Farmers angered by pandemic rules to play key role in Romanian election

A Romanian woman who wears a protective mask, passes next to a parliamentary elections campaign board, full of candidates posters, in Bucharest, Romania, 3 December 2020. [Robert Ghement/EPA/EFE]

Romanians vote in a parliamentary election on Sunday (6 December) with rural voters’ anger over coronavirus restrictions set to complicate efforts by its centrist prime minister to restore judicial independence and the country’s reputation among investors.

Limits put in place to slow the spread of the coronavirus have angered many farmers, a key constituency in the largely-agricultural eastern European state, swelling support for the leftist PSD party that now controls parliament.

In power for a year despite his opponents’ parliamentary strength, Prime Minister Ludovic Orban has pledged to overturn years of efforts by leftist-led cabinets to take control of courts amid allegations of corruption and misuse of funds.

His promise had galvanised many in the Black Sea state, rocked by a jail sentence handed to Liviu Dragnea, a long-time PSD party senior. Opinion polls show Orban’s National Liberal Party (PNL) running at 30-32%, compared with 24-28% for the PSD.

Orban, a fiscal conservative, has also said he would undo a 40% pension hike ordered by the PSD, which economists say could bloat the deficit to 11% of GDP if left in place, which might prompt rating agencies to bring Romania’s credit rating to junk.

But support for PNL is down from highs of 35%, putting in question its ability to form a functioning coalition with his likely partner, the progressive USR-Plus running on 15-17%.

Some 40% of Romanians live in the countryside, many eking out a living by selling produce in nearby cities.

In the fresh produce markets that dot Bucharest, often the main meeting place in each neighbourhood, sellers say Orban’s decision to force them to move outdoors as a coronavirus precaution last month has cost them much of their livelihoods.

“All farmers say this government is guilty,” said 46-year-old farmer Daniela Catana from a small Teleorman village some 50 km southwest of Bucharest. She supports her family of seven by selling the cabbage, onions and spinach she grows on her one-acre plot.

Since Orban shut indoor produce stalls, she has been bringing blankets to keep produce from spoiling in the early morning frost that engulfed Piata Crangasi market in recent weeks. Catana says a third of her crop was damaged anyway.

“They began to do stupid things that affected us, all those decisions related to the pandemic,” said the mother of two.

Orban says his government’s decision was meant to protect the elderly, who tend to do most of their grocery shopping and often socialise in the neighbourhood market.

Romania is a major grains producer and its farms’ vegetable and fruit output totals a hefty 5 million tonnes a year.

“Millions from rural areas were torpedoed by this temporary closure,” said Costel Stanciu of the ProConsumatori association defending consumers and producers rights.

Some 80% of Romania’s fruit and vegetable output is sold by individual farmers in such markets, built in neighbourhoods of rundown communist-era apartment blocs in large cities.

With a year-on-year contraction of 6.0% in the third quarter, Romania’s economic performance was among the worst in the European Union.

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