Romanian PM Citu wins party leadership, prolonging political stalemate

FILE PHOTO: Romanian Prime Minister-designate Florin Citu attends a news conference in Bucharest, Romania, February 26, 2020. Inquam Photos/George Calin via REUTERS/File Photo

BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Romanian Prime Minister Florin Citu won the leadership election of his ruling Liberal Party on Saturday, further reducing the chances of reuniting the centrist coalition government which collapsed earlier this month.

The fracture of the Liberal-led coalition, which includes the junior partner USR Plus and ethnic Hungarian group UDMR, threatens Romania's economic recovery and efforts to reduce the European Union state's large deficits. It also comes at a time when COVID-19 cases are rising sharply again.

Citu secured his leadership at an election during the Liberal Party congress on Saturday.

USR Plus, a relatively new centrist party, withdrew its ministers from the cabinet in early September in a row over a regional development fund and filed a no confidence vote in parliament, refusing to return until Citu was no longer prime minister.

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

With the second-lowest vaccination rate in the EU, Romania is bracing for a fourth wave of the pandemic that looks set to overwhelm hospitals where medical staff are already stretched thin. Daily infection rates have doubled in a week and are nearing a record high of over 10,000.

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

Liberal lawmakers have objected to USR Plus's no-confidence motion at the Constitutional Court on technical grounds, with a ruling expected next week.

Regardless of the current motion, Citu must still bring a new cabinet line-up to parliament for approval in October, following the resignation of USR Plus ministers.

A minority government of Liberals and ethnic Hungarians would rely on backing from opposition leftist Social Democrat lawmakers, which would make them vulnerable to concessions.

($1 = 4.2208 lei)

(Reporting by Luiza Ilie; editing by Clelia Oziel)

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