Legislative elections were held in Romania on December 9, 2012. All seats in the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate, which hold over 500 seats together, were up for reelection. Prior to 2003, the two houses held identical powers, since a constitutional reform in 2003 both houses still have to approve a law but each house has designated fields of policy over which it has the final decision. The bicameral system and the large size of the country’s Parliament are often subjects of political debate in Romania. In 2009, voters approved a proposal to adopt a unicameral system and reduce the number of MPs to a maximum of 300, but there does not seem to have been movement on that front since then.
Romania’s electoral system for both houses is infinitely confusing and complex, though luckily enough nobody in the world seems to understand it either. The Chamber of Deputies has 315 single-member constituencies (called ‘electoral colleges’) to begin with, with each county having a variable number of seats. The Senate is elected with the same electoral system, there are just fewer seats, starting off at 137 seats – with each county also having a variable number of seats. The Chamber of Deputies has seats for ‘national minorities’ (except the larger Hungarian minority), which are constitutionally reserved for them, but minority parties, from my understanding, still need to clear some sort of special threshold. In 2008, 18 minority parties won seats – representing Germans, Romas, Macedonians, Armenians, Bulgarians, Albanians, Jews, Tatars, Czechs/Slovaks, Russians/Lipovians, Serbs, Poles, Italians, Ukrainians, Turks, Croatians and Ruthenians.
From my understanding, voters cast their votes in single-member constituencies for the lower house and the upper house, like in an FPTP system. In a constituency where a candidate wins over 50% of the vote, he or she is automatically elected to represent that constituency in Parliament. For example, in Teleorman County this year (which has 6 constituencies), in all 6 seats a candidate was elected because they had won over 50% of the vote. But the Romanian electoral system includes an element of proportional representation (with a 5% threshold, higher for alliances). In each county, the county’s seats are distributed proportionally to parties based on their share of the vote (rounding down). In the of Teleorman County, even if the county’s 6 seats were all won outright, two other parties qualified for a seat each. In this case, the candidates who did not win over 50% of the votes are ordered by the number of raw votes they polled (this discriminates in favour of candidates in constituencies with more voters, even if they received a smaller percentage of the vote than a fellow candidate in a constituency with less voters). If a party is entitled to 3 seats, then the 3 candidates polling the most votes for that party are elected. In constituencies where no candidate won over 50% of the vote, there can only be one representative from the constituency in Parliament, so the candidate who polled the most votes does not necessarily get to win the seat. This was the case, among many others, in Arad County’s 5th district – a candidate won 49.2% but because his party had already gotten 3 seats off the bat by taking over 50% in those, he did not win his district because it was given to another party’s candidate who won 33.9% and the most raw votes of his party’s constituency candidates (and the party was entitled to 2 seats, so he got one of them). In cases like Teleorman County, however, the requirement for proportional representation still holds even if one party has won all seats. In this case, the number of seats for said county is automatically increased, so a single-member constituency may end up having 2 MPs. This is followed by a national redistribution process which I won’t even pretend to understand.
Get it? No, I don’t either. In fact, most voters in Romania probably don’t understand the system, and even parties might have a hard time explaining the weird intricacies of this system. The government passed a law to change the voting system to FPTP (with a small bonus for national minorities), but it was rejected by the President and the courts invalidated the law.
Romanian politics have become increasingly depressing in recent years, and most Romanians have become extremely cynical with their country’s politics. This, in good part, explains the huge decrease in voter turnout since the fall of communism, from about 80% in the first elections to barely below 40% in the most recent legislative election (in 2008). Political parties in Romania have become perceived as corrupt, opportunistic and power-hungry empty shells, devoid of ideology, running solely on the desire to take the reins of power and patronage for themselves. This has become exceptionally true this year, as I explained this summer when Romanians were called to vote on the impeachment of the President, Traian Băsescu. As I posted back then:
Since January, Romania has been rocked by major political instability. The country’s politics have been bitter and sulfurous since at least 2009, and at the root of it all is Băsescu himself. The President quickly alienated most of his former political allies after being elected to the presidency on a centre-right, anti-corruption platform in 2004. Băsescu has a very hot temper and is well known for his erratic and off-the-cuff style, which sometimes degenerates into foul-mouthed tirades against his opponents. He has not lived up to expectations on the matter of corruption, and he has been criticized for his authoritarian penchants.
