New Conviction for Romania's Top Politician to Worsen Tensions

(Bloomberg) -- A second criminal conviction for Romania’s de-facto leader is set to fan political tensions over corruption in the Black Sea nation.

Social Democrat boss Liviu Dragnea was handed a 3 1/2-year jail sentence for abuse of office on Thursday, though he won’t be sent to prison until the appeals process has been exhausted. In a sign of the impending battle, the opposition urged him to quit as parliament speaker, while ruling-party officials rallied behind him at a meeting Friday in Bucharest.

The ruling will worsen the struggle between Romania’s top branches of government over an unprecedented anti-graft drive that’s locked up scores of officials. The Social Democrats say the initiative is politicized and unfairly targets its members. Their efforts to blunt it have brought mass demonstrations. Klaus Iohannis, president of the European Union and NATO member, backs the crackdown, as do the U.S. and the EU.

“Dragnea is the strongest person in Romanian politics -- he won’t yield without a political fight,” said Radu Magdin, a political consultant who’s worked with the Social Democrats. “I expect increased polarization in politics and society.”

Repeat Offender

Dragea’s latest conviction stems from him installing two people as state employees when in reality they worked for his party. An earlier one -- for attempting to fix a referendum -- carried a suspended jail term and already prevented him from leading the government.

But he’s handpicked prime ministers from his role as party boss, and is behind the Social Democrats’ controversial ruling program. Neither Dragnea, who’s consistently denied wrongdoing, nor his advisers answered calls seeking comment.

Economically, Romania has boomed, though growth has been driven by tax cuts and boosts to state salaries and the minimum wage, prompting budget warnings from the European Commission. But it’s politically that the ruling coalition has faced greater hostility.

An initial attempt in January 2017 to ease punishments for crooked officials triggered the biggest street protests since communism, and eventually a U-turn. But parliament passed the first part of a similar package of laws this week, prompting further -- albeit smaller -- demonstrations. A second set of legislation is still to come. Some of the changes to the Criminal Code could help Dragnea challenge his two convictions.

Prosecutor Battle

The Social Democrats are pushing to remove the chief anti-corruption prosecutor and won a Constitutional Court ruling this month that compels Iohannis to sign off on the dismissal. He’s still deliberating over his next move.

Thursday’s news from the Bucharest court will bolster the government’s opponents in what remains one of the EU’s most-corrupt nations. The Social Democrats are also due to face a no-confidence motion next week in parliament, though they’re expected to win.

“It’s unacceptable that an offender with two criminal convictions holds one of the top-ranking positions in Romania,” the opposition Save Romania Union said in an emailed statement. “Today’s decision proves that justice is independent and has remained impartial despite the terrible pressure exerted by Dragnea and the Social Democrats.”

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