Romania’s opposition Social Democrats have taken a surprise lead over the governing National Liberals after a parliamentary election.

However, the party appears less likely to emerge on top in what promises to be prolonged post-election wrangling to form a new coalition government.

With 95% of ballots counted on Monday, the populist, corruption-prone and fiscally reckless Social Democrat Party (PSD) had around 30% of the vote, with the reformist centre-right National Liberal Party behind them by about 5%. The progressive USR-Plus alliance, which has pledged not to be part of any Social Democrat-led government, won about 15% of the vote.

Only two other parties crossed the 5% threshold to enter parliament: the far-right AUR alliance, whose vocal opposition to coronavirus restrictions resonated with close to 9% of voters, and the UDMR party that represents the country’s Hungarian minority, which won around 6%.

The National Liberal leader, Prime Minister Ludovic Orban, said coalition talks with the Social Democrats were out of the question but did not provide a clear explanation for how his party hoped to reach a new governing majority in the 465-seat, two-chamber parliament.

“I want to be very clear, we will never negotiate with the PSD, we will not let the PSD harm Romania,” Mr Orban said.

Romanian Prime Minister Ludovic Orban
Romanian Prime Minister Ludovic Orban (AP/Andreea Alexandru)

The AUR alliance was established just a year ago under the leadership that campaigns against same-sex marriages and was supportive of Orthodox Church clerics who defied pandemic restrictions in Romania to hold religious ceremonies. But it did surprisingly well among Romania’s expats, having taken the lead in Italy and coming in second in Spain and France.

Some 4 million Romanians who live abroad, mostly in Western Europe, have traditionally voted for reform-oriented parties that seek to align the country with the European Union mainstream, but the pandemic has apparently upended traditional allegiances.

The National Liberals have controlled Romania’s minority government since October 2019 when the Social Democrats lost a confidence vote in the parliament after a chaotic tenure that had seen it run through three prime ministers and dozens of ministers in the space of just three years. The Social Democratic-led government had drawn heavy criticism from the EU for its interference with the judiciary and numerous corruption scandals involving prominent members.

But it defied pre-election polls to become the nominal winner of Sunday’s vote with unfeasible promises to preserve Romania’s welfare state model and after the minority National Liberals government faced strong criticism for its handling of the pandemic.

The president of the Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania, Hunor Kelemen
The president of the Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania, Hunor Kelemen (Gabor Kiss/MTI via AP)

Romania was plagued by widespread poverty even before the pandemic, which has exacerbated structural problems, including the near-collapse of the public healthcare system.

As a result of the pandemic and virus-related restrictions, Romania’s fiscal deficit is expected to widen this year to around 9% of gross domestic product, compared with 4.3% in 2019. The coronavirus continues to spread in Romania, with almost two-thirds of over a half a million cases and nearly a half of the country’s more than 12,300 virus-related deaths registered in the past two months alone.

Only 33% of potential Romanian voters went to the polls on Sunday, compared with nearly 39.5% in 2016. Observers blamed the historically low turnout on voters’ fears of infection, but also on general disillusionment with Romania’s political class.