News | Political Parties / Election Analyses - Eastern Europe - Europe2024 Romania’s European Indecision

The 2024 European elections come at a time of significant restructuring in the country’s political landscape



Florin Poenaru,

Romanian President Klaus Iohannis at a press conference in Bucharest, 10 October 2023. Photo: IMAGO / ZUMA Wire

The 2024 elections for the European Parliament in Romania take place during a significant realignment of the country’s politics: the coalition between the Social Democrats (PSD) and the National Liberals (PNL), the biggest parties who have been, up until now, each other’s main adversary. This is not just a conjunctural transformation spurred by the electoral moment, but represents a structural shift away from the main tenets of Romanian politics for the past 35 years. Hence, the elections are endowed with unusual significance, making it harder to predict both the results and their lasting consequences.

Florin Poenaru studied anthropology at Central European University and CUNY. He works on issues related to class, theories of historiography, and the history of state socialism.

Familiar Faces in High Places

When Nicolae Ceaușescu was ousted in December 1989, the National Salvation Front (FSN) took power. It united disgruntled apparatchiks, anti-communist dissidents, famous intellectuals and artists of the former regime, workers and trade unionists, as well as political adventurers. The FSN relied heavily on the state structures of the previous regime (especially the local authorities and the army) and prevented a full collapse of the state. Because of this, the new political power was accused of being neo-Communist, seeking to conserve the old regime albeit without the Ceaușescu family. The FSN split in March 1992 and the largest splinter group went on to form the Social Democratic Party (PSD) which inherited the characterization and criticisms made against the FSN.

Right-wing political parties, especially the National Liberal Party (PNL) and the Christian Democratic National Peasants’ Party (PNTCD), have been among the vocal critics of the FSN and later the PSD. These parties re-emerged at the dawn of transition (the Communists banned them when they took power in 1948) and rearticulated their political visions around former political prisoners who enjoyed uncontested moral legitimacy after 1989. As such, these political forces were deeply anti-communist and branded themselves as the sole alternative to the dominance of the former apparatchiks represented by the PSD. This division between the FSN/PSD and their critics constituted the major driving force of Romanian politics in the post-Communist era.

Despite being political rivals, the PSD and PNL had previously been coalition partners. The most notable coalition was against former President Traian Băsescu and the austerity policies imposed by his Prime Minister Emil Boc (now a member of the PNL) as a response to the financial crisis of 2009–12. However, what is different in 2024, as the country prepares for the European elections, is the fact that the two parties will present a common electoral list, even though they belong to two distinct European political formations: the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, and the European People’s Party (EPP), respectively. Thus, it is not simply an electoral alliance, but a common political structure, at least for the European elections. 

The catastrophe brought about by that coalition was so great that the Christian Democrats ceased to exist shortly after.

The two parties have governed together since 2021 in the wake of the post-pandemic economic crisis and the war in Ukraine. However, their alliance for the European elections is surprising because the outlook and the electoral base of each party is quite different.

The PSD abandoned the neo-reformism of the FSN for a Blair-like Third Way social democracy at the beginning of the new millennium, and then steadily moved towards centrist positions characterized by low taxation rates and friendly fiscal policies for international and domestic capital, coupled with moderate social spending and active policies to increase the minimum wage and public sector salaries, thus reversing the devastating years of austerity. This cemented a strong foothold for the party among the state bureaucracy and other state employees (such as doctors and teachers), while also attracting the votes of the subordinated segments of the labour force.

In addition, the party holds a firm grip over local administrations in many cities and communes across the country, albeit not in Transylvania. Historically, it has been the major winner in local elections, with the greatest number of mayors and local representatives, indicating strong support especially outside of the main cities and within the most economically-disadvantaged regions.

In addition to anti-communism, the PNL also claimed the legacy of the old Romanian liberals of the late nineteenth century, who represented the interests of the emerging Romanian bourgeoisie linked with banking and industrial capital. In practice, in the post-communist years, the National Liberals were rather dogmatic neoliberals: free market, slim state, benefits for the entrepreneurs, no protection for the workers.

During their first period in office, between 1996 and 2000, together with the Christian Democrats and the Democratic Party, the Liberals introduced policies for the privatization of state assets, thus ruining the economy and forcing millions of people to emigrate in search of jobs. The catastrophe brought about by that coalition was so great that the Christian Democrats ceased to exist shortly after. A significant number of key current PNL members previously supported austerity measures, and some actively participated in their implementation.

More recently, the PNL was in power during the pandemic. The response was disastrous: haphazard and incoherent decisions, badly explained to the public, were followed by a string of incidents in which COVID patients died in fires at hospitals. At the same time, the infection cases went through the roof and so did the number of deaths. Unable to contain the spread of the virus, the government continued to impose irrational policies of social restrictions, which contributed to the rapid ascent of the far right in the 2020 elections. Later, reports emerged of corruption and misappropriation of funds during the procurement of vaccines and other medical supplies.

