Coronavirus casts shadow over Romanian election
Low turnout could boost far right as PM Orban seeks another term.
BUCHAREST — The coronavirus casts a long and dark shadow over a general election in Romania on Sunday, threatening to depress turnout and boost the far right.
Center-right Prime Minister Ludovic Orban, who is running for another term in office, and other leading politicians are trying to reassure voters that a trip to the polling station poses less risk than a trip to the supermarket. People will be asked to wear masks at all times, disinfect their hands going in and out of polling stations, and keep a safe distance from others.
But such reassurances may cut little ice in a country that weathered the first coronavirus wave relatively well — with military-enforced lockdowns, swift border closures and travel bans — but is struggling badly with the latest eruption in cases.
A loosening of the rules over the summer and early fall led to the deadly buildup. As of Saturday, more than 12,000 people have died in Romania as a result of the virus — 134 of them in the previous 24 hours. The health system, weakened by years of corruption, mismanagement and staff shortages, is buckling, with some hospitals unable to meet demand for beds, while others face regular breakdowns in basic supplies, hot water and heating. A fire at a COVID-19 hospital in November killed 15 patients.
Some big cities are under severe lockdown restrictions, with people under instructions not to leave home without good reason and banned from lingering in public places.
“Lower turnout, especially from the middle class of the quarantined big cities, is likely to boost the far right, and we may even have the unpleasant surprise of seeing them returning to parliament,” said Cristian Pîrvulescu, dean at the faculty of political science at the National School of Political Studies and Administration.
Pîrvulescu expects turnout to be three to five percentage points lower than in 2016, when it stood at 39 percent. The threshold for entering parliament is 5 percent of the vote.
Far-right nationalists from the Alliance for the Unity of Romanians have made gains among corona-skeptics and anti-vaxxers during the pandemic, as well as among some neo-protestant religious groups, said Pîrvulescu.
At the same time, he said, “many people are afraid to leave home” in urban strongholds of Orban’s National Liberal Party (PNL) and their likely coalition partners, the liberal USR-PLUS party.
“I think the turnout will be lower than in 2016, and the pandemic is the problem,” said USR-PLUS Vice President Claudiu Năsui.
Siegfried Mureșan, a leading PNL member of the European Parliament, said the pandemic adds an extra element of uncertainty to the vote.
“We can’t know what the turnout will be in a pandemic. But whatever it is, the patterns of absenteeism won’t be the same as in previous elections,” he said in his office at PNL headquarters in Bucharest. “Elderly people may stay away out of fear, but it’s important to say there’s no reason for this, the elections will be safe.”
Polls show the PNL in the lead, with USR-PLUS vying for second place with the center-left Social Democratic Party (PSD), which currently holds the most seats in parliament. Pîrvulescu said the PSD’s vote will be the least affected by the pandemic due to its strength in rural areas, where the effects of the pandemic have not been so severe.
Orban’s PNL currently runs a minority government but relies heavily on USR-PLUS to pass legislation. Both the PNL and the USR-PLUS have ruled out a coalition with the PSD.