Romania ruling party chief faces key appeal verdict

Bucharest (AFP) –


The controversial head of Romania's ruling Social Democrat Party (PSD), Liviu Dragnea, will on Monday hear the decision in his appeal against a corruption verdict which could see him go to prison.

Following a stinging defeat for the PSD at Sunday's European elections, Dragnea will learn whether he has been successful in his attempt to overturn a conviction he received last year for using his influence to procure fake public jobs for two women, who were actually working for the PSD at the time.

At the original trial he received a three-and-a-half-year jail sentence and if his appeal fails he will have to begin his sentence within 24 hours of the court's decision.

If he is jailed it will remove from public life a man who is widely seen as the power behind the throne in the Romanian government and a key figure in the PSD's push for controversial judicial reforms.

Despite the PSD's election victory in 2016, Dragnea's deep-seated ambition to become prime minister was thwarted because of a previous suspended jail sentence for electoral fraud.

- 'Storm of hatred' -

It was a grim-faced Dragnea who faced the cameras on Sunday night to say the PSD had faced a "storm of hatred" in the election results, the party falling 12 points from its score in 2014 to 25.8 percent.

The PSD's centre-right and liberal opponents, by contrast, racked up almost 50 percent between them.

Young people and city-dwellers turned out in force to express their frustration with the government, with turnout nudging 50 percent.

As for his day in court, Dragnea was his normal defiant self, alluding to dark conspiracies ranged against him.

"If the judges resist the pressures on them, which are unimaginable, I will be declared innocent," he said on Sunday.

He also surprised many by saying that he would not challenge incumbent President Klaus Iohannis in elections expected this autumn.

A second headache for the PSD is likely to come in the results from a referendum also held on Sunday which was called by Iohannis to ask voters' opinion on the PSD's controversial judicial reforms.

Turnout was well in excess of the 30 percent threshold needed to make the referendum valid and analysts expect voters to have rejected the PSD's plans.

Over the past three years, the slim, moustachioed leader of the PSD, the successor party to the communists, has nevertheless courted voters in poorer and more rural areas of the country with generous promises.

Despite not becoming prime minister, he wielded considerable influence behind the scenes and toppled two prime ministers in just seven months before nominating Viorica Dancila to the post in January 2018.

Analysts say his focus on curtailing the activities of the country's anti-corruption agency has lost the PSD many voters.

His argument is that he wants to put an end to abuses of power by prosecutors "suffered by millions of Romanians".

But the row has also overshadowed Romania's first ever rotating presidency of the EU, with Brussels threatening sanctions may be on the way if the government does not change course.

Dragnea has begun to mimic attacks on the EU of the kind made by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, accusing Brussels of "interfering" in Romania's affairs and its sovereignty.