EU election: Romania’s looming presidential ballot raises the stakes

Romania takes Europe very seriously. EPA/Joerg Carstensen

Romanians take European elections very seriously. These elections affect domestic politics as they do in the UK and other Western member states, but they don’t exist in a separate bubble. In Romania, EU elections have more of a “blowback” on domestic politics.

So while Britain’s UKIP could easily come out on top in the European Parliament (EP) election but leave its leader Nigel Farage without any prospect of becoming prime minister in the UK, this dichotomy would be unthinkable in Romania.

In fact, many politicians maintain that winning a plurality of votes in the EP election is a prerequisite to winning the Romanian presidency in November.

A breakdown of the political landscape

Romania has 32 seats in the EP, a sizeable bloc which has garnered the attention of the main political forces, actors, and party groups in Brussels.

The biggest political party in Romania is the Social Democrat Party (PSD), which is in the Alliance coalition with the National Union of the Progress of Romania (UNPR) and the Conservative Party (PC). The coalition, which has 11 MEPs, sits in Brussels as part of the Progressive Alliance of Social Democrats.

Ranged against them the Democratic Liberal Party (PDL) with ten MEPs, which sits in the European People’s Party (EPP) in Brussels. The PSD is the party of Romanian prime minister Victor Ponta, who has predicted a big win for the party with a 35% share in the vote.

The third most important bloc is the National Liberal Party (PNL) which has five MEPs and is part of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE).

Two other parties, the Democratic Union of Hungarians in Romania (UDMR) and the ultra-nationalist Greater Romania Party (PRM) have three MEPs each.

European issues

Apart from the range of domestic economic issues under discussion, the most prominent “European” issues of discussion in Romania are the exclusion of the country from the Schengen agreement, which broke down internal borders between particular countries in Europe, and the discrimination against Romanians’ free movement and right to work throughout Europe.

Euroscepticism is not really a factor, even with the presence of the ultra-nationalist PRM party and its founder, Vadim Tudor, whose reputation (deserved or not) has been likened to Jean-Marie Le Pen in France. The PRM’s MEPs were once part of the Eurosceptic ITS group, but the party caused its collapse in 2007 when they walked out in protest against Italian MEP and ITS member Alessandra Mussolini, who made insulting remarks about Romanians being expelled from Italy.

The PRM’s two remaining MEPs are currently steering clear of the incumbent Eurosceptic party-group, Europe of Freedom and Democracy (EFD), to which UKIP belongs.

Schisms and independents

Another characteristic of European politics in Romania is the continuing fragmentation of the right-wing parties, who quarrel as much with each other as they do with the left.

Apart from the sizeable Alliance coalition, the election campaign has been characterised by a large number of small parties and individuals participating in the election on both the left and right of the political spectrum. There are nine smaller parties and groups campaigning and eight independent candidates with no party affiliation.

Along with prime minister Ponta, other big names either standing as MEPs or taking a prominent part in the campaign include Romanian president Traian Băsescu. Băsescu has been openly critical of Martin Schultz, president of the European Parliament, who visited Romania to launch the Alliance campaign and whom he accused of being weak on Russia over Ukraine. Instead Băsescu is backing EPP candidate Jean-Claude Juncker for the job.

Ponta, meanwhile, is predicting that – in addition to taking the majority of seats in the European election – that the Alliance will win the presidential election in November. High stakes indeed.