Dazed and confused
Romania’s political parties are confounded by a new style of general election, as they scramble for populist figures and celebrities to candidate in a mixed-up first-past-the-post system
Parliamentarians in Romania must charm the people in the nation’s regions in a fight for their political futures due to a new election system set to deliver surprises.
Voting in the general elections this November has changed from a system of proportional representation to a mixed system centred on a first-past-the-post concept, which in Romania uses the adjective ‘uninominal’.
This means each individual member of Parliament must campaign in a distinct and small constituency, winning the hearts and minds of villages and towns, in order to take his or her seat in the Chamber of Deputies or the Senate.
The aim is to bring a better representation of voters’ will at a regional level as opposed to the previous system, where 51 per cent of the population decided for the remaining 49 per cent.
Such a radical change with unpredictable results could cause a revolution in who represents a party in Parliament. Big names such as ex-President Ion Iliescu have already ruled themselves out of the fight. Politicians of all colours are terrified of the vote, due to take place on 30th November, because no fate is secure.
The new law divides the Romanian territory into 43 districts which include the 41 counties, Bucharest and the Romanian community abroad. These are then sub-divided into ‘colleges’ or constituencies, if one uses a parallel with the British system, each with around 70,000 inhabitants for a Deputy seat or about 160,000 for a Senator.
The governing party, the National Liberal Party (PNL), and its allies in Parliament, the Social Democrats (PSD) have fixed the borders to create what they hope are favourable constituencies for their parties. “To apply the so-called ‘gerrymandering’ method in Romania was in the hands of the ‘anti-President Traian Basescu coalition’ represented by all the parliamentary parties against the Liberal-Democratic Party (PD-L),” says Cristian Parvulescu, Dean of the Faculty for Political Sciences in Bucharest’s School of Political and Administrative Studies.
Present at the meetings to vote on the borders was Deputy Valentin Iliescu, a member of the Liberal-Democratic Party (PD-L). “The National Liberals and the Social Democrats had an agreement and divided between themselves the uninominal constituencies before starting the discussion with all the other political parties,” argues Iliescu.
For example, to maximise their chances of winning the elections in Bistrita county, the PNL and the PSD united villages which are divided by a mountain to form a safe constituency. Although it may favour the two parties, this will make the counting of votes difficult because there are no transport routes to link the area’s villages and towns.
Size of Parliament unknowable
But the new formula retains some aspects of proportional representation. Under the new system, the collective votes are calculated. So if a party wins 35 per cent of the total votes nationally, 35 per cent of its candidates who have scored best in their uninominal constituencies will enter the Senate or Chamber of Deputies.
Each constituency then forwards at least two Senators and four Deputies to the Parliament. A Deputy has the power to decide for 70,000 inhabitants, while a Senator speaks in the name of 160,000 citizens, plus or minus 30 per cent of this figure.
Under the former electoral system, citizens voted for a party and the percentage of votes dictated the number of members in the Parliament from a respective party list.
Candidates under the new rules can only enter Parliament if they do well in their constituencies or if their party does very well nationally. There is one exception. If a candidate wins more than 50 per cent of the votes in the uninominal constituency, he or she automatically becomes a member of the Parliament.
This means no one can be sure how many members of Parliament there will be. The new system was supposed to decrease the number of MPs, but may have the opposite effect. “There is a risk to have more than 469 members which the Parliament has at present,” says Parvulescu.
For a party to enter the Parliament, it needs to win six mandates of Deputies and three Senators or at least five per cent of the total votes. This means that the formation of the individual constituencies will be irrelevant, as its results will only count in situations where the candidate wins more than 50 per cent of the votes. Parvulescu says this will happen rarely.
The public’s voting behaviour is likely to follow that of local elections. The ex-president of APD expects voting to follow the pattern of the presidents of county councils. However the turnout will probably be higher and many voters may elect their candidates on national issues and their party’s policy manifesto.
According to the new system, ten per cent of the population will not be represented by Parliament. The same lack of representation was registered after the general elections in 2004.
As we went to press, the Greater Romania Party (PRM) intended to stop the new law by complaining to the high court, claiming that the 30 per cent margin of error was exceeded by the parties when drawing up the borders for the constituencies.
The intention is to block the new electoral system because few politicians want to go through the experience, especially those of smaller parties, such as the PRM and the New Generation Party (PNG), which fear they may fail to enter Parliament. If the vote is stopped, this will create confusion because the previous electoral law has been annulled. There will be an ‘electoral vacuum’ and it is likely that the leading parties will rush an even messier compromise through Parliament.
To maximise their gain in the new formula, individual candidates will need to perform at a local level while also networking at a national level. It will also bring every member of Parliament under greater scrutiny from the press and people. “The votes in the uninominal constituencies will establish a hierarchy inside the party and the capabilities of each candidate will matter from now on,” says Parvulescu.
Report by Ana Maria NitoiVotes too pricey to buy
Under the new system, it will be very expensive for a candidate to bribe all the voters for victory. In the local elections in June 2008 some candidates bribed a few hundred voters to swing the vote for a mayor. In Stefanesti, Ilfov County, one vote was worth 1,000 Euro. “All parties found at least one way to convince the citizens to vote for them, but in Stefanesti the votes were the most expensive compared to any other place in Romania, where usually a vote costs around 100 Euro,” says political analyst Cristian Parvulescu. Stefanesti is a real estate hotspot near Bucharest where the mayor can decide which developer deserves more to buy a piece of land in the state’s property. Under the new general election system a candidate needs between 10,000 and 20,000 votes to become a Deputy and over 30,000 to enter the Senate. Citizens wise to the Stefanesti precedent could put the price on their votes at 1,000 Euro each, thus forcing a price-tag for victory into the millions. This is beyond the means of many of the candidates, but not all.
