Tuesday, December 2, 2008

ROMANIA: Two Decades of Democracy Brings Disappointment

Global News Blog / IPS

Claudia Ciobanu

BUCHAREST, Dec 1 (IPS) - The chaotic political programmes of the parties and a new electoral system discouraged more Romanians than usually from casting a vote in Sunday’s parliamentary elections. The main opposition force, the Social-Democrats, obtained the best result, but with none of the parties achieving a clear majority, the centre-right forces might still coalesce to form the new government.

Voter turnout was below 40 percent, one of the lowest figures in all elections since 1989. The turnout in rural areas was about 4-5 percent more than in urban areas. Given that the older voters from rural areas are the traditional electorate of the Social-Democratic Party (PSD), the higher turnout in the countryside is one of the factors contributing to the better result of PSD, a party which has been the main opposition force in the parliament over the past four years.

The first exit poll at the closing of the ballot showed that PSD (together with their electoral ally, the smaller Conservative Party) got 36 percent of the votes for each house of parliament. The two main centre-right parties ranked second and third: the Democrat-Liberal Party (PDL) of President Traian Basescu got 31 percent, and the National Liberal party of Prime Minister Calin Popescu-Tariceanu 20 percent.

The only other party to make it to the parliament will be the Democratic Union of Hungarians in Romania (UDMR) with 6.7 percent of the vote, while the extreme-right party will not pass the electoral threshold this year.

PDL and PNL, together with the Conservative Party and UDMR, had formed the government after the previous elections in 2004, but PDL was forced to go into opposition in March 2007 following a period of intense conflict between President Basescu and Prime Minister Tariceanu.

It is still not clear what potential governing alliance to expect. Given that the two centre-right forces, PNL and PDL, have a history of conflict with each other, it is not clear they will be willing to come together to push the PSD into the opposition. Furthermore, in 2007, parliamentarians from PSD and PNL voted together for the ousting of Basescu, who was accused of overstepping his constitutional attributions.

The expectation of tough negotiations in the days following elections was confirmed by Traian Basescu. Earlier this week, the president (whose 5-year mandate expires next year) announced that he would not propose a prime minister until Dec. 6 (and a government could be formed as late as the end of December), after the results of the elections are legally validated. Analysts argued that, with this announcement, Basescu, fearing the possibility of a PSD-PNL governing alliance, wanted to show he has an important word in the forming of the government.

The volatility of the potential governing alliances is illustrative of the ambiguity of the governing platforms proposed by the main parties. Bucharest-based political scientist and parliamentary consultant with the Romanian Senate Oana Popescu says that ”this lack of clarity as regards what would be the differences among the agendas of governments led by the main parties — PNL, PDL, and PSD — made it particularly difficult for the electorate to choose among the existing options.”

According to the political scientist, while parties are usually inclined to turn towards ”populist” rhetoric before elections, promising ”leftist policies thought to bring immediate, palpable benefits to the masses,” this year’s campaign — taking place against the background of the global financial crisis, predicted by analysts to hit Romania hard in early 2009 — was particularly confusing in terms of the main propositions of parties on the two sides of the political spectrum.

”In this campaign, the right found itself in a more difficult position because of the global crisis deemed to be caused by unregulated capitalism,” Oana Popescu told IPS. ”PLD considers itself a centre-right party, but the candidate it puts forward for the prime minister position, Theodor Stolojan, openly embraced protectionist measures in his pre-electoral discourse.”

A few weeks before the elections, the governing PNL rejected an October vote of the parliament to increase the salaries of teachers by 50 percent, arguing that such a measure would destabilise the national budget in times of financial turmoil. At the same time, PNL approved other protectionist measures, such as increasing pensions by an amount which could not be supported from the Pension Fund.

Finally, according to Popescu, while PSD was best placed to promote its social-democratic agenda against the backdrop of the crisis, ”they have always been keen to identify with a sort of New Labour, ‘third way’ type of politics, which claims to respect the mechanisms generating economic growth while striving for an equitable distribution of benefits.” An agenda further left from the centre would have a hard time picking up broad support in a country only 20 years out of a dictatorial regime which called itself communist.

”Variations among parties on ideology (in these elections) were minimal, given that the neo-liberal golden rule of the overarching, fair market has been widely accepted (in Romania),” wrote columnist Mircea Marian in national daily Evenimentul Zilei just a few days before the election. ”Taken off guard by the financial crisis and having no clear ideological alternative to the supremacy of markets, the parties did what they know best: they improvised…Slowly, the theme of the financial crisis started impacting support for the parties, acting in favour of the Social-Democrats.”

Indeed, PSD managed to quickly take the lead in voters’ preferences just over the past couple of weeks, after lagging behind PDL for a good part of the campaign.

While the structure of the new government might take several weeks to clarify, what is clear is that ”the electorate is tired and disappointed from too many changes of government since 1989, in which much hope was placed,” Popescu said.

A further alienating factor was the new electoral system introduced at the Nov. 30 elections and the ensuing electoral campaign behaviour exhibited by the parties.

The new system was adopted after a sustained campaign — over the summer of 2008 — from several politicians and civic organisations for the introduction of uninominal voting, thought to make politicians more accountable to citizens.

However, at the end of intense negotiations between politicians, the system finally introduced this fall is mixed rather than uninominal: those candidates getting more than 50 percent of the votes in their districts go straight to parliament, with the remaining seats being distributed according to the total nationwide results of the parties, in a complicated procedure.

While the system introduced was not purely uninominal, it still made parties shift the focus of campaigning from their proposed governing platforms to the personalities of candidates.

”These elections proved that the political class in Romania was not prepared to deal with a uninominal vote,” Popescu told IPS.

The parties struggled to propose candidates already known to the public for their non-political activities, such as singers, journalists or prominent businessmen. In addition, Popescu said, because this vote was a first experiment with the division of the national constituency in multiple districts (several inside each county), ”oftentimes candidates for the parliament mistook — or pretended to mistake — their future parliamentary mandate with a mandate for the local administration. In order to prove to the electorate that they can solve problems, campaigning politicians inaugurated neighbourhood playgrounds, sanitised apartment blocks, or took charge of modernising schools.”

”I got simply tired of their promises and games,” said 38-year-old Ioana Damian, sitting in a cafĂ© in Bucharest, and trying to explain her choice of not voting. ”No matter who will be in the next government, the country will go on the same route. I placed too much hope in democracy and party politics since 1989 — undeserved hope.”

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