Băsescu survived a first attempt by the opposition to impeach him on fairly flimsy grounds in 2007, when three-quarters of the 44% who turned out voted against removing him from office (even if the referendum had been valid – it had a 50% turnout threshold - Băsescu would not have been removed from office). Relations between Băsescu’s centre-right Democratic Liberal Party (PDL) and the opposition – both the Social Democrats (PSD) and the National Liberals (PNL) worsened following Băsescu’s narrow reelection in 2009 with only 50.3% of the votes in a disputed runoff election.
Romania is a semi-presidential republic, with the President holding responsibility over foreign affairs as well as the power to appoint judges or to delay legislation. Between 2008 and 2012, his Prime Minister was Emil Boc, a member of the PDL. Boc governed in coalition with the PSD until 2009, when his first government was taken down by a no-confidence motion backed by the PSD, the PNL and the Hungarian minority party (UDMR). Following Băsescu’s reelection, he renominated Boc instead of nominating a candidate backed by the three parties which had voted the no-confidence motion. However, Boc managed to obtain Parliament’s confidence in December 2009, thanks to the support of the UDMR and dissidents from the PSD.
In office, Boc wrestled with the economic crisis. Romania fell into recession in 2009 and again in 2010, and since then the country’s economic recovery has been slow. While Romania remains the second poorest country in the EU, its economic situation – in a comparative perspective – is not all that bad. However, in 2009 Romania received a $27 billion bailout from the IMF, which came with strings attached. The Boc government implemented and became extremely unpopular for austerity measures, including budget cuts, wage cuts in the public sector and a sales tax hike. The government is committed to reducing the country’s budgetary deficit from 4.4% of the GDP in 2011 to 1.9% this year.
The austerity measures associated with the PDL and Băsescu were extremely unpopular. Voters in the EU’s second poorest country were tired of tax hikes, wage cuts and decling public services; all with the backdrop of politicians and political parties which are widely seen as lining their pockets. Maybe austerity would have been better received if voters did not feel that their representatives were stealing their money. Several PDL politicians, including Băsescu himself, are suspected of corruption; but the opposition hardly has a better reputation. The PNL’s ranks include a corrupt oil magnate/billionaire, while the ex-communist PSD is seen as the epitome of the old corrupt clique – a coalition of old communist party bosses and security employees.
There were major protests earlier this year, which ultimately forced Boc to resign on February 6. A few days later, he was replaced by a cabinet led by Mihai Răzvan Ungureanu, a former boss of the foreign intelligence services. However, on April 27, his government was voted down by a motion of no-confidence backed by the opposition. In February 2011, the three main opposition parties (the ex-communist centre-left PSD, the liberal PNL and the small right-wing Conservative Party) formed an electoral coalition, the Social Liberal Union (USL).
Initially, in February, after Boc resigned, the leader of the PSD (and USL), 39-year old Victor Ponta, refused to become Prime Minister. However, after the Ungureanu cabinet fell, Băsescu was compelled to name Ponta, his top political rival, as Prime Minister. Romania was thus thrown into a French-like situation of cohabitation between an opposing President and government. However, unlike in France, Romanian politics – especially with a President like Băsescu who is known to be a prick – are far less consensual.
Since taking office, Ponta and Băsescu have been embroiled in a bloody schoolyard fight. Things got extremely ugly at the end of June, after the courts – which Ponta claims are stacked with Băsescu’s allies – found Ponta’s political mentor and former PSD Prime Minister Adrian Năstase guilty in a corruption and fraud case. It was after this incident that the Parliament voted to impeach the President, accusing him of using the secret services against political enemies, refusing to appoint cabinet ministers, trying to influence prosecutors in criminal cases and engaging in illegal phone tapping. Băsescu has flatly denied these allegations, and regardless of their veracity, the case for his impeachment is constitutionally flimsy and is definitely politically motivated. In this schoolyard brawl, Ponta’s allies claims that Băsescu struck back by leaking a plagiarism scandal in which Victor Ponta is accused of plagiarizing his doctoral thesis. Ponta had the commission in charge of academic integrity dissolved and has said that he will not resign regardless of what happens in this case.