Plan from the left
Of the three major parties, only the Social Democrats (PSD) have outlined who will occupy the top positions in a future Cabinet, if their party should win. Mircea Geoana, the PSD’s president and former minister of Foreign Affairs, wants to be Prime Minister. Young politician Victor Ponta will be nominated for the Justice seat, Ilie Sarbu will return to head up Agriculture after leaving the post in 2004 and the party’s vice-president Cristian Diaconescu, a law graduate and loser at the 2008 local elections for Bucharest Mayor, will become Minister of Foreign Affairs. However this would also include at least one controversial figure, Mayor of Constanta Radu Mazare, as Minister of the Environment. He continues to be on a prosecutors’ list for investigations into corruption.
The Social Democrats will run for parliamentary elections with the Conservative Party (PC). This will insure PSD’s visibility for its candidates on TV stations Antena 1, 2 and 3 and in daily newspaper Jurnalul National, which are all part of Intact Media Group, owned by the family of Dan Voiculescu, the founder of the Conservative Party. This ‘piggy-backing’ of the right-wing party on the left-wing group should allow the PC, a party with only two per cent in opinion polls, to enter in the Parliament. The two parties candidated together in 2000 and 2004, when the PC was known as the Humanist Party (PUR). But PUR seceded from the PSD to join the coalition Government in 2005.
The National Liberal Party has sealed a similar understanding with the Christian Democratic National Peasants’ Party (PNTCD). The PNTCD will run in 30 constituencies under the Liberal umbrella. This political agreement is meant to insure PNTCD’s entry in the Parliament and PNL’s chance of winning more seats in the Parliament. The Liberals are betting on PNTCD’s capacity to bring out candidates with notoriety, such as Shakespearean actor Ion Caramitru, who will run in Prahova county.
Race for faces
Romanian parties are now trying to find the candidates who will play best with the voters to ensure their entry in Parliament.
The National Liberal Party has convinced ex-advisor and former spokesperson to President Basescu, Adriana Saftoiu, to run in Prahova county. This is considered to be a major scalp for the National Liberals over the Liberal Democrats.
Many parties are looking for celebrities to help them carry the voters. The extreme right wing Greater Romania Party (PRM) will put forward buxom actress and singer Oana Zavoranu as a candidate. The Liberal-Democratic Party (PD-L) is candidating ex-journalist Catalin Avramescu and former presidential advisor and ex-diplomat Sever Voinescu in Prahova county.
On paper, the border system should favour all the parties against the PD-L. The Social Democratic Party and the governing National Liberal Party should benefit the most, but only if the voters behave in the same manner as in local elections.
Party leaders or wealthy party members are running in what the UK system would call ‘safe seats’, where voters are most partial to their parties. For example, the PNL decided that Prime Minister Calin Popescu Tariceanu, president of the Chamber of Deputies Bogdan Olteanu and Minister of Transport Ludovic Orban should run for Bucharest’s Sector 1. Here PNL Mayor Andrei Chiliman has just won another mandate and there is a large community of Liberal supporters. But this does not ensure victory. “All party members have to help each other to maximise the total number of votes,” says analyst Cristian Parvulescu. “The new formula creates group solidarity.”
Meanwhile PNL’s Minister of Economy Varujan Vosganian and Minister of Education Cristian Adomnitei will stand in Iasi County. Liberal Minister of Culture Adrian Iorgulescu will run for Sibiu, in an attempt to profit from the city’s status as European capital of culture last year. PNL’s Defence Minister Teodor Melescanu will run for Prahova county, while embattled Minister of Labour Paul Pacuraru will head to Galati.
The Liberals also convinced former TV star George Calinescu, country music artist Nicolae Furdui Iancu and composer Mihai Pocorschi to candidate in this autumn’s elections. But the National Liberals were refused by former athlete Gabriela Szabo and olympic champion in canoeing Ivan Patzaichin. In their turn, the Social Democrats received negative answers from Olympic gymnast Nadia Comaneci and former tennis player Ilie Nastase. However they are still waiting for a reply from Cosmonaut Dumitru Prunariu - the only Romanian ever in space.
Ministers of the governing Democratic Union of Hungarians in Romania (UDMR) will try their chances in Mures county where the Hungarian-speaking population is large. Minister of Development, Public Works and Housing Laszlo Borbely and UDMR president Marko Bela will run for Mures.
Some politicians will not run, including ex-President Ion Iliescu, ex-Mayor of Bucharest Adriean Videanu, and Social Democrat dissidents Ioan Rus and Vasile Dancu.
The PD-L have MEPs willing to give up their positions in Strasbourg to fight for the Romanian Parliament and have a strong showing of women candidates. Ex-contestant at the 1996 Miss Universe competition and now MEP Roberta Anastase will run in Prahova and MEP Monica Iacob-Ridzi in Hunedoara. From the PD-L, ex-Minister of European Integration Anca Boagiu, ex-Minister of Environment Sulfina Barbu and ex-presidential advisor Elena Udrea will run for the PD-L in Bucharest. As we went to press, ex-Minister of the Interior Vasile Blaga (PD-L), ex-Minister of Justice Monica Macovei and ex-Minister of Transport Radu Berceanu had not yet decided where to stand.
The PD-L has also announced that the final lists with candidates will be made official after each politician makes his or her own generous financial contribution to the party’s budget. After this the party makes the list of candidates officials and pays the expenses of its candidates’ electoral campaign.