The 2014 European Parliament (EP) elections were Romania’s second fully-fledged experience in seven years of membership (Romanian MEPs were elected in mid-parliamentary term in 2007). As one of the eight most populous countries in the Union, the country’s national delegation contributes 32 MEPs to the composition of the EP. Falling in between the break-up of the governing coalition in February and ahead of the presidential elections scheduled for this November, the EP election was, by the main parties’ own admission, seen as a predictor of the autumn presidential run-off.
The outcome was hardly surprising, save for the relatively high turnout which bucked the Central and Eastern European trend. In 2014, 32.16% of the electorate cast a vote compared to 27.21% in 2009, which put the country above the 28% regional average. This may be due, in part, to the increased visibility of the election in the immediate run up to polling day. Several Romanian intellectuals, politicians and media representatives spoke publicly on the importance of voting in an attempt to counteract a ‘citizens’ strike’ which set out to boycott the elections on grounds of corruption and a lack of representativeness of, and democratic control over, the electoral process (the ‘United we save’ movement).
The final results released on May 29th put the governing Social Democratic Union (SDU) – a coalition led by the Social Democratic Party (PSD), with the National Union for the Progress of Romania (UNPR) and the Conservative Party (PC) – well ahead of the remaining contenders for EP seats (14 other parties and eight independent candidates). At 37.6% of the votes, the Social Democratic Union secured a total of 16 seats, which made it one of the four largest national delegations in the Socialists and Democrats EP party grouping (S&D). The National Liberal Party (PNL), the Social Democrats’ coalition partner until its abrupt break-up in February, came in second and gained six seats at a considerably lower percentage of 15%, which triggered the resignation of the party president. The Democratic Liberal Party (PDL) followed with five seats (12.23% of the vote). Observers of the EP elections expected the European People’s Party (EPP) to lose about two seats in Romania (with an overall loss of 29% of their seats at the EU level) in favour of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE). However, three days after the elections, the National Liberal Party expressed its intention to leave the latter group and instead join the EPP, on grounds of a “significant conservative component which puts us closer to the EPP”. If the move is approved, this would leave the EPP with four additional MEPs.
The newest addition to the Romanian political scene, the People’s Movement Party (PMP, a splinter from the Democratic Liberal Party) supported by President Traian Basescu and the Democratic Union of Hungarians in Romania (UDMR) gained two seats each (at 6.29% and 6.21% of the votes respectively), all likely to join the EPP. The most surprising performance was that of actor-turned-politician Mircea Diaconu, who secured his seat as an independent (6.81%) and will very probably serve as a non-affiliated EP member. None of the smaller, recently founded parties, the Civic Force and the New Republic, made it past the 5% electoral threshold and neither did the far-right Greater Romania Party (PRM). Compared to the 2009 EP election, extremist, nationalist and populist candidates were quasi-absent from the campaign and did not make the cut. Ironically, the Greater Romania Party, who lost it EP representation, claimed electoral fraud arguing that it was dubious that the party performed so badly when nationalistic parties in Europe were on the rise on account of the economic crisis. Both citizens and parties in Romania, however, remain among the most pro-EU in Europe.
Both the results and the campaign speak, yet again, more to the national context than the European one. Had the approach of the political class been different, this election could have offered a genuine campaign on European issues. The opportunities were certainly there in terms of controversial issues such as immigration, austerity, Ukraine or youth employment. Instead, it seems more fitting to write about ‘the EP campaign that could have been’. The ‘Europe’ theme did not make it much further than the parties’ campaign slogans. The campaign itself segued quickly into a blame-shifting contest between the President and prime minister, linked to their respective parties and centred on national topics (the reform of the judiciary, seasonal floods, corruption and electoral fraud) and their respective fitness to hold the presidency. Personality politics replaced issue politics in a prelude to the autumn elections. This was even more evident as the ‘presidential’ candidates were often the lead figures on their respective parties’ campaign banners rather than the EP candidates. The parties saw the EP election as a springboard for the presidential one, and the European message became a valence issue, as it had been in the past.