One of the reasons the PSD was co-opted in 2021 was the rapid disintegration of the PNL’s ability to govern. Historically, the PNL polled well with the liberal professions (lawyers, notaries), right-wing intellectuals, university professors in large university cities, small and medium entrepreneurs — such as those active in the timber industry or transportation — who felt alienated by the PSD’s social spending (seen as being a “free lunch” for the undeserving poor), and a lot of the white-collar proletariat working for the multinational corporations that had been established in Romania after 2007, usually located in the most developed cities of the country like the capital Bucharest, Timisoara, and Cluj (the PNL dominance in Transylvania, economically the most advanced region, is thus unsurprising). 

Presidential Pretensions

Incumbent President Klaus Iohannis, previously a leader of the PNL, played an important role in making the coalition between the PSD and PNL possible. The decision was partly strategic, sparing the PNL a devastating defeat in the 2024 electoral cycle. Partly, it was a decision based on self-interest. Formerly mayor of Sibiu, a historically majority-German city, Klaus Iohannis unexpectedly won the 2014 presidential race by beating Victor Ponta, then PSD leader and prime minister.

The vote was in fact anti-Ponta rather than pro-Iohannis. Ponta was perceived as arrogant, corrupt, and embedded in clientelist ties that mixed political subordination with family interests. He was considered the embodiment of what the PSD truly is. At the opposite end of the spectrum, there was Klaus Iohannis illustrating the myth of German seriousness, precision, discipline, and the culture of doing things properly. The myth was so strong that Iohannis as an actual person received less scrutiny. It did not matter that he had amassed huge wealth during his time as mayor, and also previously as a physics teacher at the local high school. A Romanian court found that he had used fake documents while buying one of his several properties. His track record as a mayor was rather poor as well, but this was masked by the beauty of the revamped city centre.

Nearing the end of his second term as Romanian president, Iohannis hopes to land a top international job. To do so, he needs broad political support at home.

In a matter of months, Iohannis proved he was ill-prepared for presidential office, but was much in love with its perks: diplomatic protocol, travel, and the like. At first, President Iohannis cut a very angry figure. Then he increasingly became a distant politician isolated in the presidential palace. He barely spoke to the public. In ten years as president, he did not give a single interview to the media.

The leitmotif of his tenure was his active opposition to the PSD. Unprecedented for a president, he joined a street protest against his rivals in 2017. The fracture was so big that he even declined to debate the PSD candidate in 2020 when he won his second term in office. He kept squeezing every drop of the anti-PSD sentiment that brought him to power in the first place. This continued until 2021, when all of a sudden Iohannis backed a PSD-PNL governing coalition, mandated to lead the country until the 2024 elections.

Nearing the end of his second term as Romanian president, Iohannis hopes to land a top international job. To do so, he needs broad political support at home. In order to silence potential criticism from the PSD, Iohannis brought the party to power. He is now an official candidate for NATO leadership but many analysts believe that this is a strategy meant to serve as a negotiating chip for something else: a position as commissar in the new EU Commission. A united front of PSD-PNL MEPs is crucial in this regard.

Shades of Opposition

The opposition to the PNL-PSD is led by the Save Romania Union (USR) and its junior coalition partners, Force of the Right (FD), a splinter group from the PNL, and the People’s Movement Party (PMP). Economically the USR is borderline libertarian, while politically it blends neo-bourgeois values of entrepreneurship and initiative with condescending views of the downtrodden. Some of its leaders come from wealthy families with links to the communist state apparatchiks, despite the party’s aggressive anti-communism. Others made their fortunes by working as highly paid consultants in projects implemented with EU money. The voters of the party are typically petit-bourgeois IT entrepreneurs, the urban salaried bourgeoisie of the larger cities, and the self-employed that make a living through project work and hence share the party’s entrepreneurial vision, as well as its criticism of income taxes.

At the time of writing, the coalition is polling at 10–15 percent, suggesting it cannot capitalize on the popular discontent with the PNL-PSD deal. This is also because the opposition has no alternative political project. The reality is that the PSD, PNL, and USR all agree on the basic tenets of EU politics and as such support whatever policies their families represent in the European parliament. None of the candidates have so far even bothered to mention what they stand for and what they hope to achieve as MEPs.

The most dynamic and unpredictable party remains AUR (which both stands for the “Alliance for the Union of Romanians” and is also the Romanian word for gold). Few foretold the ascendancy of the party in the 2020 elections when it defied expectations and gained nine percent of the vote. Its electoral success derived from the opposition to the emergency measures mandated by the government as a response to the pandemic. Specifically, it captured the insecurities of local business owners, especially from the hospitality industry, that saw their profits diminish because of the restrictions. Other business owners and their employees jumped at the chance to express their disapproval, such as barbershops and “mom-and-pop” shops. In the process, the party gave voice to and fomented a series of conspiracy theories, while also aligning with various radical factions of the Orthodox Church that were resisting the implementation of any ban on liturgical services.

