Date: 1 May 2019

Referendum or Election Campaign?

President Klaus Iohannis has announced that a referendum on changes in the judiciary will be held soon. A low voter turnout may be a real obstacle to the implementation of his propositions. The plebiscite will certainly be part of an election campaign just before the autumn parliamentary elections.


President Klaus Iohannis has announced that a referendum in which citizens will be able to express their opinions on the government’s actions will be held soon. This goes hand in hand with criticism addressed to the PSD-ALDE coalition, which is mainly voiced by EU officials. For now, however, there are no indications suggesting that either one or the other will stop the changes in the judiciary and the penal code that have been pushed for by the current government for a few years.

The two following questions are to appear in the referendum announced by President Klaus Iohannis: “Do you agree with banning amnesty and pardon for corruption offenses?” and “Do you agree with banning the adoption of emergency ordinances by the Government in the area of crimes, punishments and judicial organisation, and with the extension of the right to challenge ordinances directly before the Constitutional Court?”. The politician hopes that in both cases the citizens will answer “Yes”. According to Iohannis, this will prevent harmful changes in the law that have been pushed for by the PSD-ALDE government since the beginning of the current tenure.

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The changes in the law have met with widespread criticism not only from Iohannis and Romania’s opposition. Similar opinions have also been voiced by EU politicians and officials. The Romanian government has often been criticized by the Venice Commission, European Commissioners and Euro MPs. Recently, the PSD also “got it in the neck” from Frans Timmermans, who is not only the First Vice-President of the European Commission, but also the head of the Party of European Socialists (PES). In one of his interviews, Timmermans has recently stated that due to the changes in the law that the PSD intends to introduce, the party should be removed from the PES family.

Widespread criticism from the European Union implies that Klaus Iohannis’ decision to hold the referendum on the same day as the elections to the European Parliament has gained a new meaning. Iohannis probably hopes that mainly pro-EU voters who are not necessarily very fond of the ruling coalition will go to the polls. However, it should also be kept in mind that the voter turnout may not be higher than 30%, the percentage which is required for the result of the plebiscite to be binding.

More citizens will probably go to the polls in autumn when the people of Romania will elect their representatives to the parliament. However, it is these elections which will be crucial for changes on the local political scene. The referendum organised on the very same day as the elections to the European Parliament may therefore be considered as part of the election campaign aimed at changing the government. There is a good chance that it may happen. Since March, more and more polls have shown that voters are more eager to vote for the National Liberal Party (PNL), with which Klaus Iohannis is associated with. The latest polls indicate that the proportions are at around 25% to 21%, bearing in mind that 12% of votes will probably be received by the current coalition partner of the Socialists, namely the ALDE party. This, however, does not mean anything on the colorful Romanian political scene, which, as a matter of fact, has seen many, sometimes quite exotic, coalition governments after the fall of Communism. If a similar distribution of power is maintained until autumn, then everything will depend on the coalition capabilities of the two major parties and on the way other political players will choose.

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