BUCHAREST -- Romania’s leftist Social Democrats (PSD) are pulling away from the ruling National Liberal Party (PNL), according to partial results in the country’s parliamentary elections reported by the Central Electoral Bureau on December 6.
With 95 percent of the vote counted, the PSD had 29.8 percent of the vote in the Chamber of Deputies and 30.2 percent the Senate. The pro-European PNL had 25.1 percent in the Chamber of Deputies and 25.5 percent in the Senate, results posted by the bureau showed.
The center-right alliance Save Romania Union-Liberty, Unity, and Solidarity Party (USR-PLUS) was third with 14.5 percent in the Chamber of Deputies and 15 percent in the Senate, the partial returns showed.
Most surprising, however, was the radical right-wing Alliance for the Romanians Union -- a party founded last year by a pro-Bessarabia activist and promoter of the idea of a single Romanian state including Moldova. It received 8.6 percent in the Chamber of Deputies and 8.8 percent in the Senate, according to the partial results.
The elections in the EU member state were considered key to determining whether the pro-European liberals will gain enough support to embark on their badly needed reformist agenda despite mixed results in their handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
Voters chose 136 senators and 329 deputies, a little over a year after the PNL minority government took over after the collapse of the PSD cabinet following a string of corruption scandals and massive public protests.
The liberals, led by Prime Minister Ludovic Orban, and President Klaus Iohannis, a former leader of the PNL, had sought to assuage concerns about the pandemic to urge voters to come out in large numbers.
But Romanians appeared wary of the pandemic and disillusioned with Romania's political class, with turnout only at around 32 percent, lower than in the 2016 parliamentary elections.
Romania, one of the poorest European Union members, initially handled the coronavirus pandemic with unexpected success despite a health-care system marred by an acute lack of modern facilities, an exodus of medical personnel, and endemic corruption.
However, a new spike in infections after the summer was not met with the same decisiveness. And the health-care network, still reeling from the first wave, was quickly overwhelmed.
Despite corruption and poverty, Romania remains staunchly pro-EU and pro-American, with Orban and Iohannis promising to launch a modernization campaign long delayed in the three decades since the fall of communism.
But the PSD, the heir to the Communist Party and the political force that has dominated Romanian politics for most of last 30 years, remains an adversary to be reckoned with.
The PSD's landslide victory in 2016 allowed it to unleash an all-out assault on the judiciary and the rule of law that brought tens of thousands of Romanians into the streets and prompted stark warnings from the EU and the United States.
Although weakened by the imprisonment last year on corruption charges of its former leader Liviu Dragnea and removed from power through a no-confidence vote last year, the PSD has the largest network of party organizations.
The PSD also 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 for the PSD.
The new leader of the PSD, Marcel Ciolacu, who has carefully distanced himself from Dragnea, has accused Orban’s government of "incompetence" and failing to keep the spread of the coronavirus under control.
Some 4 million Romanians who live in Western Europe have traditionally voted against the PSD, which they perceive as corrupt and in many cases the very reason why they left the country.
The diaspora proved crucial in last year’s elections for the European Parliament, which dealt a defeat to the PSD.