European elections 2014: Romania – dress rehearsal

The expanding reach of the European Union made it inevitable that European Parliament elections will occasionally come in close proximity with national elections – such is the case of Romania in 2014, which will hold presidential polls at the end of the year.

Predictably, this means that the major parties are taking this opportunity to test the waters before finalising strategies for what is seen as the bigger prize at the end of the road. As a result, the focus in the first two weeks of the current campaign has been more on local personalities rather than European issues.

The two parties at the top of the polls, in particular, appear to have designed their strategies to gauge the support for their presidential nominees-in-waiting.

Social-democrat Victor Ponta, who has served as prime minister for the past two years, has been reluctant to commit to a presidential bid, although internal party politics may yet push him into that position even against his wishes.

A decisive win on May 25 would strengthen a possible Ponta bid in two ways – it would showcase a large gap over the chasing pack, thus increasing the likelihood of Ponta standing for the office, and it would also give influential party heavyweights the proof that Ponta can win the office back for the social-democrats, making them more likely to put in the extra effort to get Ponta elected.

This is the reason why Ponta appears on all electoral billboards (more often alone than surrounded by the party’s MEP nominees), even though he is not on the list himself.

The National-Liberal Party, which was part of the ruling coalition with the social-democrats until the end of February, has adopted the same approach, although in its case the campaign is focused on two people rather than one – the party leader Crin Antonescu and the popular mayor of Sibiu, Klaus Johannis.

Antonescu plans to make a second run at the presidency, having come in third in 2009, with Johannis as the party’s presumed prime minister nominee after the next parliamentary elections (scheduled for the end of 2016, unless triggered early).

His bid, too, is dependent on the party’s showing at the European Parliament elections – he has said that he would step down if the National-Liberals get less than 20 per cent of the votes. Even if the party hits that benchmark, Antonescu’s sliding approval ratings in recent months raise the prospect that Johannis may be put forth as the party’s nominee in the presidential election.

The Democrat-Liberals, who were the largest opposition party until the National-Liberals left government, have opted for a strategy that puts the spotlight on its MEP candidates, banking on the most easily-recognisable and highly-regarded current members of the European legislature (both domestically and in Brussels) – former justice minister Monica Macovei, who made her name by tackling corruption in the mid-2000s.

Romania will elect 32 members of European Parliament on May 25, one fewer than it has right now, in a straightforward proportional vote that treats the entire country as one constituency. In total, 14 parties and one coalition (centred around the social-democrats) have registered for the elections, as have eight independent candidates.

The threshold for parties and coalitions is five per cent, while independent candidates will have to win about 3.2 per cent of the vote to get in.

Recent polls show five parties as likely to pass that threshold – the social-democrats leading by far, with their support estimated at 40-42 per cent, ahead of the National-Liberals on 15-18 per cent.

The Democrat-Liberals appear to have lost some ground with the formal founding of the splinter Popular Movement Party in January 2014, which has the informal support of current president Traian Basescu (who cannot run for a third term in office under Romanian law). Both parties are credited with about 10 per cent support.

The Democratic Union of Hungarians in Romania is expected to clear the electoral threshold as well, with another party – the centre-right Civic Force of former prime minister Mihai Razvan Ungureanu – close to threshold.

Among the eight independent candidates, some polls show that only one of them possibly getting enough votes to be elected to the European Parliament.

(Prime minister Victor Ponta’s social-democrats enjoy a big lead in the polls and could win as many as half of Romania’s 32 MEP seats. Photo: Social-Democrat Party/



Alex Bivol

Alex Bivol is the Deputy Editor-in-Chief of The Sofia Globe.