Romania will opt for a new voting system that will see people vote for their local candidates: but do the parties really want change? Asks Ana-Maria Nitoi
Romania's electoral system needs a change.
Factionalism, minority rule, short-term alliances and a lack of local representation in Bucharest are arguably harming the business of Government at the expense of the people.
Now the main political parties and the President have agreed on the principle of a mixed formula between the existing proportional systems of voting and a new ‘uninominal’ form of representation. This latter form is where voters elect an individual or party member in a distinctive constituency. This combination is similar to the German system and aims to balance regional representation with national consent.
But the law on electoral change is set for months of political debate before a final version is available.
Some members of Parliament, including the President, hope the new system will be ready for the European elections in the Autumn and the General and Local elections in 2008.
Others hope the law gets stuck in red tape for as long as possible.
The National Liberal Party (PNL) has pioneered the change since 2005 and President Traian Basescu has asked the parties to reach a consensus and pass the law by the end of last month, otherwise he will launch a referendum on the issue.
The main political parties, the PNL, the Democrats (PD) and the Social Democrats (PSD), have agreed to start negotiations on the draft law, moderated by NGO Pro Democratia Associatia (APD), which has drawn up the new proposal.
The President wants the 2008 general elections to be based on the new electoral system.
A mixed vote is the most popular in Europe, but the proposed formula is close to the current German and the Italian system between 1993 and 2005, Cristian Parvulescu, the president of APD, tells The Diplomat.
Romanians want the new system. This June around 75 per cent of the participants to the opinion poll conducted by the Bureau for Social Research (BCS) and 68 per cent in a Data Media poll said they would prefer the mixed vote.
Under the current election system, citizens vote for a party and the percentage of votes dictates the number of members of Parliament. These representatives, who are partly known before the elections, are then ‘given’ a constituency to represent.
According to the new formula, half of the members of Parliament will be elected in uninominal colleges, or constituencies, and the other half will be distributed to the political parties according to the percentages obtained on county and national levels by party candidates. But the seats distributed to the political parties will favour the larger parties who did not gain seats under the uninominal system. Thus it will be a chance for second and third place parties to gain representation.
With the new electoral system, individuals will vote once, for the name of their favourite Deputy and Senator standing in a district. This differs from Germany, where a citizen votes for a party and also an individual.
The parties and the electoral and political alliances will fight for 290 seats in the Chamber of Deputies (Lower House) and for 124 seats in the Senate (Upper House).
This system will slash one fifth of the number of MPs. Also, the 18 national minorities, except the Hungarians, will continue to benefit from one seat in the Chamber of Deputies.
“The mixed formula will stop Romania from having artificial majorities, of which it is at risk at present,” says Parvulescu. “It succeeds in cutting down the number of political factions and also gives parties the chance to create a bond with the citizens through the uninominal colleges, or constituencies. Politicians will be more accountable to the people who elected them.”
The President of APD makes a parallel with the Italian electoral system between 1993 and 2005 where three-quarters of the representatives were elected through the uninominal vote. This system, Parvulescu argued, simplified the party system and led to longer and steadier Governments in Italy, which notoriously used to change its post-war prime ministers on an almost annual basis.
Compared to the old system, Romania’s new proposal for an electoral system favours large parties and disadvantages small parties. But it is not extreme as the 100 per cent uninominal system of Great Britain, where a party with only 35 per cent of the vote can have a clear majority on power, due to tactical voting in marginal constituencies.
The results of the last general elections, in Romania, in 2004, were similar to the ones in Great Britain in 2005.
The PNL-PD Alliance and the partnership between the Social Democratic Party (PSD) and PUR (the current Conservative Party) won, in 2004, 67 per cent of total votes, a similar quantity to the winning Labour and the losing Tories in the UK in 2005, at a 70 per cent share.
“The British and Romanian systems are very similar because in both countries there is a political bi-polarisation,” says Parvulescu.
But while in the UK this gave the Labour party a clear majority of 356 of 646 seats, the two main parties in Romania were far from a majority and needed coalition partners. This allowed for much political skullduggery and a series of partnserhips which have proven ineffective in maintaining a parliamentary majority.
In Romania MPs lack loyalty and move between parties depending on where the powerbase is forming. This flaw can be changed with uninominal scrutiny, argues Parvulescu. This is because the members of Parliament are elected directly by a small group of people living in the same place, on issues and party lines. If their representatives then fail to hold to their beliefs and promises, the people can kick them out at the next election.
