June 8, 2018 / 4:01 AM / 4 months ago

RPT-Romania's Social Democrats await verdict in leader's trial

(Repeats without changes to headline or text)

By Radu-Sorin Marinas

BUCHAREST, June 7 (Reuters) - Romania’s top court will rule on Friday in the trial of Social Democrat leader Liviu Dragnea on charges of abuse of office, a case that could weaken the country’s most powerful politician and open cracks in the ruling party if he is convicted.

A fresh criminal conviction for Dragnea, who is already barred from becoming prime minister because of a previous sentence in a vote-rigging case, could erode his grip on the country’s biggest party and the five-month old government.

Dragnea is accused of keeping two women on the payroll of a state agency in 2006-2013 even though they were employed by his party. He was a county council chief at the time.

The court will make a preliminary ruling on Friday; a final ruling may take months. Dragnea denies the charges.

“We may see some internal wars in the party with some seniors sharpening their knives in a bid to remove Dragnea, vying to take his job, if he gets a second criminal conviction,” said Adrian Basaraba, a political science professor at the University of Timisoara.

“A fresh conviction would be a wonderful opportunity for some to say the current PSD leader has eroded his legitimacy too much to govern the biggest party.”

Dragnea is also under investigation in Brazil on suspicion of money laundering and in a separate case on suspicion of forming a criminal group to siphon off cash from state projects, some of them funded by the European Union.

But he has the support of powerful provincial leaders. He created a multi-billion-euro state-funded programme in 2013 when he was regional development minister, money that is now distributed to the counties by a deputy prime minister .

The argument over how hard to fight corruption in Romania, one of Europe’s most graft-prone states, has dominated the country’s politics since it joined the European Union just over a decade ago.

At the start of 2017, attempts by Dragnea’s ruling coalition to weaken anti-corruption legislation triggered the country’s biggest protests in decades.

Romania has been dogged by political instability since shedding Communist rule in 1989, but markets appeared to have largely shrugged off the corruption cases so far. (Reporting by Radu Marinas, editing by Larry King)

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