Romania: Leader of ruling party consolidates grip on power

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BUCHAREST, Romania (AP) — The chairman of Romania's ruling party consolidated his grip on power Saturday after an ally was promoted to a key position amid criticism of his leadership.

Social Democracy Party Chairman Liviu Dragnea, who's been party leader since 2015, initially planned to seek a vote of support at the congress, but gave up the idea after some members claimed he had arbitrarily changed party rules.

Prime Minister Viorica Dancila, a Dragnea ally, was appointed deputy leader after two other candidates running for the post withdrew to protest the way the congress was run.

Dragnea can't be Romania's prime minister due to a 2016 conviction for vote rigging. Prosecutors launched a separate probe, charging him with embezzling European Union funds. He denies wrongdoing.

He vowed to press on with a government-led overhaul of the judicial system that critics say would make it harder to punish high-level corruption.

"Romania's sovereignty is more precious than any fight for power, than any local interest and that's why we'll protect it through explicit laws, debated and voted in Parliament," Dragnea said.

The Social Democracy Party congress opened amid criticism of the government and Dragnea's leadership. Dozens of demonstrators — as well as hundreds of supporters — gathered outside the building in Bucharest where some 4,000 party members elected 16 deputy presidents and the deputy leader.

Supporters watched the meeting broadcast on a screen while protesters yelled "You thieves!" and called the Social Democrats "the red plague." Police briefly detained and fined three people for disturbing public order.

The left-wing party retains its traditional base of support, but has been criticized for appointing three prime ministers in one year and for a tax overhaul that shifted responsibility for social security taxes from employers to employees.

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