixed PR system includes two stages. First, it allows a candidate to win a seat if she can gather a simple majority of the votes in her college. Second, in colleges where no candidate has majority, a vote redistribution system permits candidates to win seats based on their party’s strength. Candidates who rank second and even third in a college could enter parliament, if their party performed better than the party of the candidate who ranked first. In practice, the PR component strengthens the formation that gains most votes, provides for uneven representation (as the minimum required number of votes to win a seat differs widely across various colleges, ranging from 6,000 to over 20,000) and enlarges parliament with additional seats so that the overall seat distribution roughly matches vote distribution. The USL won all seats in 25 of the 43 colleges, but no ARD candidate pulled the majority needed to win a seat in the first stage (except the ARD candidate for diaspora, representing Romanians living abroad). Most tellingly, the ARD co-presidents (Vasile Blaga of the PDL, Mihai Razvan Ungureanu of the Civic Force Party, Aurelian Pavelescu of the National Christian Democrat Peasant Party, and Mihail Neamtu of the New Republic) mustered insufficient support, although all of them competed in colleges they considered the safest, and easiest wins, for them. Some ARD candidates will likely secure seats through redistribution.

The results largely mirrored the June local elections, and therefore should surprise no one. Several trends are worth noting. First, these parliamentary elections confirmed that the alternation in power effected by motion of non-confidence in April (when the former opposition USL formed the government and the former ruling PDL joined the opposition) is underpinned by a real shift in popular sentiment. Far from amounting to a putsch, a coup d’etat, or an illegitimate grab of power, the motion signaled that more Romanians support the Social Liberals than the Democrat Liberals. Second, the Social Liberals won by a landslide despite the grave charges of plagiarism brought against Social Democrat PM Victor Ponta in June, his failure to unseat President Basescu in July, his willingness to bend political rules and weaken key institutions, his lack of a sound strategy for governing the country since May, the generally weak Social Liberal electoral campaign, and the unrelenting criticism of the Ponta government mounted by European Union leaders and foreign governments. True, fewer Romanians came out to vote in December, than in the June local elections or the July referendum that decided Basescu’s fate, but there are few signs that the USL lost significant ground during the last few months. The Social Liberal win shows that the Romanian voters simply had other priorities – chief among them was the bashing of President Basescu, scapegoated for everything that went wrong in that country.

Third, the elections reduced the once powerful Democrat Liberals to a mere shadow of their former self, thus further isolating President Basescu in the political arena. While in 2008 they won 32 percent of the vote by running alone, in 2012 they barely polled half that support rate by participating in a multi-party alliance. In 2008 the PDL was supported by 2.2 million voters, but in June 2012 the ARD gathered only 1.4 million and in December a bare 1,2 million (opinion polls conducted in November suggested that the ARD would gather less than the PDL, but running separately was not possible once the electoral campaign started). This significant loss of ground stemmed from many factors, not least the party’s strong ties with the unpopular President Basescu, who was severely delegitimized by the July referendum in which over 7.4 million Romanians voted against him, the PDL’s association with satellite parties lacking legitimacy and credibility, its failure to present a coherent electoral message or a clear political agenda, unwillingness to field candidates in USL-dominated colleges, and frantic search for “safe colleges.” The PDL was further affected by its refusal to vet corrupt candidates, some of whom prosecutors placed under investigation for corrupt behavior after the party deemed them fit to run in elections, and to acknowledge the failures of Prime Minister Emil Boc (2008-2012), who became unpopular not so much for the austerity measures of 2010 as for the way he wasted public resources in times of economic restraint and left ordinary citizens to shoulder the austerity program while protecting the interests of party clients.

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Fourth, the elections further propelled the anti-system PPDD to parliament, showing that for at least some voters neither the USL nor the ARD were credible alternatives, since their main parties have dominated post-communist politics since 1989. This personal party – created by Dan Diaconescu, a self-made media mogul who owns the country’s trashiest television station – gathers mostly politicians who either were expelled from or left other formations for personal reasons. PPDD candidates like the former PDL minister Monica Iacob Ridzi (under whose wing President Basescu’s youngest daughter Elena launched her spectacular political career) seek reelection in the hope that parliamentary immunity will protect them from being prosecuted. The PPDD seems poised to walk in the shoes of the once vocal and popular xenophobic Greater Romania Party, which secured parliamentary representation neither in 2008 nor in 2012, but occupied a strong and secure niche from 1990 to 2008. The tiny anti-system PPDD was set up in the shortest of time not long before the local elections, launched the most aberrant campaign promises (running the gamut from paying each Romanian 20,000 Euros to reincorporating the Republic of Moldova into Greater Romania), and ran simple campaign slogans (presenting Diaconescu as “the onion in cooked food,” a staple in many Romanian kitchens). If in June some 0.9 million Romanians voted for the PPDD, in December the party gained over 1 million votes, rapidly closing the gap with the ARD (for the Senate, the ARD garnered only 155,000 more votes).

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For now, parties are waiting the redistribution, which will decide which ARD leaders gain a seat. But the ARD’s poor score already prompted some PDL leaders to resign, others to toll the bells for the “useless” and “stupid” Alliance, and still others to call for a lucid analysis of the PDL’s future plans. It will take much more for the PDL to be reborn politically. Regardless of which ARD leaders will save face by securing a seat through the back door of redistribution, these elections cemented an uneasy cohabitation between the center-right Democrat Liberal President Basescu and the left-wing Social Liberal parliamentary majority. Before the vote, Basescu threatened to refuse the nomination of Ponta as prime minister, invoking an interpretation of the Constitution unlikely to be accepted even by the evidently pro-Basescu Constitutional Court. On 27 November, Basescu claimed that the president alone can nominate the prime minister and he will not accept any party to make that decision, even when a formation secured a clear parliamentary majority. Days before the vote, Basescu again warned that the candidate for premiership must demonstrate a pro-EU and pro-NATO stance to gain his acceptance, conditions Ponta allegedly did not met. While journalists defended Basescu, his threat — which would provoke a constitutional crisis if ever translated into reality — is unlikely to block the USL’s bid to rule the country, bring the failing ARD to government, or win Basescu sympathy with Romanian voters or foreign governments. Basescu ignores the fact that no PDL leader seemingly has the guts to accept a premiership that effectively invalidates the popular vote. Whether Romanians really understand what the USL overwhelming majority means remains to be seen. Since May the alliance has provided plenty of evidence that it has no qualms in undermining the rule of law and no coherent governance program except for relentlessly criticizing President Basescu.

Note: Romanian newspapers revealed the donations collected by the main election contenders. The USL (PSD, PNL, PC, and UNPR) collected 15.5 million Lei, ARD (PDL, PFC and PNTCD) 7.7 million, and PPDD 4.1 million.

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