Can Europe Make It?

Romania: how not to do an election

The 2014 presidential elections were a pyrrhic victory for western values in post-Communist Romania.

Matei Rosca
17 March 2015
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Romanians outside the cultural centre in London, after being told they couldn't vote. Photo supplied by author.On 2 November 2014, election day, we woke up in Stepney, the East End of London, fed the cat, ate breakfast and turned on the Romanian news to see how the election was going. The two hours time difference (it's earlier in the UK) meant the vote was well under way. I had planned this day for weeks and it was finally here: we’d go out and vote for our president today, at the Romanian Cultural institute in 1 Belgrave Square, London, the poshest of posh addresses. Anastasia and I were proud of being in a fine place in the world with our homeland not too far away. We had just returned from Romania a couple of weeks before on a three hour flight. Even Bobby, the tomcat we adopted from Bengali neighbours down the road was proud to be living with Romanians. I wore a smart green shirt and she put on makeup and a nice evening coat.

It was pouring by 1pm but we didn’t care. We still carried the morning’s sunshine inside ourselves. On the way I called two friends to make sure they went out to vote too. Both said they were on their way to Brent Civic Centre, a polling station the Romanian Government set up next to the instantly recognisable Wembley Stadium. In Belgrave Square, at a little after two 2 pm, there must have been 1,000 people queuing. We traced the queue from the door of the Romanian Cultural Institute (ICR) along the street and then around the corner up to the adjoining street and the other corner of Wilton Crescent and Wilton Terrace, where it stopped. We stood at the end of the queue, excited to see a mostly young crop of Romanians. “I had no idea there were so many of us turning up,” I said. “I’m feeling rather proud of this crowd,” I added. “Yes, and everyone’s looking good. But we’ll be here for a while,” she said. She was right. We stood for eight hours. The polls closed at nine.

The atmosphere turned gloomy as night set in and we realised we'd never make it. Reading the Romanian news on our phones conjured up the worst tales of bogus communist elections: Ponta was saying on television that the crowd we were in had been brought with coaches by 'agitators' and we never even intended to vote. A light in my girlfriend's eyes went dim that fateful night when the curtain to the polling station window was pulled across our disbelieving faces as we stood quietly on the pavement by the windows.

As reports emerged of tear-gassed would-be voters in Paris and Turin, the noise from the Belgrave Square crowd grew louder. The place no longer resembled an elegant residential neighbourhood. There were about 600 of us outside and the doors to the station had been firmly shut, the personnel locking themselves inside fearing lynching. Police vans started arriving and a cordon of officers stood by the door to the building acting as a buffer for the scared staff inside. The ambassador, Ion Jinga, came out and said a few soothing words. The police too were sensitive towards our pathetic ordeal. “It's really silly and unfair what's happening. I'm sorry,” one cop told me as a Metropolitan Police helicopter was hovering above.  Eventually the crowd went home. Then we, too, left.          

*****

We went again to Belgrave Square on November 16 armed with supplies – sandwiches, water, beer and warm clothes, and morally and physically prepared to spend all day in the rain. Some faith had rebuilt over the last two weeks. Everyone in Romania had been talking about the disenfranchisement abroad; it had become the central issue of the election.

The events in the first round had generated so much publicity that thousands instead of hundreds turned up to vote this time, and the queue went around the four streets surrounding the Romanian Cultural Institute, stretching for half a mile. It occupied the whole width of the pavement with about 3,000 people at any given moment. There was a constant flow of people and cars from all directions, and national television stations even flew crews overhead, perching up there with their cameras, filming the queue. Everyone texted, posted, tagged, shared, liked and commented till Youtube and Facebook were rife. We laughed off the bad signs with a logic of inverse exceptionalism: “It's Romania, whaddaya expect?” many were saying. But they still held on, queuing. Hoping.

4,626 voted at a reported pace of 1.2 ballots a minute, nearly triple the previous 1,598 at this station. Anastasia and I weren't among them, along with about 2,000 other luckless Romanians at Belgrave Square. Twice tried, twice blocked. Some 500 had been there since the polls opened at 7am GMT. Camaraderie and humour dominated the day, but things soured again at nightfall when it became clear it wouldn't be possible for all of us to vote. Police came and formed a cordon around the embassy to ward off troublemakers. Chants against the Government, against Ponta, menace and deja-vu pervaded the final hours up to closing time.

And for a few minutes after. If you didn't know that everyone had their smartphone and was watching the news on a small screen, one by one, but all at once, you'd have easily thought that the mood swing that happened next was pure collective insanity. The only comparable situation that comes to mind is a football stadium filled with diehard fans watching while their striker slips one into the rivals' goal without stopping the game. It was quite a spectacle to see my countrymen switch to cheering ecstatically for the winner of the election they had just been kept out of. Anastasia and I had queued for sixteen hours or just about.

A film by a young Romanian filmmaker, titled 'the Diaspora's Victory' and shared on Facebook by Iohannis himself goes some way to capture the overall atmosphere on November 16: anger against disenfranchisement swiftly replaced by jubilation that Ponta lost. At Wembley there were a reported 5,000 disenfranchised on the evening of November 16, as confirmed that night by the Radio France International correspondent. They were also cheering for Iohannis right after their vote was blocked.

Iohannis came out with a ten-point lead, at about 47 percent in the final count. For his part, Ponta all but handed Iohannis the seat by treating the public with contempt and arrogance, openly promoting corruption and completely botching the vote abroad, humiliating a demographic which has been crucial in determining past elections. Despite having hired the consultancy services of Podesta, a high-end Washington lobbying corporation, and of Mitch Stewart, one of Obama's former campaign managers, Ponta was hopeless. He even took lines right out of House of Cards, asking Iohannis to apologise to his wife on live television, just like Frank Underwood does in season one, episode six. If you think this unlikely – it happened again. Ponta's spokesman, Mrs Gabriela Vranceanu Firea, a former television hack, condemned Iohannis for being childless, saying this made him essentially unfit for public office – the same suggestion made to Claire Underwood in the interview she gives in season two, episode four!