With this mixed system, it is likely that Romania will only face coalition governments. The German electoral system makes it difficult for any party to form a government on its own. This has only happened once from 1957 until 1961.
But German MEP Markus Ferber says that there is one big disadvantage in the German electoral system. “When you calculate proportional representation you can get to the situation where you have more candidates elected than seats allocated in the Parliament for each party,” he says.
In Germany the parties also issue coalition statements before embarking on the election campaign. This means voters usually know which coalition partner the party they voted for is considering governing with, such as the Social Democrats with the Greens.
By voting for a party citizens express a preference for a specific party alliance and determine the balance of power. “Having a coalition to form the government is a sign of pure democracy,” argues Olaf Malchow, first secretary at the German Embassy in Bucharest.
But this electoral system, like all, is not perfect. “Different electoral systems pursue different secondary goals which one has to be aware of,” says German MEP Helmut Kuhne. “The German system tries to avoid the disadvantages of both majority and proportional systems as much as possible, but it cannot do so fully, though I believe it is the fairest system available.”
Another flaw Kuhne cites is the fact that constituencies in Germany are larger than in the UK. This means potential contact with and accountability to the electorate is arguably lower.
For those elected by direct mandate in constituencies this is, in the UK there is one MP for, on average, 93,000 people, in Germany this is one per 274,000 and under the new Romanian system this will be one deputy for 145,000 people and one senator per 339,000 people.
The size of Romania’s constituencies still waits to be finalised, but it will probably be based on the current territorial systems in local elections.
How and who creates these borderlines will also be an issue of much political debate, as it could determine the outcome of the elections. German MEP Ingo Friedrich argues that it is not possible to affect the result of the election for the Bundestag by a change of the territorial limits of the constituencies.
But in Romania it could be exactly the opposite – although the final details are not clear.
In Germany there are around five important parties, while Italy has tens of small parties that form larger coalitions. The system based on uninominal scrutiny worked in Italy between 1993 and 2005, when the law changed to the pre-1993 proportional system. There is now a block list where the people choose a party and then the winning parties allocate representatives to the constituencies. But people cannot control who represents them in Parliament.
Civil society in Italy highly criticised the return. “A large number of citizens want to choose their own representatives,” says Gaia La Cognata, first secretary at the Italian Embassy in Bucharest.
The current Italian model is considered to be less stable than the previous system because many parties mean a lot of negotiations which leads to much deal-making and therefore political intrigue.
However there is a flaw in the newly proposed system which means the candidate citizens vote for may not enter Parliament. Under the German system, an independent candidate can win if he or she is elected in the uninominal college. But an independent will only win in the new Romanian system if he or she takes 50 per cent plus one vote – a very rare occasion. If the candidate fails to win the 50 plus one, but has the most votes, the second candidate is elected. “Independent candidates have no chance to win,” says Olaf Malchow. “Why should an independent candidate need more votes to win than a candidate who is a member of a political party?”
Not even the Liberals are over-enthusiastic about passing the uninominal vote this summer. They do not want the elections for the European Parliament, due this Autumn, to follow the new electoral system. Liberal Bogdan Olteanu, the Speaker of Chamber of Deputies, has said that the law can pass no sooner than September.
In fact, except for the Democrats, who have around 43 to 45 per cent in the opinion polls, all the main parties are scared of elections under any system, because they have dropped in popularity to the benefit of the Democrats (PD) and the New Generation Party (PNG). However President Basescu could threaten to launch a referendum on the draft law – and Basescu doesn’t lose elections.
Compromise suits nobody
The system will favour parties who respond to the needs of local groups, such as miners in a specific area who need job security and could see the leftist PSD as their potential saviour, while the urbane young who favour employment flexibility and a freer market may prefer the right-leaning PD or PNL.
But sources from the three political parties say that no one really wants this draft law to pass. This is especially true of the PSD, who are not sure if the mixed vote favours them.
According to Vasile Dancu, vice-president of the party, the PSD will not be disadvantaged by the uninominal system, because the party has a strong local structure, with many mayors, counsellors and local political personalities.
But this is not always a blessing.
“There are some PSD members who don't have exactly the best image possible,” he says.
The mixed vote will also create a new style of election brokering.