The escalation of the Ukrainian crisis could have been an opportunity for the country to have a say in the geopolitics of the region and the role of the EU, and overcome its marginal position in EU decision-making (especially in the context of the Polish, Romanian and Turkish common declaration on Ukraine in early May). Some Romanian MEPs promoted specific positions during the plenary debate in Brussels on the situation in Ukraine, focusing on the role of the EU in the region and its relationship to Russia, but none of these concerns made it into the national debate. Instead, the main protagonists of the campaign used the crisis to show the inability of their opponents to handle it effectively and the situation in Ukraine was quickly turned into a tool against the governing coalition led by the Social Democrats; the National Liberal Party filed a censure motion regarding the handling of the crisis.
Paradoxically, in spite of the controversies brought about by the opening of EU borders for Romania and Bulgaria in January 2014, voters heard very little of this at the national level (yet the latest Eurobarometer showed that 52% of Romanians identified free movement as the symbol of the EU). The Social Democratic Party claimed that its “We will send to Brussels people who are proud of being Romanian, who will defend Romania” slogan promoted the idea that Romanian MEPs would fight back against discrimination, but it ended up being interpreted merely as a nationalistic, soft anti-EU stance. On a related note, the frontline candidate of the Democratic Liberal Party accused the Social Democrat and the Liberal leaders of being responsible for the failure to secure Schengen entry due to the political turmoil that they had generated in the summer of 2012 (namely, the presidential impeachment and curtailing the powers of the Constitutional Court).
The issues of economic recovery, austerity and youth unemployment were only tangentially mentioned by individual MEPs and failed to be picked up as issues for debate in the campaign. A couple of Social Democratic candidates criticised the EU – and, more specifically, the dominance of the political right in the EP and the Commission – for the austerity measures that member states were forced to implement and for cuts in salaries and jobs across Europe. They linked the national vote to an opportunity for the left to increase its representation in the EP and the Commission and change the direction of EU policies towards economic growth and creating new job opportunities, especially for the Europe’s young people. These occasional interventions, however, were usually made at meetings with the voters at a local level and not debated as part of the nationwide campaign. This left-right party positioning at the EU level was one of the isolated references to the future of the Union, its leadership and Romania’s position within the institutions, but these got lost quickly in the virulent national contest.
The parties returned to the issue of EU-level affiliations in the aftermath of the election as, in the first three days after the preliminary results were announced, they raced to build new coalitions and re-group in view of the next electoral contest in November. The National Liberal Party immediately announced its intention to leave the ALDE family (where it was a contender for a leadership position) in favour of the EPP. Although this preference had been articulated in the past as well (for example, ahead of the December 2012 legislative elections), it appeared rather opportunistic this time around. The party’s leadership announced the day after the election that it would join forces with the Democratic Liberal Party (which already belongs to the EPP) to construct a strong centre-right political formation to counter-balance the power of the Social Democrats. On May 28th, the party’s political bureau agreed unanimously to begin talks with Democratic Liberals, speaking about a “short, medium and long-term collaboration” which would target “not just the presidential elections this year, but also the local and parliamentary elections in 2016”.
In this context, this election conformed, with minor exceptions, to the ‘second order’ election model usually attributed to EP polls. The main contenders – and, by implication, the voters – were caught in a national contest fixated on the parties’ performance in the upcoming autumn presidential election. In spite of coming first, success was short-lived for the governing Social Democratic Party. These elections were an opportunity for the party to show that it had regained its national stronghold and could nominate a credible presidential candidate. Instead, the 37% vote share did little to consolidate the legitimacy of the governing coalition that it has been leading since February and forced it to reconsider its strategy for the autumn election. While the Social Democrats seemed to be trying for a rapprochement with the National Liberal Party, the latter has been adamant to signal a clear break and refuted the possibility of a new alliance by negotiating with the Democrat Liberal Party instead. This election was also the National Democratic Party’s first test after a considerable defeat in the local and parliamentary elections in 2012 and the ensuing internal conflicts which weakened its performance. It remains to be seen whether the electorate will be able to wrap their minds around the erratic political trajectory of the party and the credibility of the prospective centre-right front.
This EP election was, therefore, more significant in relation to the national political context – questions of participation, legitimacy, party competition and survival, or the quality of democracy – than the European one. By and large, the parties failed to engage with issues of European relevance, most significantly current debates on the leadership and future direction of the EU.
(R.I.Mihaila@sussex.ac.uk) is a doctoral researcher at the Sussex European Institute in the Department of Politics, University of Sussex.