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Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Romanian elections and the shaping of a new coalition – the last chance for change

On December 6th, Romanians went to the polls to elect the members of the country’s two parliamentary houses – the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate. In this difficult period for the country, the elections registered the lowest voter turnout since the fall of communism in Romania. Only five parties won seats in parliament. The big winner was the Social Democratic Party (28.90 per cent in the Chamber of Deputies and 29.32 per cent in the Senate). The party of the current President Klaus Iohannis, the National Liberal Party, took second place (25.19 per cent in the Chamber of Deputies and 25.58 per cent in the Senate). At the same time, USR PLUS, a party with a strong anti-corruption agenda, came in third (15.37 per cent in the Chamber of Deputies and 15.86 per cent in the Senate). The biggest surprise, however, was the performance of the Alliance for the Union of Romanians (AUR), an ultra-conservative nationalist party that took 9.08 per cent in the Chamber of Deputies and 9.17 per cent in the Senate. The smallest party in the new parliament is the Hungarian Democratic Union of Romania (UDMR), which just passed the five per cent threshold with 5.74 per cent in the Chamber of Deputies and 5.89 per cent in the Senate.

These elections have brought two trends to the attention of the country’s politicians and citizens. Of course, the first is the election’s worrying turnout. This represented the lowest level of participation in the history of democratic Romania. Out of a total number of 18 million registered voters, only 33.24 per cent went to the polls. This can be explained by various factors. The most convincing among them seem to be the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as a general disinterest in politics. Despite a series of large-scale protests (most commonly focused on corruption) in the country in recent years, only a handful of demands have been accepted by the authorities. This key fact has contributed to the apparent rise in apathy among the population.

The second clear trend is the unexpected rise of the ultra-conservative, unionist, and nationalist AUR party. The party has promoted nationalist discourse and has even denied that antisemitic crimes took place in Romania during the Second World War. The group also vehemently opposes the participation of the UDMR – a party that represents the interests of the country’s Hungarian minority – in the Romanian parliament. The leader of the AUR, George Simion, even stated in one of his speeches that “there is no place in parliament for a Hungarian minority party”. Simion is little known in wider Romanian society. However, he stands out due to his nationalistic and radical agenda. He is associated with the revival of ‘ultras’ (radical football supporters) in Romania and is a fierce supporter of the unification of the country with the Republic of Moldova. The party leader has also repeatedly expressed xenophobic, anti-LGBTQIA+ and anti-EU views. Overall, his rise in popularity seems to be following a pattern already seen in other EU member states. Simion, in his own words, is particularly fascinated by the latest developments in Poland.

It is unlikely that the latest parliamentary elections will radically change Romania’s internal and regional politics. This is mainly due to the future coalition that is being discussed by a number of groups. So far, three parties have declared their intention to form a governing coalition. These are the National Liberal Party, USR PLUS and the Hungarian Democratic Union of Romania. This is despite USR PLUS’s criticism of the National Liberal Party in the last few years. The winning Social Democratic Party will most likely remain outside of government, as no one has expressed any desire to form a coalition with the group. Recently, the Social Democrats have been harshly criticised by the opposition for their style of governance. The day after the elections, Romania’s Prime Minister Ludovic Orban (who is also the head of the National Liberal Party) resigned from his position following the results. Nicolae Ciucă (a hero of the Romanian army, former general and a personality respected by all parties) was immediately appointed as interim prime minister in his place.

Above all, these elections should serve as a lesson for Romania’s politicians. If the future coalition fails to deliver reform in this term, there is a good chance that they will have to form one with nationalist forces in the future. This means that Romania will most likely join Poland and Hungary in their shared agenda on the European stage. For the European Union, this development would prove troubling. This is especially true in light of the latest disagreements regarding the approval of the union budget.

Alexandru Demianenco is a graduate of the “Hannah Arendt” Promotion at the College of Europe in Natolin, currently working as a consultant in an international organisation accredited in Moldova.

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