Romania’s de facto leader was sent to prison for three-and-a-half years for corruption, shaking the Black Sea nation as it clashes with the European Union over concerns it’s curbing judicial independence.
The guilty verdict against ruling-party boss Liviu Dragnea for abuse of office was upheld Monday by the Supreme Court, adding to a previous vote-rigging conviction that carried a suspended jail term. It was the third blow to his Social Democrats in two days after an unexpected defeat in Sunday’s European Parliament elections and a referendum that will block part of its efforts to overhaul the courts.
The case further focuses the spotlight on the continent’s ex-communist east, where Hungary and Poland are both locked in disputes with the EU over democratic backsliding and have been threatened with the same kind of sanctions now looming over Romania. Officials in Brussels may seek to cut development funding to members not upholding the bloc’s values.
It’s also an embarrassment, with Romania currently holding the EU’s rotating presidency. But it’s unlikely to topple the cabinet, as Premier Vasilica Viorica Dancila will become interim party leader until a congress is organized to elect a replacement, according to several members of the party.
“She’ll face huge pressure from the party base,” Andrei Taranu, deputy dean at the Bucharest Political Science University, said by phone. “This should become more clear next week when they have to fight it out in parliament to replace Dragnea as the head of the lower house.”
Investors looked past the announcement. The leu traded little-changed against the euro, holding on to this year’s 2.2 percent drop, the most among east EU peers.
Dragnea surrendered to police and was met by dozens of protesters at the prison who booed and shouted “The door of justice is finally closed!” He wasn’t present earlier when the court upheld the verdict that he helped party members get public-sector jobs for which they were paid but didn’t work.
When asked about how he took the verdict, his lawyer, Flavia Teodosiu, said angrily “How do you think he reacted? How would you react?”
Party members said they hadn’t spoken with him about the ruling. Earlier, he appeared alone to supporters to denounce what he called a “hate storm” that caused Sunday’s ballot losses.
While his earlier conviction prevented him from taking the post of prime minister, he was the country’s most powerful politician. He spearheaded the tax cuts and increases in state salaries and the minimum wage that propelled the Social Democrats to power in 2016.
The situation is much different today. The European Parliament vote highlighted a plunge in the party’s popularity, while the fiscal largess is poised to send the budget deficit way beyond EU limits.
But it’s the judicial revamp that’s resonating most in a country that ranks among the worst in the EU for corruption and has been under a monitoring regime since it joined the bloc in 2007.
While the government says its reforms will create a more transparent legal system, plans to ease punishment for graft offenses and revisit some convictions have drawn rebukes from President Klaus Iohannis, the EU and Western allies. Hundreds of thousands of protesters have taken to the streets.
“Dragnea’s conviction is proof that justice is still independent,” the opposition Save Romania Union said in a statement. “Romania now needs to return to normal.”
Iohannis, who tried unsuccessfully to block the government’s removal of Romania’s top anti-corruption prosecutor, is leading polls as he seeks re-election this fall.
For Dragnea’s part, he says the case is politically motivated and had to be shushed by his lawyers last month when he questioned the five justices who convicted him.
“If you’re going to condemn me, I think it’s fair that you tell me why,” he said.