Romanian Prime Minister Orban looks set to stay in power after close elections

Romanian Prime Minister Ludovic Orban claimed victory in Sunday’s national election, which is seen as crucial for the country’s future in the European mainstream, although a preliminary poll showed that his ruling Liberals (PNL) lost by a narrow margin.

Orban, a reform-minded tax conservative, is expected to be nominated to form a coalition government from President Klaus Iohannis, although the end results show him somewhat behind his rivals, the left-wing PSD.

He quickly claimed victory, with a baseline survey conducted by INSOMAR that gave him a narrow lead of 32% against PSD’s 28%. Another initial survey by Curs-Avantgarde put PSD at 30.5% and PNL at 29.1%. Both showed the centrist USR-Plus, Orban’s likely coalition partner, by about 16%.

“PNL thinks it is the winner of this election,” Orban told supporters in a quick speech. “We will try to represent a variety of interests.”

A government led by Orban would be welcomed in Brussels, frustrated by years of efforts by a number of left-wing Romanian governments to suppress judicial independence, an accusation they denied. Critics had compared them to reviews of the judiciary in Poland and Hungary which the European Commission says undermine the rule of law.

With power for a year, Orban had been limited in all reform efforts by a parliament controlled by the PSD, which has seen three prime ministers overthrow since the last 2016 election among the job-fighters.

The party’s last government collapsed at the end of 2019 after the imprisonment of former leader Liviu Dragnea on corruption charges.

Pandemic fear

Orban has pledged to bring Romania closer to the European mainstream and has vowed to restore investor sentiment shaken by PSD’s tax populism and revive efforts to repair neglected infrastructure and public services.

The PSD had seen a last-minute increase in votes, after it accused him of spoiling Romania’s attitude to the coronavirus pandemic.

With a six per cent annual decline in the third quarter, Romania had one of the worst economic results in the EU.

The party’s core voters in the countryside were angry over social restrictions that limited farmers’ ability to sell their products in nearby cities.

“I thank the Romanians who punished this mockery that was (Orban’s) handling of the pandemic,” said PSD leader Marcel Ciolacu.

Turnout was the lowest since Romania lost communism in a bloody uprising in 1989, with decades of voter apathy over failed reforms exacerbated by fears of coronavirus infection in polling stations.

There were few new rules introduced for election day, but Romania has had one of the highest death rates in the EU. Schools and restaurants remain closed and a curfew was imposed in November.

Orban said he expected coalition negotiations to move quickly. But he faces a daunting task of limiting public finances to ward off the double-digit budget deficit, which economists say could lead credit rating agencies to put Romania below investment grade.

The Romanian leu has traded near record lows against the euro over the past year due to political concerns and rating problems.

The initial measurements did not include votes from the Romanian diaspora. Partially official results were expected on Monday morning.