Romania held local elections on Sunday June 5th. The results show the clear domination of the two biggest parties. Left-wing Social Democrats (PSD) topped the polls across the country with almost 38%, including an unprecedented victory in Bucharest. President Iohannis’ centre-right National Liberal Party (PNL) scored nearly 32% of the vote nationally but experienced a humiliating defeat in Bucharest, where it was not only defeated by PSD, but also outperformed by a new anti-establishment party. Other parties that came close to the 5% national threshold were ALDE, a small PSD ally, which scored 6.31%, the Hungarian minority party (UDMR) with 5.33% and former President Băsescu’s People’s Movement Party (PMP) with 4.27%.
The local election was the first national poll after the PSD government led by Victor Ponta resigned last November following a deadly night club fire in Bucharest that triggered massive street protests against corruption in central and local administration. Since then the country has been led by a technocratic government led by former European Commissioner Dacian Cioloş, who is expected to remain in office until the general election due in November.
A number of factors explain the success of the Social Democrats. To start with, the election rules, which combine a one-round majoritarian first-past-the-post system for the election of mayors with a proportional list system for the election of local and city councils, advantage incumbent mayors. As the largest party in Romania’s parliament throughout the post-communist period and the main governing party since 2012, PSD benefits from strong support among the poor and the elderly, strong local structures and access to state budget revenues. Consequently, as the local elections were approaching, city mayors and other officials were increasingly seen to switch sides and join the PSD ranks in an attempt to increase their re-election chances.
In spite of the anti-corruption mass demonstrations that triggered the PSD government’s fall last November, the party appears to have paid a small electoral price for its casualities in Romania’s ongoing crackdown on corruption. In 2015, PSD’s former leader and prime minister Victor Ponta was charged with tax evasion and money laundering. Liviu Dragnea, Ponta’s successor as PSD leader, received a two-year suspended jail sentence for electoral fraud less than two months before the June poll. Other local officials, including Bucharest’s general mayor and 5 other district mayors, were indicted for corruption in 2015. And yet, many of them ran for re-election and won, as the Romanian law allows anybody who has been indicted of corruption but not yet convicted to run for office. For example, one of PSD’s district mayors in Bucharest was re-elected with over 60% of the vote despite being under investigation on corruption charges. Thus, graft revelations do not seem to jeopardize the party’s chances to return to power after the November general contest. Instead, voters’ discontent with corrupt politicians may yet again translate into absenteeism (turnout in local elections was only 48%, one of the lowest in Romania’s post-communist electoral history).
Another factor explaining PSD’s success across the country and particularly in Bucharest is the fragmentation of the centre-right and the internal divisions in the National Liberal Party. In the race for the Bucharest mayor’s seat, PSD topped the polls with 43% of the votes, well above the country average, and also won all of the six district mayor seats in the capital. Nicuşor Dan, a civil society activist and leader of Save Bucharest Union (USB), a new anti-system party that condemns the endemic corruption of traditional parties, won the second place in the race for the mayor seat scoring 30.5% of the vote. USB also came second in the election for Bucharest’s general council and in three of the six races for the capital districts. PNL won a distant third place, scoring 11% in the race for Bucharest mayor and 14.5% of the votes for the general council. Several other candidates from centre-right groupings totalled about 10% in the race for the mayor post. Thus, had the centre-right been able to rally around the best-placed candidate, the social democrats could have been defeated.
A common view is that PNL lost the Bucharest race because of obvious campaign mistakes but also due to the lack of strong central leadership and clear national strategies. In fact, the merger between the two centre-right groupings that came together ahead of the 2014 presidential election to support Klaus Iohannis as a joint candidate is still not complete. The party needed three unsuccessful nominations for the Bucharest mayor post before Cătălin Predoiu, a former justice minister and leader of the Bucharest organization, reluctantly accepted to enter the race. A strategy aimed at attracting new voters has also been lacking. The party proves unable to mobilize the wave of undecided voters who contributed to president Iohannis’ election in the 2014 runoff and the anti-corruption protesters who toppled PM Ponta’s government last year.
USB’s strong performance in Bucharest may change the two-party dynamics of the general election contest. Plans have already been announced for the party to run in the November general election as Save Romania Union (USR). A repeat of the Bucharest scenario in other major cities means that USR will be eroding PNL’s centre-right electorate. It remains to be seen whether USR intends to play the anti-system card in the general election and take advantage of the protest vote against the corrupt political elite, or if a centre-right alliance will be forged to prevent the PSD and its allies from securing an outright parliamentary majority. However, such an alliance will not take place without a leadership change in the PNL. Given the absence of a charismatic leader and an obvious party candidate for the prime minister post, many see PM Cioloş as an appropriate choice to lead the centre-right coalition in the general election. Indirectly, President Iohannis also seems to signal his preference for this scenario.