Your move, Victor

Post length: 1,313 words, almost 6 minutes.

Following Victor Ponta’s defeat to the (presumably soon to be ex-)mayor of Sibiu in Sunday’s second-round runoff presidential election in Romania, questions are bound to be asked regarding his political future.

Ponta has been the country’s Prime Minister since 2012 and has had a somewhat frosty relationship with the outgoing President Traian Băsescu. This conflict often lead to delays and political manoeuvrings playing a large part in new legislation being passed into law. Ponta and his PSD party had hoped that, by winning the presidency as well as holding a majority in government, they could ease this process. It was argued that this would lead to stronger government able to pass the tough legislation required to strengthen the economy (and appease, among others, the IMF).

Ponta has stated he has no reason stand down as Prime Minister, and it is not until 2016 that the country will go to the polls to elect a new government. So what pressures will Ponta be facing right now?

Assuming that corruption played only a minimal part in the election (without accurate figures for this poll is hard to quantify, but which admittedly is a large assumption for one of the EU’s most corrupt states), the statistics are certainly not damning of the PM: during the first round of the election, when facing 13 other candidates, Ponta came out on top polling 40.44% of all votes cast, against Iohannis’ 30.37%; in the run off, which of course Ponta ultimately lost, he polled 45.56%. Whatever the reasons for this apparent shift in popular opinion in the two weeks between the first round and the second round, most politicians would be pleased with the both of these statistics. Indeed whichever set of results you look at (the first round adjusted to take into account the other 12 candidates) Ponta polled either well over 50% or just below 50% — arguably a vote of confidence most political leaders can only dream of.

There is, however, a very vocal anti-Ponta campaign which has come to a head around these elections. Indeed some commentators suggest that the election of Iohannis came about because of a backlash against Ponta and his ruling PSD rather than a positive vote for Iohannis himself. The campaign is spearheaded mainly by the younger metropolitan, better educated, arguably more affluent population. This strong anti-Ponta feeling is not only apparent in Romania itself, but appears right across Europe in the more than 3.8 million Romanians living abroad, and it is important to note that this large diaspora played a pivotal role in the 2014 presidential elections. In fact one of the controversies surrounding the two election days themselves was that that there were not sufficient facilities for the diaspora to vote, leading to a large number of Romanian nationals living elsewhere in the world being unable to access the ballot box despite, in many cases, having queued for many hours.

To date two senior members of the government have resigned over the voting problems encountered across Europe and there have been further calls for Ponta to resign over the issue. Claims have been made that sufficient resources were deliberately not provided, in order that the traditionally more conservative minded ex-patriots were not able to vote. It is argued that as the serving Prime Minister it was his responsibility to ensure that the election was carried out freely and fairly. In Ponta’s defense it’s argued that the diaspora turnout figures for the second round of the election prove that the concerns of nationals living abroad were taken seriously and, to some extent at least, effort was made to rectify the situation. Indeed around twice as many Romanians living abroad cast a vote in the second round in comparison to the first and, in London at least, it is not the case that there were half as many voters available two weeks prior — indeed the fact that some people in the queue were not able to vote shows there was no shortage of voters at all. While undoubtedly there were still significant problems on November 16th, the fact that double the number of people were able to vote can only show that changes were made to the process between the two rounds. It is this argument, along with the two high profile resignations, which offer some protection from these accusations for Ponta personally.

However it is internal party politics and, ultimately, electioneering which is likely to be the final undoing of Ponta. The criticism leveled at him comes from a connected generation with the means to make their voice heard internationally and this is likely to spook the leadership of the PSD. The party’s critics are always quick to accuse the current administration as having strong ties to the country’s political past — that of the Ceausescu communist administration which fell during the Autumn of Nations in 1989 — a label the party would no doubt like to shake off. As the current generation of young adult Romanians, the first new wave of citizens not to have lived the majority of their lives under communism and the first to really spread their wings internationally, gets older and more influential the opinion of these people is likely to weigh heavily on the leadership of the established parties. It is this — the simple desire to win elections (and indeed the loss of an election which, to most commentators, should have been an easy victory) — which will cause the biggest ructions in internal party politics, and ultimately topple Ponta as Prime Minister. The bigger question is when.

Ponta has warned internal dissenters to back off and for the time being this seems to have happened, even during his short absence since the election. It seems unlikely, however, that he will be leading the PSD into the general election in 2016. While the coalition he leads has a significant majority in parliament there would seem to be no reason for the PSD to rush into replacing him, indeed they may use the change of President to their political advantage. By showing that they are willing to work with the liberal Iohannis to push through some of the reforms which he promised during the election campaign (especially relating to the judiciary) they might hope to pick up some of the more liberal voters they lost during the 2014 race: taking a “we’re not as bad as you all thought” -style stance. On the other hand the party would need enough of a run into the next election to establish a new leader with the electorate and for them to show that they are far enough removed from the current leadership, and Ponta in particular, through internal party reform to win back those who have become disillusioned. Furthermore in order to strengthen the message that the party has been listening to the voters and has reformed, it would seem electorally advantageous for a leadership replacement to be seen to come from an apparent internal revolution than a friendly handover.

It was reported by Reuters on Friday that the PSD are likely to call a special congress in the first quarter of 2015 to discuss the future leadership of the party. Only time will tell the outcome of such a meeting, and Romanian politics is as unpredictable as in much of the world, but one thing seems clear: it’s not a matter of if, but one of when Victor Ponta will have to accept that he will not lead his party into the next national election in Romania.

By way of further reading: there’s an interesting statistical and social analysis of the outcome of the Presidential election and its context in wider Southeastern Europe over on the LSEE blog along with what looks like a lively evening panel discussion on the future direction of Romanian politics on the 1st December (Great Union Day, Romania’s national holiday) in London, hosted by the Romanian-Moldovan Research Group of UCL and LSEE.

Posted on Monday 24th November, 2014 at 9:12 am in Obiter dicta.
It was tagged with , , , , , .

1 comment

[…] in November, following his defeat in the presidential elections, I wrote an article about how Ponta might best step down from his position while minimising the damage to the […]

Posted on 16th Nov 2015 at 8:59 am by » Tragic (Politically) Perfect Timing.

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