Surprises in Romania

Sunday’s election in Romania turned out quite different in some respects from what observers (including me in my preview) were expecting. But those differences don’t really affect the fundamentals of the result.

The first surprise was at the top of the table: the opposition Social Democrats (centre-left) led with 29.1% of the vote; down 16.4% on 2016, but still almost four points clear of the governing National Liberals (PNL; centre-right), on 25.2% (up 5.2%). (Official results are here; they’re in Romanian, but it’s not as difficult as you might think. “Camera Deputatilor” is Chamber of Deputies.)

The liberal Save Romania Union (PSR-PLUS) was third with 15.2% (up 6.3%), but the second surprise came in fourth place: the far-right Alliance for the Unity of Romanians (UAR) came from nowhere to take 9.0% of the vote. The party of the Hungarian minority (UDMR) was the only other one to clear the 5% threshold, winning 5.8% (down 0.4%). The People’s Movement Party (centre-right) and PRO Romania (centrist) both dropped out, finishing on 4.8% and 4.1% respectively.

Turnout was only 33.3%, down from an already discouraging 39.5% last time. The official allocation of seats hasn’t been done, but we know roughly what it will be: a D’Hondt calculation gives the Social Democrats 108, PNL 94, PSR 56, UAR 33 and UDMR 21.* A further 17 seats are reserved for small ethnic minority parties.

Since the PNL and PSR are allies, their combined 150 seats makes it impossible in practice for any other combination to reach the 165 required for a majority. The likely outcome is a coalition between them and UDMR; president Klaus Iohannis (himself from the centre-right) has promised to convene discussions on that basis within a few days.

But the coalition will have to find a new prime minister. PNL leader Ludovic Orban resigned from the job once the results became clear, taking responsibility for his party’s poorer than expected showing. Defence minister Nicolae-Ionel Ciucă has been sworn in as an interim replacement.

Only in about the last week of the campaign did some opinion polls pick up both the rise of UAR and the fact that the PNL might not finish in the lead. My remark last week that Romania’s voters show “no signs of wanting to upend the system” must now be qualified: there is at least enough discontent to support a viable right-wing nationalist or Trumpist party.

That said, nine per cent of the vote hardly represents a major threat to Romania’s European identity. Contrary to what one might expect of the left-right spectrum, it’s the Social Democrats that have previously been the more nationalist political force; both the present government and its likely successor are more strongly pro-western. The Social Democrats have recently tried to move in the same direction, particularly since the jailing of former leader Liviu Dragnea on corruption charges, but in the course of doing so they seem to have shed some support to UAR.

The far-right surge and the very low turnout are both signs of disaffection that the new government will need to address, but it and president Iohannis – re-elected a year ago with almost two-thirds of the vote – at least have a clear mandate to do so.

* The final allocation may not exactly match those numbers because the four seats that represent Romanians living abroad are calculated separately, but the differences (if any) will be very small.

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