Romanian Prime Minister Citu wins party leadership, prolonging political stalemate

BUCHAREST, September 25 (Reuters) – Romanian Prime Minister Florin Citu won the leadership elections of his ruling Liberal Party on Saturday, further reducing the chances of bringing together the centrist coalition government that collapsed earlier this month.

The split in the liberal-led coalition, which includes junior partner USR Plus and the Hungarian ethnic group UDMR, threatens Romania’s economic recovery and efforts to reduce the European Union’s large state deficits. It also comes at a time when COVID-19 cases are on the rise again.

Citu took over his leadership in an election at the Liberal Party convention on Saturday.

The USR Plus, a relatively new centrist party, withdrew its cabinet ministers at the beginning of September in a row over a regional development fund and filed a vote of no confidence in parliament, refusing to return until Citu was more Prime Minister.

USR Plus opposed a government decree to set up a 50 billion lei ($ 11.85 billion) regional infrastructure development finance program that would give local mayors access to funds with oversight limited.

With the second-lowest vaccination rate in the EU, Romania is bracing for a fourth wave of the pandemic that is expected to overwhelm hospitals where medical staff are already at the end of their rope. Daily infection rates have doubled in a week and are approaching a record high of over 10,000.

The Liberal Party elections dominated the public agenda for months and stalled policymaking, analysts said. Citu, a newcomer but backed by centrist President Klaus Iohannis, challenged former party leader and prime minister Ludovic Orban.

Liberal lawmakers have opposed USR Plus’s censure motion in the Constitutional Court on technical grounds, with a ruling expected next week.

Regardless of the current motion, Citu still has to present a new cabinet roster to Parliament for approval in October, following the resignation of USR Plus ministers.

A minority government of liberals and ethnic Hungarians would rely on the support of opposition left social democratic lawmakers, leaving them vulnerable to concessions. ($ 1 = 4.2208 lei) (Reporting by Luiza Ilie; editing by Clelia Oziel)

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