BUCHAREST -- The leader of Romania's ruling Social Democrat Party (PSD) has turned himself in to begin a 3 1/2-year prison sentence after the country's top court rejected his appeal against a 2018 conviction on corruption charges.
The May 27 ruling by the High Court of Cassation and Justice came a day after the center-left PSD suffered a significant defeat in the elections for the European Parliament at the hands of Romania's center-right pro-EU parties.
Liviu Dragnea, who is also speaker of the lower house of parliament, had tried to overturn the conviction he received for using his influence to procure fake public jobs at the child-protection state agency for two women even though they were working for the PSD.
Dragnea, 56, had already received a suspended jail sentence in a vote-rigging case dating back to 2012. That sentence had barred him from becoming prime minister after the PSD won parliamentary elections in 2016.
Just hours after the ruling, Dragnea, considered the most powerful politician in Romania, was driven to a Bucharest prison to begin his sentence followed by cohorts of journalists and anti-PSD protesters.
As the Romanian-made black Duster SUV entered the Rahova prison, booing protesters symbolically threw an unfurled roll of toilet paper at the car.
The court ruling comes after the governing coalition consisting of the PSD and ALDE, its junior center-right partner, suffered a serious setback in the May 26 elections for the European Parliament.
With almost 100 percent of the ballots counted, the PSD gained under 23 percent of the vote, a sharp drop from the more than 37 percent it won in the 2014 parliamentary elections.
The center-right National Liberal Party (PNL) and the centrist USR-PLUS alliance together racked up more than 49 percent of the vote.
ALDE did not make the 5 percent threshold and will be absent from the European Parliament.
A nonbinding referendum seeking to curb the government's assault on anticorruption reforms was held along with the European elections.
The referendum called by President Klaus Iohannis won the overwhelming support of more than 80 percent of voters.
The jailing of Dragnea sees the removal from public life of the man who has been a key figure in the PSD's push for controversial judicial measures that critics say has damaged the independence of the courts.
The PSD-led move has prompted large protests in Romania over the past two years, culminating in a violently repressed peaceful demonstration in Bucharest in August 2018.
The PSD will be led in the interim by Dragnea's protege, Prime Minister Viorica Dancila, who has rejected Iohannis's call to resign.
The PSD and ALDE, which retain a fragile majority in parliament, launched a relentless campaign to reverse anticorruption legislation and intimidate the judiciary immediately after they came to power in January 2017.
The campaign culminated with the firing of prosecutor Laura Koevesi last year on charges of abuse of office, a move critics said was meant to prevent Romania’s anticorruption agency (DNA), which she headed, from targeting more senior members of the governing alliance, including Dragnea.
Koevesi is a strong favorite to become the first EU-wide anticorruption prosecutor.
Romania currently holds the six-month rotating EU presidency.
Dragnea amassed power as a local administration chief in one of Romania's poorest areas, the southern county of Teleorman.
As regional development minister, he later established a fund that handed out government money to local authorities for infrastructure projects that has lax or no supervision.
Once he became party leader, Dragnea pressed ahead with changes to anticorruption legislation that critics and EU officials in Brussels said were meant to exonerate him and other corrupt party officials.