FILE - In this Friday, April 27, 2018 file photo, the leader of Romania's ruling Social Democratic party, Liviu Dragnea, grimaces as he walks out of the anti-corruption prosecutors' office, in Bucharest, Romania. Romania’s ruling Social Democratic Party on Friday Sept. 21, 2018, endorsed its chairman Liviu Dragnea, despite his recent conviction for abuse of power. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda, file)

Romania ruling party endorses embattled party chief

September 21, 2018 - 12:52 pm

BUCHAREST, Romania (AP) — Romania's ruling Social Democratic Party on Friday endorsed its chairman despite his recent conviction for abuse of power.

Colleagues had called for Liviu Dragnea to step down, but party members voted in support of Dragnea, who is barred from becoming prime minister because of a 2016 conviction for electoral fraud.

There were conflicting figures about the vote tally Friday, which came after an eight-hour meeting.

Dragnea later vowed he would do all he could to "destroy... this odious system" of what he calls "the parallel state," which he thinks has too much power. Those institutions include an anti-corruption movement, Romania's secret services, the anti-corruption prosecutors agency and President Klaus Iohannis, a political rival.

However, Dragnea indicated that he would allow more autonomy for the Romanian government, which has been under party control.

In June, Dragnea was convicted of abuse of power in office and sentenced to 3½ years in prison. Party colleagues say he should be considered innocent pending a final ruling.

One ally, Marian Oprisan, said he didn't recognize that conviction, labeling it "political."

Despite that conviction and the court case, Dragnea retains a tight grip on the party he has ruled since 2015.

In a letter this week, three leading party officials, including Bucharest mayor Gabriela Firea, urged him to step down.

Tensions have grown in the party since an anti-corruption protest directed against the Romanian government last month left 450 people injured.

Romanians have held many anti-corruption protests since the Social Democrats won power in 2016 and embarked on a contentious judicial overhaul that critics say will make it harder to prosecute cases of high-level corruption.