September 19, 2018 / 8:42 PM / 3 months ago

Romanian ruling party leader urged to resign by former allies

BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Three former allies of the leader of Romania’s ruling Social Democrats called on him to resign on Wednesday, saying his criminal convictions have become the party’s largest vulnerability ahead of elections in 2019 and 2020.

FILE PHOTO - Liviu Dragnea reacts during an interview with Reuters, in Bucharest, Romania, May 23, 2018. Inquam Photos/Octav Ganea via REUTERS

Liviu Dragnea was barred from becoming prime minister because of his conviction but holds a tight grip on the party, which swept into power last year and has since tried to weaken anti-corruption legislation in one of the European Union’s most corrupt states.

The letter from the party vice presidents is the strongest attack against Dragnea from his own ranks. The party’s executive committee will meet on Friday. Dragnea has refused to comment until then.

“Party leader Liviu Dragnea’s vulnerable legal situation has become the party’s major vulnerability, the opposition and civil society’s main attack element, a constant source of mistrust domestically and abroad,” the open letter from Deputy Prime Minister Paul Stanescu, lawmaker Adrian Tutuianu and Bucharest mayor Gabriela Firea said.

It is also “the reason why the correctness of any Social Democrat Party attempt to reform the judiciary is being questioned”, it said.

Attempts to decriminalise several corruption offences last year via emergency decree triggered the country’s largest street protests in decades.

Changes made this year in parliament to the country’s criminal codes also have prompted criticism from magistrates, centrist President Klaus Iohannis and the European Commission, which keeps Romania’s justice system under special monitoring.

Dragnea has a conviction in a vote rigging case. Earlier this year, he was also sentenced to three and a half years in prison in a separate abuse of office case. His appeal will start on Oct. 8.

He is also under investigation in a separate case on suspicion of forming a criminal group to siphon off cash from state projects, some of them EU-funded. He has denied all wrongdoing.

The trio urged their party president Dragnea to resign and suggested Prime Minister Viorica Dancila replace him as interim party leader until a countrywide congress in early 2019.

Stanescu, Tutuianu and Firea said opinion polls showed the party now had 25-30 percent support, sharply down from the 47 percent of votes it won in a December 2016 parliamentary election. Romania has a presidential election next year and parliamentary polls in 2020.

Dancila is seen as a close ally of Dragnea, who propelled her political career.

Reporting by Luiza Ilie; Editing by Alison Williams

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