After a fight with the courts and Băsescu over who from Ponta and Băsescu should have represented the country at a European summit, Ponta made his most controversial moves. He threatened to fire constitution court judges (he claims that they are Băsescu loyalists), fired and replaced the ombudsman with a party loyalist, seized control of the official journal and replaced the heads of both chambers of Parliament. These measures, which opponents claim are clear moves to weaken the country’s independent institutions, sent a chill down the spine of the European Commission and most EU grandees. The EU has struggled in the past year with the issue of Hungary – which presents a similar case of a European elected government disrespecting the rule of law and liberal democratic values. In Budapest, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán made controversial changes to the Hungarian constitution which has limited media freedoms and judicial freedom.
The EC issued a stark warning to the Romanian government in early July, and Germany’s Angela Merkel minced no words in condemning Ponta’s actions. The EC has debated which sanctions, if any, should be adopted against Romania. A freeze in EU transfers was seriously considered, but the crisis has likely derailed or at least significantly delayed Romanian attempts to join the Schengen area. Unlike Orbán however, Ponta has not been defiant of European institutions and moved to soothe fears that he was staging something akin to a coup d’état. Ponta claimed that there had been misunderstandings, and reassured that he would withdraw his controversial laws if they were to cause any trouble for Romania in the EU.
In 2007, the previous referendum on Băsescu’s impeachment was deemed invalid because turnout was below the 50% threshold required to validate it. Ponta tried to remove this quorum and allow for the referendum to be valid even if less than 50% of voters turned out. After protests by the courts and the EU, he was forced to reinstate the turnout requirement. Băsescu, denouncing a constitutional coup d’état and a grave threat to democracy, called on his supporters to boycott the referendum (with the hope that less than 50% of voters would turn out and invalidate whatever the verdict was). However, Băsescu was far more popular in 2007 than he is today. Local elections held in June saw his party, the PDL, win only 15% of the vote against 49.7% for the USL.
In the end, however, Ponta and the USL lost their gamble. Even if those who turned out overwhelmingly approved the turnout fell short of the 50% threshold required for the referendum to be valid (it was 46.5%). Ponta argued that the court should validate the result anyway, but ultimately – as expected – the courts invalidated the results before turnout was below 50%. As I said back then, the referendum proved a no-win result which has only extended the schoolyard brawl between Ponta and Băsescu.
Romania has major economic problems. Most notably, the country took out a €20 billion loan with the IMF and the EU, in exchange for austerity measures which Ponta and the USL are now pledging to roll back somewhat. The government must reduce the deficit to the 3% threshold (which it still seems a good way off from doing) and privatize some failing state companies. However, even if economic issues explain why Băsescu and his party have become so deeply unpopular, they did not really play a central role in the campaign. Once again, the campaign was marked by the subsequent acts in the Ponta-USL/Băsescu conflict. Both sides in the dispute appear more interested in the personal vendetta than actually governing the country, or when they do govern the country it is to shore up their own personal (or business) interests. For example, even if Ponta learned his lessons and shied away (somewhat) from overly controversial measures, his government recently rammed through a media bill which makes changes to the national council which regulates the mass media (considered as right-leaning); the bill seems destined at shoring up the business interests of one of the USL’s most prominent backers: Dan Voiculescu (the founder of the small ‘Conservative Party’), a former Securitate (communist secret police) informer and a media mogul behind two major TV channels in the country.
The USL is a big tent coalition of parties (or what passes as political parties) who are united by their common dislike (if not hatred) of Băsescu. It includes Ponta’s Social Democratic Party (PSD), the descendants of the old communist party; the purportedly liberal National Liberal Party (PNL), led by the President of the Senate Crin Antonescu (who served as interim President during the impeachment procedure); the small Conservative Party (PC), founded by Dan Voiculescu and the new National Union for the Progress of Romania (UNPR). All of these parties are widely regarded as corrupt, the PSD has often been described by its opponents as a corrupt coalition of old communist bosses and Securitate officials, with authoritarian leanings. The USL unites parties which all oppose Băsescu, but it is noteworthy to say that both the PSD and PNL at various times governed with Băsescu’s PDL.
