Court upholds jail sentence for ruling party chief

BUCHAREST (AFP): A Romanian court on Monday upheld a jail sentence for the powerful head of Romania’s ruling Social Democrats, LiviuDragnea, meaning he now has 24 hours to report to police to begin his sentence. The verdict will almost certainly remove from public life a man who is widely seen as the puppet master behind the government and a key figure in the PSD’s push for controversial judicial reforms.

Dragnea was unsuccessful in his bid to overturn a conviction he received last year for using his influence to procure fake public jobs for two women, who were actually working for the Social Democrats (PSD) at the time. The High Court of Cassation and Justice on Monday confirmed his original three-and-a-half-year jail sentence. Despite the PSD’s election victory in 2016, Dragnea’s deep-seated ambition to become prime minister was thwarted because of a previous suspended jail sentence for electoral fraud. The verdict also comes on the heels of a stinging defeat for the PSD in Sunday’s European parliament elections.

A grim-faced Dragnea appeared in front of the cameras on Sunday night to say the PSD had faced a “storm of hatred” in the election results, with the party falling 12 points from its score in 2014 to 25.8 percent. Centre-right and liberal opponents, by contrast, racked up almost 50 percent between them. Young people and city-dwellers turned out in force to express their frustration with the government, with turnout nudging 50 percent.

Asked about Monday’s court appearance, Dragnea was his normal defiant self, alluding to dark conspiracies ranged against him and “unimaginable pressure” being exerted on judges to find him guilty. He also surprised many by saying that he would not challenge incumbent President Klaus Iohannis in elections expected this autumn. Over the past three years, Dragnea and the PSD the successor party to the communists had courted voters in poorer and more rural areas of the country with generous promises.

Despite not becoming prime minister, the moustachioed leader wielded considerable influence behind the scenes and toppled two prime ministers in just seven months before nominating VioricaDancila to the post in January 2018. Analysts say his focus on curtailing the activities of the country’s anti-corruption agency has lost the PSD many voters. His argument was that he wants to put an end to abuses of power by prosecutors “suffered by millions of Romanians”.