Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Romania: Who Cares About Politics?

27 11 2007

Voters’ disappointment and ignorance marred Romania’s first European elections, while a referendum on changing the electoral system failed due to low turnout.

By Marian Chiriac in Bucharest

It's a cold Sunday evening outside a pub on Lipscani Street, in central Bucharest. Inside, more than two dozens youngsters are glued to a huge television screen showing an eagerly awaited football match between two local teams.

“Elections? What elections? You are crazy, man, this is the real life”, says Marcel, 18, while sipping from a glass of vodka. He soon turns back to the screen and starts shouting advice to his favourite football players.

Like Marcel, most of the 18-year-old first-time voters, born after the end of communist rule in 1989, did not bother to vote on November 25. These were the first elections for the European Parliament, EP, held in the Balkan country since it joined the EU on January 1.

Only about 28 per cent of registered voters cast their ballots in the elections, much less than the average voting in local or parliamentary polls in previous years.

“The Romanian electorate wasn’t interested at all in these elections. Despite their strong support for the EU, Romanians are not yet concerned about real European issues”, political analyst Stelian Tanase told Balkan Insight.

“That's why politicians focused in their campaign more on living standards and on the fact that people are now free to move around the EU”, Tanase said.

Journalist Mircea Marian, from the leading daily, Evenimentul Zilei, says there is another reason for people’s lack of interest, the fact that many of them doubted the candidates’ qualifications to stand.

“Every party put at the top of its list a ‘star’ candidate, followed by a ‘rabble’, lacking in both experience and character”, Marian said.

Thirteen parties were fielding candidates.

The vote for the 35 members of the European Parliament is seen mainly as a test of the popularity of leading political parties ahead of the parliamentary election due next year.

The centrist opposition Democratic Party – which is close to President Traian Basescu - won the elections with 28.8 per cent of the vote, while the Social Democratic Party, PSD, seen by many as the successor to the one-time communists, came second with 23.1 per cent.

Prime Minister Calin Popescu Tariceanu’s government suffered a setback in the elections, with his National Liberal Party, PNL, receiving only 13.4 per cent of the vote, although that was a few percentage points more than expected.

The Liberals tried to put a brave face on their performance, with Tariceanu himself claiming that "Romanians have given us their vote of confidence." But voices from inside the party described the PNL’s results as “modest”.

Political analysts say that infightings between the Liberals and President Traian Basescu, going back over some two years, had tarnished the PNL’s image in voters' eyes. “Furthermore, the PNL paid the price for the government's record on reform since EU accession and for the fact that some of its ministers were involved in bribery scandals”, sociologist Dumitru Sandu told Balkan Insight.

In October, the Agriculture Minister Decebal Traian Remes stepped down following the launch of a criminal investigation against him for alleged corruption.

The Liberal Democratic Party, PLD, won about 7.7 per cent, followed by the Hungarian Democratic Union of Romania, UDMR, with 5.5 per cent.

One surprise of the elections was the success of an independent candidate, Bishop Laszlo Tokes of the Reformed Church, who broke with the UDMR because he considered it was not doing enough to represent Romania’s ethnic Hungarians. Tokes, a fearless preacher whose arrest sparked the 1989 revolution that overthrew the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu, is now a strong supporter of more autonomy for Romania's 1.5 million-strong Hungarian community.

Romania’s nationalists fared poorly in the elections, with the Greater Romania Party of Corneliu Vadim Tudor and the New Generation Party of football club owner Gigi Becali failing to secure seats in the European Parliament.

Tudor, who was once a leading candidate for the presidency, announced on Sunday that he would resign from Romania's parliament, while staying on as party leader. Several low-ranking officials of his party said a day later they would be stepping down from their posts. But on Tuesday, Tudor announced that he had changed his mind about the resignation.

Meanwhile, Becali denied there was a crisis inside his party, and said he had no intention of stepping down.

“The results of the EP election do not represent a surprise at all. They are more an indication of the electoral prospects of the parties, ahead of local and parliamentary election next year”, sociologist Mircea Kivu says.

Along with the elections to the European Parliament, Romanians were voting in a referendum, pushed by Basescu, on proposed changes to the electoral system to move away from the existing one based on party lists to one in which they vote for individual candidates.

But low voter turnout marred the referendum, rendering it invalid because the required turnout of 50 per cent was not reached. Nearly 90 per cent of those who actually voted supported the plan, based on the French electoral system, where votes are cast for individual candidates, a system designed to make politicians more accountable and curb top-level graft.

Basescu will now have to sign into law a rival plan, backed by the government, to introduce a different electoral mechanism. It is based on German-style voting where each citizen has two votes, one for an individual candidate and another for a party. The president had earlier refused to sign the draft, pending the referendum.

“Business as usual in Romanian politics. There was a general ignorance about the proposed voting system. It's clear that Romanians have no faith in their own vote. They don't believe they have the power to change things”, says Elena Popescu, who is studying politics. “In such context, a new generation has yet to articulate its detailed concerns, and its leaders have yet to emerge".

Marian Chiriac is BIRN Romania editor. Balkan Insight is BIRN`s online publication.

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