The ruling Social Democratic Party (PSD) came only second in the European elections, with around 22.5 percent of the vote, while its liberal coalition partner Alde secured less than five percent. The opposition, by contrast, had cause for celebration. The centre-right National-Liberal Party (PNL) was the clear winner with 27 percent, and the Alliance 2020 (consisting of the centrist USR and the PLUS party) secured 22.4 percent, almost overtaking the PSD. Three other opposition parties, the People's Movement Party (PMP) led by former Romanian president Traian Băsescu, the Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania (UDMR) and the new Pro Romania party led by PSD dissident and former prime minister Victor Ponta, also managed to gain seats in the European Parliament with single-digit percentages of the vote.
Massive mobilisation of the opposition was the main factor behind the PSD's poor performance. Although the Social Democrats were able to mobilise roughly the same number of voters as in the 2014 European elections, the online campaigns of video bloggers, artists and intellectuals boosted voter turnout to almost 50 percent (compared to just 32 percent in 2014). Consequently, the approximately two million votes that went to the PSD were not enough to give it a good result: the PSD lost around 15 percentage points compared to the 2014 European elections and more than half of its share of the vote when compared to the parliamentary elections at the end of 2016.
The victorious PNL had recruited Rareş Bogdan, an eloquent, highly committed and quite radical talk show presenter as its lead candidate, and he proved more effective than many an experienced party veteran when it came to charming voters and whipping up enthusiasm.
The Alliance 2020, for its part, successfully positioned itself as an alternative: the Save Romania Union (USR) was founded only a few years ago and is therefore untainted by politic scandals and regarded by many as a credible option. The PLUS party led by ex-prime minister Dacian Ciolos, whom conservative voters see as one of the country's few respectable politicians, renounced its own ambitions and agreed to join the alliance instead. Together, the two parties were able to attract support above all among young voters. In some places more young people than pensioners went out to vote for them. And the alliance did well not just in student cities like Bucharest and Cluj, but also in PSD strongholds such as Vaslui and Craiova.
Personalisation played an important role here: voters associated the PSD with Liviu Dragnea, the string-puller behind Romania's government. In a bid to escape a prison sentence in ongoing criminal proceedings, the politician, who has already been convicted of corruption, has been eroding the rule of law and fuelling anti-EU sentiment since 2017. His tirades against purported conspirators both within and outside the country have polarised Romanian society to such an extent that people came to see the European elections as a referendum against Dragnea and for Europe and the rule of law. The public-sector pension increases and pay rises of the last two years with which the PSD had hoped to score points went unrewarded at the ballot boxes. The citizens "have shown Europe once again that Romania is neither Orbán's Hungary nor Erdoğan's Turkey; that it was only an accident of democracy that led to a group of criminals coming into power," commented the Bucharest-based Externer Link: web portal G4Media.
The results are confirmation that President Klaus Iohannis's strategy has paid off. He had calculated that holding a referendum on issues pertaining to the rule of law on the same day as the European elections would bring more people to the polls. And he was right: voter turnout for the referendum, which was essentially about banning amnesties for corruption-related offences and emergency decrees in judicial matters, was over 40 percent, despite a pseudo-boycott by the PSD. More than 80 percent voted in favour of the ban. The website Externer Link: Ziare interpreted the high voter turnout as a sign of the desperation "of a nation that has been humiliated for two and a half years by a criminal who usurped absolute power for a single purpose: to get off without punishment." But all Dragnea's efforts were in vain: on the Monday after the elections Externer Link: the country's Supreme Court sentenced him to three and a half years in prison.
As in previous elections, Romanians living in other EU member states had problems casting their vote, particularly in Germany, Italy, Denmark, the Netherlands and the UK. Thousands were unable to vote at all despite queuing up for hours outside polling stations. Commentators and the opposition accused the Romanian government of deliberately sabotaging the vote by setting up too few polling stations because it knew that a majority of Romanians living abroad would vote against the PSD: "Foreign Minister Teodor Meleşcanu, a lackey of communism, the Securitate (Romania's secret police under the communist regime) and the kleptocrats, and Liviu Dragnea himself set limits on the number of cities and polling stations, as well as the period within which Romanians could exercise their sacrosanct right to vote, their right as members of the sovereign nation to determine the course of the country and of the nation," Externer Link: the Romanian service of German broadcaster Deutsche Welle wrote.
If more Romanians outside Romania had been able to vote, the PSD would have fared even worse in the elections.