Romania's joint electoral list: Strategic move or threat to democracy?

The country’s largest political parties – the Social Democrats and the Liberals – have formed an alliance to run in the European Parliament elections as part of a bid to allegedly fend off the far right.
Nicolae Ciuca (L), president of the National Liberal Party (PNL), and Marcel Ciolacu (R), president of Social Democratic Party (PSD) leave the Central Electoral Bureau after the submission of the PSD-PNL alliance list of candidates for the European Parliament elections on 5 April.

By Raluca Besliu

Raluca is a freelance reporter based in Belgium

18 Apr 2024

It was an extraordinary announcement: Romania’s two largest political parties, ideologically poles apart, would run on a joint list in this June’s European Parliament elections and local elections the same weekend, doubling down on a grand coalition government formed in 2021. 

The electoral alliance between the Social Democrats (PSD) and Liberals (PNL), announced in February, marks the first time in EU history that parties belonging to the Socialists & Democrats (S&D) and the European People’s Party (EPP) – the two largest groups in the European Parliament – will run together. 

The stated reason for the alliance between the habitual rivals is to counter the rise of the far-right Alliance for the Union of Romanians (AUR), which is polling at around 20 per cent of the vote. 

“Our priority, regardless of the party we belong to, is to protect Romania against extremism,” Prime Minister Marcel Ciolacu, a Social Democrat, said after the joint lists’ official announcement. “One of the solutions against extremism in the country is an electoral alliance or a political alliance that will give Romania stability.” 

Critics doubt that narrative. Luciana Alexandra Ghica, a political science professor at the University of Bucharest, said the real reason behind the joint lists is the two parties’ “wish to survive and maintain their electoral advantage.” 

What’s more, she said, it’s likely to have the opposite effect with regard to suppressing AUR. The “ideologically strange” alliance between two very different establishment parties over the past three years has “artificially pushed AUR into the mainstream,” Ghica argued. The joint electoral lists could increase that effect.  

Recent data from social research company INSCOP, which surveyed over 1,100 people shortly after the joint lists were announced, supports Ghica's view, showing PSD-PNL leading the EP elections with over 43 per cent. Without the alliance, PNL would have fallen to third place behind AUR.  

Once elected, the candidates will sit with their respective European political groups, the EPP and S&D. But these groups have different visions on many key European topics that are also of interest to Romanians, such as the Green Deal and agricultural policies. PNL and PSD have not indicated how they will maintain cohesion both with each other and with their respective European political families.  

Disillusioned voters  

The joint lists at the European level reflect a trend started in 2021, when PNL partnered with PSD to form Romania's ruling coalition.  

“The 2021 arrangement came as a huge shock for many voters,” says Katja Plate, director of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation’s Romania office. “The political fight against PSD, which was branded as corrupt and nepotistic, was a driving issue for PNL for years. Forming a grand coalition with PSD was perceived as a betrayal of their core political values.” 

Plate believes that this “perceived betrayal is one of the reasons why Romanian voters are currently extremely disillusioned and alienated from politics and especially from parties.” 

This sentiment is reflected in a survey of 800 Romanians aged 18 to 35 conducted by independent think tank IRES in March. It revealed that only 4 per cent expressed trust in political parties, while 62 per cent confessed strong distrust or no trust at all. 

Plate emphasised the importance of “clear-cut political stances and consistent governance” to rebuild trust. “Joint lists involving parties from vastly different ideologies do not support such clear-cut positioning.” 

Rise of the right  

Romania's political scene has long been dominated by the Social Democrats and Liberals. This was evident in the 2020 local elections, in which PSD secured more than 1,350 mayoral seats out of 3,176, and PNL more than 1,200. The next placed party obtained 199 seats. 

But the emergence of new parties, such as the far-right AUR, has begun to chip away at this combined strength. 

Since its founding in 2019, AUR has grown impressively. It capitalised on public discontent with the political establishment, criticising COVID-19 restrictions and advocating for traditional values.  

This resonated with voters, propelling AUR to 9 per cent of the vote in the 2020 parliamentary election. The party has continued to grow since then and is polling in second place for this year’s European Parliament elections. 

Undermining democracy? 

Experts are not convinced that the ungainly joint list is an effective answer to AUR. But many do think that it presents a threat to Romanian democracy. 

“The fact that ideology is no longer formally relevant for the two largest Romanian parties, allegedly from different ideological camps, is not a good sign for democracy,” says Ghica from the University of Bucharest. 

Mihail Chiru, a politics lecturer at the University of Oxford, says that “the lack of competition between the two largest parties will bring a decrease in the alternatives available to voters.” 

Chiru believes that the PSD-PNL collaboration might bolster AUR, “as radical parties usually benefit from being able to denounce the collusion between mainstream parties and the lack of relevant differences between mainstream parties.” 

Centre-right parties could also stand to gain disgruntled recruits from PNL. Alin Nica, the President of Timiş County Council, ousted from PNL earlier this month for criticising the alliance with PSD, quickly joined another centre-right party, Force of the Right. 

PSD and PNL may be able to stave off AUR and other competing parties this year. But what comes next – both in terms of how they work with each other once elected, and how they rebuild the trust of the Romanian public – is much less clear. 

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