But it would be wrong to reduce AUR only to the pandemic and to fringe conspiratorial beliefs. It is a much more complex phenomenon than that. The party is very eclectic, bringing together hardcore nationalist football supporters’ groups, right-wing intellectuals with an explicit admiration for interwar Romanian fascist groups such as the Legionnaires, retired secret-service bosses, local business owners who believe the PSD and PNL are only protecting the interests of big capital (private and state-owned), and a quite sizeable contingent of political journeymen, these being people who operated at the local level for a variety of parties over the past decade.

Originally, the party emerged from a mixture of highly nationalistic and anti-communist networks that agitated for the unification of Romania with the Republic of Moldova. This nationalist sentiment was expanded to create a doctrine that seeks to defend the interests of all Romanians — a familiar sovereigntist trope, a current with which AUR leader George Simion has tried to align the party. This is why the party is considered to be part of the constellation of far-right forces on the rise in Europe. But its discourse is much more moderate. There is no AUR talk of “Roexit” (a Romanian exit from the EU), for example. They just want better representation of Romanian interests in the EU and a bigger share of profits for Romanian capitalists. AUR is not the anti-systemic force it purports to be: it just wants a position in the system.

The protest vote that was expected to happen in the EU elections will be diverted towards local concerns — or at least that is the plan of the governing coalition.

The party gave voice to Romanians working abroad. This is a very big constituency with almost 5 million members. In previous electoral cycles, the diaspora tended to vote either PNL or USR (anybody but PSD, in fact). It is now AUR that uses populism to mobilize their experiences of European exploitation and turn this anger into votes.

The right-wing sovereigntist discourse taking hold in Europe seems to resonate with large segments of the Romanian diaspora, although they as migrants have been scapegoats of the same discourse. AUR promises to bring the migrants back home by fixing the economy and by getting rid of the corrupt politicians. This promise is mixed with a powerful nationalist rhetoric, enabling AUR to construct a space in which Romanians could feel proud of their identity and traditions —something to hold onto in times of crisis and in lieu of progressive politics. This combustible synthesis makes the party unpredictable. Its meteoric rise and the threat of even bigger growth also contributed to the PSD and PNL coming together.

To stifle AUR, the governing coalitions called early local elections in order to coincide with the European vote. The reason is that the PSD and PNL are strongly anchored in local politics. Their mayors and councillors will mobilize their electorate and thus take the wind out of AUR’s sails, which is far less represented at the local level. The protest vote that was expected to happen in the EU elections will be diverted towards local concerns — or at least that is the plan of the governing coalition.

By adopting this strategy, however, the ruling coalition foreclosed meaningful debates about European matters and concerns. The focus shifted to mayoral races, which are extremely important because mayors represent the power base of Romanian political parties. This is why some instances of physical and verbal violence among candidates have already been reported. To add to the confusion, in some cities the PNL and PSD have common candidates, while in others representatives of the two parties are competing against one another, as is the case in Bucharest.

Losers on the Left

This restructuring of the political scene — incomplete and with unforeseen consequences — means that these are elections without options. There really are no competing visions, strategies, or politics. It all boils down to the preference for one candidate or another, sometimes despite the party they represent.

Hence, crucial issues that plague Romanian cities remain unaddressed. A lack of affordable housing, steep increases in the price of basic services and commodities, crumbling public infrastructure, severe threats due to climate change, and car-centric policies affect all Romanian cities. Other local community issues are also bypassed, such as the increase in drug abuse and street violence, and the decline of the school system.

Romania desperately needs administrative reform. The current system of administration has been in place since 1968, reflecting an economic setup and demographic structure that are long defunct. Since the territorial reorganization would entail the disappearance of hundreds of mayoral positions, no political party is even able to contemplate approaching this topic without committing political suicide. Hence, irrespective of the results, the structural problems will persist.

The definite loser is the Left, since it is non-existent.

A recent Eurobarometer survey showed increased interest for Romanians in these EU elections when compared to previous years. Half of the Romanian population remain optimistic about the EU, a figure consistent with the EU average. But the survey also shows that 30 percent of Romanians do not believe that their country has benefitted from being part of the EU. Only the Italians, Austrians, and Bulgarians are more disappointed.

One chief reason for the increased scepticism among Romanians is, perhaps, the liberalization of the energy market demanded by the EU, which led to skyrocketing prices even before the inflation crisis. Romanian farmers are a disenchanted constituency that has been very critical of the EU lately, for reasons relatively similar to those voiced by their European peers. Austria’s veto to Romania’s full Schengen membership cannot lead to more EU-optimism. All of these are controversial issues that AUR still hopes to capitalize on for the 9 June elections.

In fact, AUR will emerge as the main winners since they will most likely double their vote share compared to the last elections. The definite loser is the Left, since it is non-existent. The PSD still has some people that are capable of at least speaking a language that resembles social democracy. The party re-established close ties with the German Social Democrats recently. But the reality is that the Social Democrats are in terminal decline everywhere in Europe. A renewed and more radical Left remains a distant dream in much of Europe, and, for historical reasons, even more so in Romania.