Romania's ruling party reels from double blow

Bucharest (AFP) –


Romania's ruling Social Democrats, or PSD, held crisis meetings Tuesday after a disastrous 48 hours that saw them thrashed at the polls and their leader sent to jail.

In the European parliamentary elections on Sunday, the PSD saw its share of the vote plunge to 23 percent from 37 percent in 2014.

The next day, the party's controversial leader Liviu Dragnea went to prison after losing an appeal against a corruption conviction.

Party bosses met to discuss a timetable for finding Dragnea's successor, but they seemed to be at a loss as to how to respond to the party's broader predicament.

"The party has been decapitated and will find it hard to find a charismatic, credible leader acceptable to its voters," analyst Andrei Taranu told AFP.

Prime Minister Viorica Dancila, who has rejected opposition calls for snap elections, has taken over Dragnea's role in the interim.

During his time as party chief -- a previous corruption conviction prevented him from becoming Prime Minister -- Dragnea made sure there were no viable challengers to his position.

But observers said the knives will now be out for him and his allies within the party.

Marian Oprisan, a local PSD leader, on Tuesday blamed Dragnea for the party's poor performance in the polls.

And PSD MEP Victor Bostinaru complained that Dragnea had filled the government with his own cronies.

"Most of the people given public office were loyal to a single man and they were at best mediocre," he said.

- Popularity squandered -

Dragnea was finally sent to jail on Monday for a second corruption conviction, after his appeal was rejected.

Hundreds of anti-government protesters toasted the verdict with champagne in Bucharest's Victoriei Square on Monday -- the same site of months-long demonstrations against the PSD's controversial judicial reforms.

Analyst Taranu said that Dragnea had squandered the initial popularity he enjoyed when the PSD first came to power by insisting on the reforms, which were widely seen as being conceived to help Dragnea escape his various legal problems.

Many also fear the reforms could hinder the fight against corruption, which still blights Romanian public life.

Dragnea's fall in popularity worsened "when he started changing prime ministers like his socks," Taranu said.

Two prime ministers were toppled by Dragnea in just seven months before he installed Dancila in the post in January 2018.

On Sunday, centre-right President Klaus Iohannis, a long-time PSD critic, called for the government to go in the wake of the election results, describing the administration as an "accident of democracy".

- 'Goodbye PSD!' -

In the media, even TV stations normally aligned to the party have toned down their pro-government rethoric.

"Goodbye, PSD!" proclaimed the daily, Adevarul, which has become increasingly critical of the government in the past two years.

"The PSD has always been a party grouped around a leader, with no ideology. Without a leader they are in a very difficult situation," said analyst Taranu.

In another headache for the PSD, its judicial reforms were roundly rejected in a separate referendum also held on Sunday.

With 85 percent of votes counted, around five million voters had voted against the reforms, with only 850,000 backing the government, the election commission said on Tuesday.

Dancila hinted that the party was now considering dropping the reforms altogether, saying they had caused the party "much damage".

The European Commission has warned Romania may face sanctions unless it changes tack on the reforms, and the issue has marred Romania's first-ever EU presidency.