27 May 2019
Party leader of the ruling Social Democrats, Liviu Dragnea, was sentenced to three and a half years in jail on 27 May 2019 for getting government to pay for two of his party workers. The two women admitted working for the party while they received salaries from a family welfare agency. He was also the speaker of the lower house of parliament.
In 2016 he was convicted of vote rigging and was debarred from becoming the prime minister. Yet he kept a tight grip on the party. In the European Parliament election on Sunday, Dragnea’s party lost to the opposition National Liberal Party. It is widely believed that the corruption issue caused the loss of ruling PSD in the European Parliamentary election. The party’s support was halved compared to the 2016 election. Tens of thousands of Romanians working abroad were unable to cast their votes on Sunday even after queuing for hours outside consulates and polling stations because of bureaucracy and staffing problems. Dragnea is also under investigation on suspicion of forming a criminal group to siphon off cash from state projects.
During his political career he is said to have amassed a lot of wealth and as of late 2008, he owned eight landholdings, an apartment, two residences and a vacation house, a hotel, an inn, and two commercial venues. In 2001, the Teleorman county council, of which he was the president, privatised a state construction firm at a very low price. Dragnea’s personal driver won it at the auction, and Dragnea awarded the firm many public contracts for road construction, some of these being considered overvalued.
His slew of tax cuts and wage and pension hikes would have caused the country’s budget deficit to exceed EU limits. These measures were intended to bolster more support for the party. Dragnea’s support base comes from southern Teleorman county, one of Romania’s poorest areas, where he built up his political career.
After his exit the party will be headed by his protégé Prime Minister Viorica Dancila.
President Klaus Iohannis who was always opposed to Dragnea, called a non-binding referendum to stop the government from passing legislation that would legitimise some of the offences of Dragnea and his cronies. The referendum won 80% support from the voters on Sunday.
The European Commission, which is the European Union’s executive body, has repeatedly warned that measures adopted by the ruling Social Democrats are watering down the anti-corruption reforms and weakening the rule of law. It criticized the moves to reduce statutes of limitation that would close some ongoing corruption trials, particularly against Liviu Dragnea. Commission First Vice President Frans Timmermans had sent a warning letter to Romania’s government on May 10. EU exerted significant pressure and threatened to revoke many of Romania’s privileges as an EU state and bar it from the Schengen visa-free travel zone.
“Infringement of the rule of law will endanger the distribution of more than 30 billion euros in cohesion funds earmarked for Romania in the draft EU budget for the years following 2021,” a senior EU diplomat told Reuters.
Romania is the second-poorest country within EU. Romania is under a spotlight because it currently holds the rotating EU presidency.