The USL’s campaign promised to roll back some of the austerity policies and lower taxes. Notably, it wants to replace the country’s 16% flat tax with a graduated progressive income tax, reducing the VAT back down to 19% (Emil Boc’s government increased it to 24%) and increase the minimum wage from €154.70 (700 lei) to €265.4 (1200 lei) over four years. Ponta also signaled his intention to revise the constitution, notably to change Article 103 which sets out the procedure for the nomination of the Prime Minister.
Ponta enjoys, at best, very frosty relations with the EU. His government claims to be pro-European, but the PNL’s leader Crin Antonescu made some controversial nationalistic statements during the campaign, alleging that Băsescu’s right-wing allies in Europe (notably Merkel) were discussing plans to ‘federalize’ Romania and stating that Romania’s leaders would not be the ‘servants’ of EU institutions. The EU remains popular in Romania, but significantly less popular than it once was. The close alliance and association between prominent centre-right EU leaders (Angela Merkel), and the unpopular President and his austerity policies have hurt the EU’s image in the country.
Băsescu’s party, the PDL, attempted to rebrand itself. The party formed a coalition, known as the ‘Right Romania Alliance’ (ARD - Alianța România Dreaptă; from my understanding of Romanian the ‘dreaptă‘ probably refers to the concepts of righteousness, truth, fairness, straight like the word droit in France). The ARD was basically an attempt to rebrand the toxic PDL by creating a few sidekick parties (such as ‘Civic Force’, led by former Prime Minister Mihai Răzvan Ungureanu) for the purposes thereof.
The ARD, just like the USL, virulently attacked its opponents. Since Ponta came to power and started taking measures aimed at reducing the power of democratic institutions (such as the Constitutional Courts) which he didn’t like, Băsescu and his allies have claimed to be the defenders of Romanian democracy against a corrupt and authoritarian government (somewhat hypocritically, it’s not like the PDL doesn’t have any authoritarian or centralizing tendencies of its own when it is in power). The ARD’s platform included reducing the flat tax from 16% to 12%, increasing the minimum wage to 850 lei and a new law on healthcare. Earlier this year, when the PDL was still in power, the controversy sparked by a new healthcare law which opponents claimed was opening the way to privatizing healthcare led to major protests and badly hurt the PDL’s popularity.
During the campaign, Băsescu indicated that he would not appoint Ponta as PM again. He said that he wanted a ‘pro-European’ Prime Minister without ‘shady spots’ on his CV. Ponta, on the other hand, said that he was confident that Băsescu would appoint him again.
There was a new party on the scene, the People’s Party – Dan Diaconescu (PP-DD), which, as its name indicates, is led by Dan Diaconescu, a wealthy media magnate who owns one TV station and hosts a popular TV show. Backed by his personal wealth, Diaconescu’s party ran a populist campaign which included promises such as giving €20,000 to Romanians who start a business, raising all salaries and pensions and cutting salaries for MPs and top officials.
Turnout was 41.76%, slightly higher than in 2008 (around 39%) though of course still very low turnout, which reflects both the collapse of Băsescu’s party (many of his former voters not turning out this year) and the continued cynicism of most voters towards Romanian party politics.
The results were:
Chamber of Deputies
USL 58.61% (+6.95%) winning 273 seats (+94)
ARD 16.52% (-15.84%) winning 56 seats (-59)
PP-DD 13.98% (+13.98%) winning 47 seats (+47)
UDMR 5.15% (-1.02%) winning 18 seats (-4)
Minorities 2.6% (-0.85%) winning 18 seats (nc)
PRM 1.24% (-1.91%) winning 0 seats (nc)
PER 0.78% (+0.52%) winning 0 seats (nc)
PPMT 0.64% (+0.64%) winning 0 seats (nc)
Others 0.32% (-2.48%) winning 0 seats (nc)
USL 60.07% (+7.17%) winning 122 seats (+45)
ARD 16.72% (-16.85%) winning 24 seats (-27)
PP-DD 14.63% (+14.63%) winning 21 seats (+21)
UDMR 5.25% (-1.14%) winning 9 seats (nc)
PRM 1.47% (-2.1%) winning 0 seats (nc)
PER 0.78% (+0.09%) winning 0 seats (nc)
PPMT 0.79% (+0.79%) winning 0 seats (nc)
Others 0.2% (-2.63%) winning 0 seats (nc)
The results of this election could probably have been predicted months ago. Victor Ponta’s USL won a huge victory, a massive landslide which has given the coalition a two-thirds majority in both houses, which can allow them to amend the constitution (which they apparently wish to do). It is somewhat doubtful that a huge majority of the 42% of Romanians who bothered to vote voted for the USL because of its own policy proposals. Instead, the USL’s victory, which was one of the most predictable political events of the year, is the product of the President’s unpopularity and how his unpopularity (and that of the Boc governments until this year) have destroyed the PDL. The very tough austerity measures which Băsescu and Emil Boc implemented were unpopular, as was the PDL’s attempt at healthcare reform earlier this year.
