Romanian Socialists dump Ponta, Dragnea emerges as new ‘strongman’

Victor Ponta [L] and Liviu Dragnea [EURACTIV Romania]

Romania’s ruling Social Democrats (PSD) have elected a former minister convicted of electoral fraud as their new leader, to replace a previous chief now facing a corruption probe, vote returns showed today (12 October).

Preliminary results of a weekend ballot showed wide support for Liviu Dragnea, who took over as interim PSD leader in July when Prime Minister Victor Ponta stepped down from the party leadership after being indicted for forgery, money laundering and serving as an accessory to tax evasion.

>>Read: Ponta to be tried for corruption

Dragnea was the only candidate to lead the party into the municipal and national elections due next year. Final results have yet to be announced, but a PSD official told Reuters: “‘Yes’ votes for Dragnea are overwhelming, way above 90%.”

A former development minister and close Ponta ally, Dragnea was convicted of electoral fraud in May for trying to rig a 2012 referendum and given a one-year suspended jail sentence. He has denied the charge, and his appeal is due to be heard next month.

>> Read: Romania’s deputy prime minister charged with vote-rigging

Party data showed about 435,000 people, or 81% of PSD’s members, took part on Sunday in the unprecedented vote. The PSD previously had senior party officials pick their leader.

“The PSD cannot and must not miss the opportunity to become the first modern party in Romania,” Dragnea, 52, told reporters.

Analysts say the ballot was meant to give PSD leadership internal legitimacy ahead of municipal polls in the summer of 2016, and a parliamentary election due late in the year.

“This party is experiencing a crisis of legitimacy after Ponta and ahead of elections. It’s being eroded by multiple causes (such as) graft cases involving many senior leaders there,” political analyst Cristian Patrasconiu said.

“Ironically, even though this new election system was made necessary by one having had a problem with the law, the PSD is strengthened and gets a powerful leader. Dragnea’s election also sends a message of unity after Ponta’s exit.”

Dragnea has said the ruling coalition will support Ponta, who has so far withstood intense pressure to resign from the opposition and from President Klaus Iohannis, a centrist rival who defeated him in last November’s presidential polls. 

>>Read: Iohannis wins Romanian presidential election, pressure builds on Ponta to resign

The voting down of Ponta at the level of his party doesn’t mean that Romania is geared up for early elections, as some foreign media reported. In fact, Ponta can stay on as PM. More realistically, Dragnea, as the new leader of Romania’s largest political party, can assume the premiership.

In theory, the President can also appoint a politician from the opposition to form a cabinet, although such a move appears as risky in the current political climate.

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