Despite being a multiparty system, two parties have dominated Romanian politics since the rise of the democratic republic: the National Liberal Party (PNL) and the Social Democratic Party (PSD). Throughout the republic’s history, these two parties have been fierce rivals in the competition for power. However, they have recently decided to join forces and create a system of rotation for the position of prime minister. This surprising move was not one of political kindness and cooperation but one which holds much deeper consequences that could push the country into democratic backsliding.
When the Soviet Union fell, Romania had to decide if they were going to remain under soviet and communism influences or move towards a more European vision of government. They chose to follow a more European friendly path. With the establishment of their constitution in 1991, Romania became a democratic republic; however, their democracy was weak and corrupt for several years. Democracy in Romania is marked by discontent and the rise and fall of several leaders and parties.
Throughout the uncertainty and tribulations of the democratic government in Romania, the PNL and PSD always reminded on the radar. PNL is Romania’s largest ruling party and serves as a de facto catch all party, since it is center-right conservative-liberal party. Currently, PNL controls both the presidency and the prime minister position.
One of the reasons the PNL has gained power is due to the fall of the PSD. The PSD, or Social Democratic Party, is Romania’s social democratic and center-left party. It excelled in the first decade of the 21st century and had a strong following in the past decade. In 2016, it won a sweeping victory of over 45% in the parliamentary elections. Under their leader, Liviu Dragnea, PSD officials had rampant corruption such as vote rigging and manipulation of the law. Men such as Dragnea were obvious threats to democracy in Romania. He and his party undermined many democratic rules in order to ensure the PSD would stay in power and the politicians would remain protected. In order to protect democracy from further erosion and corruption, Dragnea was imprisoned for his corruption tactics and the party has yet to fully recover from the disgrace.
Although Dragnea was released from prison this July, the PSD is attempting to distance themselves from him and his dishonorable reputation. Like many disgraced leaders, Dragnea has turned on his party, calling them “cowards”, and attempting to return to politics. Leaders such as Dragnea has a danger to democracy because he has qualities of populist and authoritarian leaders. Furthermore, Dragnea has shown he is willing to ignore democratic norms and cheat the system if it means he will gain an advantage.
PSD does not want Dragnea’s antidemocratic ways to destroy their party and they are attempting to gatekeep him from politics to protect themselves. To prove that they have changed, the PSD replaced their leaders with fresh faces; however, the public sees through this sham because the secondary line of command has not changed at all. This could suggest that PSD is still willing to participate in antidemocratic behavior since the same figures are still in charge.
However, the PSD has been able to rise again due to the shortcomings of the PNL. Internal fighting and the inability to pass legislation has weakened the public’s perception of the PNL. Additionally, a new far-right political party called the Alliance for the Union of Moldova and Romania (AUR) emerged. The AUR won 16% of the vote in 2019 and has only grown in popularity since then. With the AUR a growing threat to the reigning PNL and the PSD coming back into popularity, the PNL did something surprising.
In order to make sure the PNL does not lose seats to the growing far-right party AUR, they have decided to enter into a mutually beneficial alliance with PSD, their oldest enemy. PNL and PSD have agreed “rotate the prime minister position for 18 months each and share cabinet posts, bringing them up to the 2024 elections” (Crowcroft). Rumors have spread that this alliance could last for the next seven years. With new power, there are fears that the PNL and PSD would alter constitutional law to transition Romania from a presidential republic to a parliamentarian one. This transition would make the position of the president appointed by parliament instead of by the people.
Obviously, this leaves the door open for a lot of possible democratic erosion. The alliance between PNL and PSD has the potential to monopolize the government and move Romania from a multi-party system to a two-party system. Changing the party system could potentially polarize the Romanian public or leave minority groups further underrepresented than they already are in the multiparty system.
Furthermore, one of the key elements to democracy is direct elections of representatives. Removing the direct election of the president from the people and giving it to the hands of the parliament leaves a lot of room for antidemocratic behavior and corruption. The parliament could appoint whoever they wanted as president without being checked by the people, this could give rise to antidemocratic leaders or even authoritarians. Importantly, the people would not be able to vote the president out of office even if their policies or behaviors were unfavorable or even harmful to the public. Losing that essential check on the presidency is a clear indication of democracy eroding.
On the flip side, this alliance could also inspire a movement of populism that would promise to return government back to the people. Typically, when people lose a right they’ve held for a long time, they will be upset. A populist leader could capitalize on this anger or discontent and launch a successful populist movement in Romania. As we have seen in many instances, populist leaders are associated with democratic erosion as they have the capabilities to destroy the established institution and build a new one that keeps them in power. In sum, there are a lot of dangerous possibilities for democracy in this situation.
Another thing to consider is since the PSD has an extensive history of corruption and intense nationalistic behaviors, giving them more power is a risk. They could very easily slip back into their old patterns and erode democracy through election fraud and other forms of corruption as they had done in the past.
Overall, the marriage of convenience of the PNL and PSD poses a serious risk to democracy in Romania. The people are losing an important check on the government and a party that has an extensive history of corruption and corrosive behaviors are being put in a high position of power. How this alliance plays out will be extremely important to the state of democracy in Romania. Romanians and the world should keep a close eye on both the PNL and PSD and hold them responsible for any corruption or departure from democratic norms to protect the republic.
Colfer, Barry. “The Collapse of Romania’s Social Democratic Government.” Policy Network, 11 Oct. 2019, https://policynetwork.org/opinions/blogs/the-collapse-of-romanias-social-democratic-government/.
Crowcroft, Orlando. “Back in Power, Romania’s PSD Wants to Put Its Toxic Past behind It.” Euronews, 1 Dec. 2021, https://www.euronews.com/2021/12/01/we-re-clean-now-back-in-power-romania-s-psd-wants-to-put-its-toxic-past-behind-it.
Hitchins, Keith Arnold. “New Constitution.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., https://www.britannica.com/place/Romania/New-constitution#ref886241.
“National Liberal Party (Romania).” DBpedia, https://dbpedia.org/page/National_Liberal_Party_(Romania).