Confessions of a Political Animal

December 3, 2008

European Left Watch: Neck and neck in Romania

the world's largest administrative building

The Romanian Parliament: the world's largest administrative building

What will almost certainly be the EU’s last legislative election of 2008 took place on Sunday in Romania (the first since accession to the EU), with the results finally being announced late yesterday. Not that the results shed much light on the likely make-up of the country’s next government.

Romania is pretty unique in having a bicameral parliament where both houses (The Senate and The Chamber of Deputies) are elected on the same day in their entirety, using exactly the same electoral system. The system in use, closed list proportional representation should, in theory, produce a highly proportional outcome, although it has not on this instance prevented the party that came narrowly second in terms of vote share from coming narrowly first in terms of seats.

Over the past four years Romania has experienced relatively turbulent politics, following an inconclusive outcome from the 2004 elections. Following these elections, a broadly centre-right coalition government was formed of the National Liberal Party (PNL), the Democratic Liberal Party(PDL), the Democratic Union of Hungarians in Romania (UDMR) and the Conservative Party (PC). To form a narrow parliamentary majority, the modestly named ‘Justice and Truth Alliance’ government, headed by PNL Prime Minister Calin Popescu-Tariceanu, also had to rely on members of parliament from the reserved seats for ethnic minorities. Tariceanu proposed new elections in 2005, but then rowed back on the grounds of the need for united government action following disastrous summer flooding. The coalition survived for a further two years until strains between the PNL and PDL caused its collapse in 2007, linked to the parliamentary vote to suspend the nation’s President on the grounds of unconstitutionality, although the suspension was overturned by a subsequent referendum.

Following the coalition break-down, the PNL governed as a minority with the continued support of the UDMR and the tacit support of the Social Democratic Party (PSD), the country’s Socialist International member party and the direct successor to the nation’s Communist Party. The PSD led coalition governments between 1994-6 and 2000-4.

Just as in 2004, the 2008 elections have proved highly inconclusive, although there has been a significant change in the alliances contesting the polls. In 2004 the PNL and PDL ran as an alliance, but in 2008 ran on separate tickets. As in 2004, the PSD ran in an alliance with the Conservative Party (who in 2004 were called the Humanist Party of Romania).

Perhaps the most striking feature of the elections is the very low turnout – falling from 56.5% four years ago to just 39.2% in 2008. Given the fact that all opinion polls suggested a very close run contest and that the election took place against the backdrop of a spiraling economic crisis, a classic example of where traditional political science explanations would expect a high turnout, this paltry participation rate suggests a genuine disillusionment with all the parties.

Both of the former main players in the coalition government (the PNL and PDL) appear to have, on paper, benefited from running separately, particularly the PDL which has seen its vote and seat shares increase heavily in order to narrowly come first in number of seats, a position which in 2004 was held by the PSD-Humanist alliance. Whilst the PNL did slightly increase its number of seats, being out of an alliance has confirmed it as the weakest of the three main parties. The PSD-Conservative alliance lost a little in terms of vote share and seats, although just retained the highest vote share.

One piece of unalloyed good news is that the hard right, xenophobic, anti-semitic, anti-ethnic Hungarian, anti-Roma and homophobic (attractive list, huh?) Greater Romania Party (PRM) collapsed well below the 5% threshold for representation in parliament, thus losing all of its 34 seats. Astonishingly, the PRM was briefly a coalition party of the PSD (along with a hard-left party) during the 1990s, whilst its presidential candidate came second in the 2000 elections, before (in a very close parallel of the Chirac-Le Pen situation two years later) losing heavily in the run-off round.

The table below sets out the election results for both chambers, including the parties that are represented this time or were in 2004:

Party Politics Senate vote share (Change from 2004) Senate seats (Change from 2004) Chamber of Deputies vote share (Change from 2004) Chamber of Deputies seats (Change from 2004)
Democratic Liberal Party (PDL) Centre right economic liberalism 33.57% (n/a) 51 (+22) 32.36% (n/a) 115 (+48)
Social Democratic Party (PSD) + Conservative Party (PC) alliance Social democrat (PSD)/centre right economic conservatism (PC) 34.16% (-3.04%) 49 (-6) 33.09% (-3.71%) 114 (-10)
National Liberal Party (PNL) Centre-right economic and social liberalism 18.74% (n/a) 28 (+4) 18.57% (n/a) 65 (+5)
Hungarian Democratic Union of Romania (UDMR) Broadly non-ideological ethnic based politics 6.39% (+0.19%) 9 (-1) 6.17% (-0.3%) 22 (+/-0)
Ethnic minority guaranteed representation Broadly non-ideological ethnic based politics No representation No representation 3.56% (+0.66%) 18 (+/-0)
Greater Romania Party (PRM) Hard right nationalist 3.57% (-10.03%) 0 (-13) 3.15% (-9.85%) 0 (-21)

Note: disaggregated vote shares for the PNL and PDL in 2004 are not available.

Given the apparent fluidity of coalition alliances in Romania, there are a high number of possibilities for the eventual government outcome, especially as two parties can effectively claim to have ‘won’ the elections. The president is at liberty to call on the leader of whichever party he wishes to form a government. From an ideological point of view, a PDL-PNL alliance of economic liberals seems the most obvious outcome, providing a reasonable majority in both houses. However, the tensions between these two parties that led to the collapse of the governing coalition in 2007 do not appear to have been resolved, potentially precluding this as an option. The focus may therefore be on whether the PSD is prepared to enter government, either as a junior or equal partner with the PDL or as the senior partner of a PSD-PNL coalition. Whilst this later option would have small majorities, it would be likely that these could be ‘topped up’ with UDMR members, who seem prepared to support governments of any hue. The PSD entering coalition with either of the liberal parties would be breaking new ground for Romania and it is entirely possible that the historical baggage may prove too great.

The other option being speculated on is that of a grand coalition of the three (or four) major parties, which the President may be required to effectively force upon them if none of the potential coalition options prove possible. With the extreme PRM out of the parliamentary picture, this looks a more conceivable option than it would have done in the past.

I have genuinely no clue what the outcome here will be – the only prediction I’m prepared to make is that the government formation will be lengthy and that there is a good chance that new elections may have to take place before 2012. I will update when there is news.

Update: Theodor Stolojan of the PDL has been asked by President Basescu to form a government, with the PSD as their likely coalition partners – something almost approaching a grand coaltion, although not including the third party PNL. Given how closely matched the PDL and PSD are in terms of seats and the fact that the Social Democrats edged it slightly on the popular vote, I would expect them to be in the running for a good clutch of very senior positions in the coalition. Stolojan, incidently, was briefly Prime Minister before, in 1991-2. More here.


  1. […] European Left Watch: Neck and neck in Romania Following the coalition break-down, the PNL governed as a minority with the continued support of the UDMR and the tacit support of the Social Democratic Party (PSD), the country’s Socialist International member party and the direct … […]

    Pingback by European Left Watch: Neck and neck in Romania — December 3, 2008 @ 11:59 am | Reply

  2. Thank you! A great explanation of the outcome of an important European election that (as usual) seems to be largely ignored by the mainstream press in the UK. Definitely interested to see the outcome of this.

    In terms of the ongoing issue of corruption (which is about the only aspect of Romanian politics that does seem to get any coverage that I’ve noticed) – are any of the parties cleaner than others (or have they campaigned on the issue) – or is it not as big an issue as the UK press makes out?

    Comment by Geoff — December 3, 2008 @ 4:34 pm | Reply

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