“Step by step, this system will bring the usage of tactics when voting,” says Parvulescu. “I expect people to choose new parties than to go ahead with the parties who are reaching the twilight of their life. I think that the top three parties will benefit from this system and probably parties such as the Democratic Union of Hungarians (UDMR).”
But the UDMR leaders will probably vote against the new system in its current form. The party's leadership, the oldest in Romania, may be worried it cannot control MPs who were elected in the uninominal colleges. The new system would probably favour a Hungarian opposition, Parvulescu believes.
That opposition agrees with him.
Jeno Szasz, the President of the Hungarian Civil Union (UCM), the biggest rival of UDMR, says it needs just a few more signatures to become a party. “We hope this will happen by the middle of July,” he says. “Our goal as a party is to ensure the political diversity for the Hungarians in Romania and to compete with UDMR. We will stand in the local elections and depending on the result we will decide on whether we will stand in the general elections.”
During the electoral process, he says, the UCM will have to negotiate with all the democratic parties, and firstly the UDMR in order to secure the five per cent threshold to enter Parliament. UCM favours the mixed vote put forward in Parliament.
The system will disadvantage parties with no regional powerbase or active members campaigning locally.
Sources within the three leading parties say this bill aims to reduce the chances extreme rightwing parties, such as the Greater Romania Party (PRM) and the New Generation Party (PNG), have to enter the Parliament.
Parvulescu says it is “debatable” whether the new law prejudices against PRM. “If the party has good candidates, it won't be disadvantaged,” he says.
The PRM depends on its charismatic leader, Cornel Vadim Tudor, who is popular among pensioners, some people with low education and ex-members of the Securitate.
MPs include folklore singers Irina Loghin and Ion Dolanescu and members such as TV personality Oana Zavoranu, who stars in soap operas and recently launched into a career in pop.
“The uninominal vote is a lie,” says Lucian Bolcas, vicepresident of the PRM. “The responsibilities that politicians have towards the party they are a member of are drastically reduced. The system works in other countries because they have tens or hundreds of years of democracy.”
Critics of the uninominal vote have argued that voters will put a tick next to a footballer’s name or a TV star, attracted by the frisson of fame that comes with being represented in Parliament by a personality.
Parvulescu is less cynical.
“I am not afraid that we will have more singers or actors in the Romanian Parliament than we have already,” he says. “I am convinced that the citizens will vote accordingly to the candidates' capabilities and not their artistic talents.”
But he also argues that the vote will not be a walkover for a rich business magnate to buy his way into politics by bribing the electorate with gifts. “For a wealthy candidate it is more risky to stand in a political confrontation because he may be sanctioned if his wealth is not earned transparently,” Parvulescu says.
Meanwhile PNG is a one-man party because it circles around the millionaire Gigi Becali, the financier of Steaua Football Club. The party has no representation at local Government level or other members that are known by the electorate.
However a system based on the uninominal scrutiny could penalise the chances of young candidates and women being elected. Now around ten per cent of the MPs are women, voted by a party list system. But this compares to only four per cent of all the 3,243 city halls in the country which are headed by women, according to the National Agency for Equality of Chances.
“Women are a minority in Romanian politics and this system does not favour them,” says Parvulescu. “Parties aren't quite open towards women. And, of course, there is also the people's mentality.”
Idiot's guide to the new proposal for elections
- Parties and alliances will fight for 290 seats in the Chamber of Deputies (Lower House) and for 124 seats in the Senate (Upper House). This is around 20 per cent drop in members for both houses.
- Half the seats in the lower house and half in the upper house will be elected based on a uninominal voting and the other two respective halves through proportional representation.
- Under the newly proposed system, if a party wants to enter the Parliament, it must win eight seats in uninominal colleges, or constituencies, in the lower house, four seats in the upper house or obtain more than five per cent of the vote at national level. The National Liberal Party (PNL) proposed reducing this threshold to two per cent – but the other parties rejected this initiative.
- In the lower house, political or electoral alliances between parties need to win ten seats in uninominal colleges or at least five per cent of the total votes. The first has to win more than five per cent and every subsequent member of such an alliance has to win more than two per cent.
- In the upper house, for an alliance to take its seats it must win six seats through the uninominal colleges. The first party has to poll at least five per cent of the total votes, plus two per cent for each member of the alliance, starting with the second.