Romania's pro-Western Prime Minister Ludovic Orban has resigned after his National Liberal Party (PNL) came second in parliamentary elections at the weekend, despite the party appearing well-placed to stay in power.
Orban's announcement late on December 7 came after a stronger-than-expected showing by the leftist opposition in elections marred by absenteeism prompted in part by the coronavirus pandemic.
With some 95 percent of the vote counted as of December 7, the populist and corruption-prone Social Democrats (PSD), who have dominated Romanian politics since the collapse of communism, have some 30 percent of the vote, with the reformist center-right PNL trailing by about 5 percent.
In his live statement on television, Orban, whose government came under criticism from the PSD for its handling of the coronavirus pandemic, said he was leaving knowing that he had fulfilled his duty.
President Klaus Iohannis, who is set to hold consultations with the parties, later appointed Defense Minister Nicolae Ciuca as acting prime minister.
However, the PSD will lack allies in the new parliament and President Klaus Iohannis -- a former PNL leader and a staunch foe of the PSD -- said on December 7 that PSD will be kept "outside of the political decision-making process" and Romania will have a new center-right government.
Iohannis had previously said he would not want PSD to return to government during his current term, which ends in 2024.
The center-right USR-PLUS alliance, a relative newcomer on the Romanian political scene which won about 15 percent of the vote, appears the first choice to form an alliance with the PNL, followed by the ethnic Hungarian UDMR party, which looks set to win 6 percent and has said it wants to cooperate with the liberals.
Turnout, at 31.8 percent out of 18 million eligible voters, was the lowest since the end of communism, prompted both by the pandemic and overall disillusionment with the postcommunist political elite.
The liberals, led by Prime Minister Ludovic Orban, and Iohannis had sought to assuage concerns about the pandemic to urge voters to come out in large numbers.
The PSD's last spell in government was overshadowed by huge street protests and the imprisoning of its former leader, Liviu Dragnea, on corruption charges before ending in a vote of no-confidence in 2019.
The only other party to have crossed the 5 percent threshold to enter parliament is the the far-right Alliance for the Unification of Romania (AUR), seen as the big surprise of the election. The party came virtually out of nowhere to win more than 9 percent of the vote.
AUR, which means gold in Romanian, was established just a year ago with a platform that opposes same-sex marriages and was supportive of Orthodox Church clerics who defied pandemic restrictions in Romania to hold religious ceremonies.
Its leadership includes an antigay journalist and a leader of a group of nationalist soccer "ultras" who was has been banned for five years from entering neighboring Moldova after vocally advocating the ex-Soviet republic's unification with Romania.
His group of ultras was involved in clashes last year with ethnic Hungarians over a war cemetery in Transylvania and staged anti-mask-wearing protests in Bucharest during the pandemic. A local leader of AUR is reportedly being tried for robbing ATMs.
However, AUR did surprisingly well among Romania’s 4 million expats, having taken the lead in Italy and coming in second in Spain and France -- the EU countries with the largest Romanian communities abroad. The diaspora has traditionally, and sometimes decisively, voted against the PSD, which it holds responsible for the poverty and underdevelopment that drove millions of Romanians abroad.
The election in the EU member state was considered key to determining whether the liberals would gain enough support to embark on their badly needed reformist agenda.
Orban and Iohannis had promised to launch a modernization campaign long delayed in the three decades since the fall of communism and keep the country on a pro-Western path, but their task appears much more difficult following the inconclusive results of the election.
Furthermore, PSD still has the largest network of party organizations in the country, and dominates most of the local administration in rural areas, where it relies on a group of rich, influential, and arguably corrupt "local barons," whose left-wing credentials remain questionable but whose power is indispensable to the PSD.