Romania’s Election Is More About the People than the Candidates
The past few years in Romania saw the country walk a thin line between attacks on democratic institutions and the separation of state powers and attempts to protect them. At the same time the reaction of its civil society has attracted international attention. Hundreds of thousands taking to the streets to protest or queueing to vote drew attention to the development of democracy in the country since the fall of communism in 1989. The presidential election, whose second round takes place on Sunday, has further shown that Romania’s civil society is making a significant contribution to advancing democratic processes.
The Political Context
Recent elections in Romania have been intense experiences. The 2014 presidential contest followed protests against the Social Democratic (PSD) government because of the controversial Roșia Montană gold mining project. The defeat of PSD leader Victor Ponta by Klaus Iohannis from the Liberal Party generated a wave of optimism among those citizens who had been critical of the country’s direction. Their hopes were soon deflated, however, in the 2016 parliamentary elections in which the coalition between the PSD and the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats won a majority.
"In the past years there have been significant changes in the way Romania’s citizens react to and engage in politics."
The situation escalated in early 2017 when the newly formed government issued an emergency decree making substantial changes to the justice system, which the public saw as protecting politicians from being prosecuted for corruption and facilitating embezzlement. Ever since, protests have been organized on a regular basis, people have become polarized, and there have been constant tensions and political attacks among the president, the parliament and the government.
The presidential election takes place against this background. In the first round on November 10, President Iohannis received 37.8 percent of the votes, PSD leader and former prime minister Viorica Dăncilă won 22.3 percent. The more progressive and younger part of the electorate had hopes for Dan Barna, the leader of the newly formed Save Romania Union, but he only received 15 percent. Iohannis is expected to win a second term in the second round.
In the past years there have been significant changes in the way Romania’s citizens react to and engage in politics. They increasingly perceive politicians and public officials as servants of the people and not as elites ruling over powerless masses. They have also become more active in demanding better quality in public services and for local problems to be solved. Increasingly voters demand more of candidates. They expect them to take part in public debates, they want to know what positions they hold on issues of national importance, and they have a better understanding of the prerogatives of different elected officials such as the president and the members of parliament. These represent essential steps in the development of a democratic culture.
"Romanians have also started actively making sure that the electoral process is fair."
Romanians have also started actively making sure that the electoral process is fair. The European Parliament elections earlier this year saw the biggest turnout since the country joined the EU twelve years ago, but it was also the second occasion after the 2014 presidential election when thousands had to queue for an inordinate amount of time in front of voting stations abroad. With over 3,6 million Romanians in the diaspora, there were not enough facilities to accommodate all of those wanting to cast a ballot. The fact that not all citizens who wanted to managed to vote in these two elections generated a public outcry and a mobilization of citizens and authorities for this year’s presidential election. Citizens abroad organized petitions for voting stations to be opened in their towns and pressured the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, embassies, and consulates to add locations.
As result of the public pressure, the electoral law has been changed to accommodate voting abroad over three days rather than one, and postal voting has also been introduced as an option for citizens living abroad. Many more voting stations have been open in many more locations across the world—from 310 for the European Parliament elections to 838 for the presidential election.
Thousands of people are also contributing during the presidential poll—as volunteers, voting-station staff, or independent observers. Civil society organizations are playing an important role too: for example, Funky Citizens and Expert Forum help citizens get accreditation as observers, Declic promotes and explains postal voting, and Code 4 Romania has built online support tools for citizens in the form of information portals, interactive maps, and real-time vote-counting tools. Abroad, civic initiatives and organizations such as Diaspora Civică Berlin, Rezist WMW, and Rezist Zürich as well as individuals have contributed as staff or volunteers at polling stations. After the first round, civil society organizations demanded and triggered an evaluation of the process so far, especially with regard to newer procedures such as postal voting.
These civic efforts have brought improvements. Abroad there was a record in voter participation and no more queues for voting in the first round. The number of votes abroad was over 675,000 compared to just over 161,000 in 2014. However, the the overall turnout rate was 48 percent, compared to 53 percent in the first round in 2014. This shows the continuing need to encourage voter participation nationally and for parties to generate political options that attract citizens to the polls.
Regardless of the result of the presidential election, Romania’s civil society has taken one further step in advancing democratic processes in the country. It is now hard to imagine that citizens will accept anything less than a smooth voting process in the country and abroad. After challenging the administrative and political status quo through street demonstrations, civil society now more closely collaborates with state structures to ensure free and fair elections. The story of the 2019 election therefore is less one about exceptional candidates or surprising results, but rather one about engaged citizens that collectively move Romania forward.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.