The PDL’s last-ditch attempt at rebranding itself as the ‘ARD’ and creating various spinoff parties in the process went horribly wrong. Some voters did not recognize the name ‘ARD’, and the ARD led a very lackluster campaign which did not help matters. The result is that the PDL lost over half of its support from the 2008 election, apparently losing the most support with lower-income and middle-aged voters who flocked either to the USL or to Diaconescu’s new populist party. As mentioned above, other PDL voters did not vote at all.
The USL’s landslide and the quirks of Romania’s electoral system has increased the size of Parliament to a record-high 588 members. Because so many USL candidates in the Senate and in the Chamber won their constituencies outright with over 50% of the vote, the size of both houses increased pretty significantly. The Chamber has 412 seats and the Senate has 176 seats now. Romanians have tons of representatives, but not a lot of Romanians seem to care about their representatives. Deep cynicism has taken root in Romanian society, and citizens have given up on politics and focused on issues closer to them. Politicians are seen as corrupt power-hungry oligarchs squabbling amongst themselves for a share of the pie. Ponta and Băsescu’s behaviour in the last few months seem to have confirmed this view.
Where does this leave Băsescu and what does this result mean for Romania? After a huge defeat, Băsescu’s position is weaker than ever. His second term draws to a close only in December 2014, but many question whether Băsescu will be able to survive until then. He is extremely strong-will and vindictive, which makes it doubtful that he would resign before then. However, Ponta and the USL have often implied that a third impeachment procedure against him is not off the table. If Băsescu did fail to appoint Ponta as Prime Minister (which would probably be unconstitutional, as the President must appoint a PM candidate ‘as a result of his consultation with the party which has obtained absolute majority in Parliament’), the USL would probably waste no time in impeaching him again. One of the USL’s objectives is amending Article 103 of the constitution, which deals with the designation and confirmation of the PM by Parliament.
Many draw parallels between Victor Ponta’s government in Romania and Viktor Orbán in Hungary, whose government (with a similarly huge majority) managed a constitutional power-grab and has curbed the powers of independent institutions. However, the two cases are different and Ponta does not seem to be an authoritarian strongman a la Orbán. To begin with, the USL is a heterogeneous and disparate negative coalition built on common enmity towards Băsescu. On election night, Ponta indicated that he would like to form a coalition with the UDMR, a decision which had apparently not been discussed with or approved by the PNL’s leaders in the coalition. Crin Antonescu and other PNL leaders vocally criticized the decision to bring the UDMR into government (governing with an ethnic minority party is also another thing which the very nationalistic Orbán would never do). The governing coalition does not seem to be on the same page, which is hardly surprising given that little seems to unite the PSD and PNL besides a temporary agreement on dumping Băsescu and putting their hands on the state apparatus. Many are concerned that the USL will use its two-thirds majority to stage a constitutional power-grab like Orbán did in Budapest, but given that cracks between the PSD and PNL are already visible in the USL, will it really succeed in doing so?
The government’s cohesion will be tested by the tough economic and fiscal decisions which lie ahead of it. Some seem to think that Romania will need to seek another bailout from the IMF/EU, and it has to fulfill its obligations to these institutions on its current loans. The USL’s platform promised to tone down the austerity and cut taxes, but it would hardly be surprising if it did neither of those things.
Finally, Ponta does not seem to be of the same caliber as Orbán. At home, he does not seem to be perceived as an authoritarian strongman and he does not have the reputation of being a particularly strong leader. At the head of a disparate and diverse coalition, it is therefore doubtful – for now – that he will be able to go as far as Orbán has gone.