Whether these dumb moves were pranks or gross oversights from the two US advisors, we'll never know. I've emailed both for comment but answer came there none. What's clear is that Ponta is no Underwood: he had on his side the single most powerful political organisation Romania has ever known (save for the Communist Party and the Ottoman Empire), he had the biggest campaign budget, of more than 4.5 million Euros – double Iohannis' ACL (The Christian-Liberal Alliance) budget of 1.6 million Euros, according to data published by the Electoral Authority, and he had all of the oligarch-beholden television and newspaper organisations supporting him, such as the Intact Group of jailbird Dan Voiculescu, known for his connections to the former Securitate. Victor Ponta still achieved the unthinkable, losing to a greenhorn in state politics.

The international press has been fawning and swooning around Iohannis ever since he won. For the first time, social media communication overtook conventional campaign machines and televised propaganda, making the winner the most digitally liked political leader in Europe, with 1.3m Facebook fans as opposed to David Cameron's 400K and Angela Merkel's 900K. Iohannis is the most popular European head of state on Facebook – but not the most popular politician, a fact many reporters omitted. The distinction is notable firstly for the sake of accuracy and secondly because another atypical politician, who also rose fast with the help of social media is more popular: Beppe Grillo, the Italian ex-comedian who made global headlines in 2013 when he gained 25 percent of the Italian Parliament with his audacious vaffanculo/ Five Star Movement. He has 1.7 million Facebook likes and is an anti-establishment proponent of digitally-enabled direct democracy.

*****

Thousands of Romanians living abroad were disenfranchised in the presidential elections in which the prime minister and candidate Victor Ponta first came in on a ten percent lead from the runner-up, Klaus Iohannis, who won by about the same margin after two rounds, meaning Ponta lost over twenty percent of the voting population in two weeks. Here's what happened.

Cries of conspiracy to disenfranchise went up in London, Paris, Brussels, Munich, Stuttgart, Dublin and other cities, when members of Romania’s burgeoning expat class realised that despite hours of waiting they would not have the chance to exercise their democratic right. For these people, the prime minister's promises that ‘the minister of external affairs guarantees with his job that no Romanian will be refused the vote in the runoff election’ proved as hollow as everything else he says. Two ministers quit indeed, but it was too late to salvage the tainted election.     

It's 25 years since December 1989 in which we won was the right to vote, but it seems leaving the country has meant forfeiture of this privilege. The United Kingdom, for example, only grants immigrants the right to vote in a general election after five consecutive years of living in the country. Most Romanians who were refused their right to vote this past November hadn't achieved that status yet, rendering themselves essentially stateless as democracy goes – a no land’s man swinging between Romania and the UK but having no say on who their rulers are in either country.

Of course, the expats had a massive trump card which eventually turned the polls on their heads: Facebook. Angry rants by the disenfranchised in foreign countries created an instant grass-roots movement which has already catalysed the PDS-weary city dwellers back in Romania. The outpouring of posts calling for protest back home spurred a movement almost overnight. Tens of thousands marched in Cluj, Timisoara and Bucharest against Ponta's government after the first poll on November 2.

It all happened so fast that the European Union didn't react at all, though it's understandable how Brussels wouldn't be in a rush to admit on the record that one of its newest members and a contender for the common currency is quite unable to organise a decent bout of elections every five years or so.

Meanwhile, it's worth putting it on the record that two days into his presidency, the first official act of our German ethnic minority golden boy president may well have been his first sizeable gaffe. If the local Centre for Combating Antisemitism is anything to go by, Iohannis seems to have alienated the country's Jewish community by awarding an important decoration (The Star of Romania, grade of Knight, which comes with a money stipend) to a fascist and neo-Nazi sympathizer, Octav Bjoza, who was one among many political prisoners under communism. A statement by the Centre for Combating Antisemitism makes clear that while condemning communism is every politician's duty, the Jewish take a dim view of pinning a national honour on someone who shamelessly associates with the extreme-right Legionary Movement and advocates their principles.

Which brings us to the true underdog of this election: Monica Macovei, a former minister of justice, who ex-president Basescu supported for a while but backstabbed at the last minute by throwing his political weight behind the hapless Elena Udrea, leaving Macovei in the cold. Macovei ran anyway as an independent, on a radical platform of lustration and vicious fighting against graft and corruption. She had virtually no budget or campaign organisation and still fared honourably, riding on her reputation of integrity. She was the big loser of the diaspora debacle, as many of her grassroots supporters live abroad. I'm not alone in going to the first round especially to vote for her. She got 4.4 percent of votes in the overall, but 15 percent of the votes registered abroad went to her, official tallies show. An impressive feat for a candidate who's by her lonesome whichever way you measure it. Iohannis was always the fallback for many young people, the realpolitik choice after Macovei inevitably fell under the axe. She would be the only imaginable prime minister with any credibility and knowledge to bring about meaningful change.    

The tragedy of the matter is that the game was rigged from the beginning: we managed to keep Ponta off the President's chair only to have him stay on as Prime Minister, a role of much bigger administrative power. With no law making him quit public office before running for President only a fool would have given up voluntarily on the supreme privilege of being able to use a national budget for political campaigning, which Ponta did generously. And as we can see from his ever-smirking face still governing Romania right now, Ponta's many sins unfortunately don't count foolishness among them.

Such as it is, this is the early twenty-first century no land’s man moral dilemma.

This is an abridged version of an article that originally appeared at www.mateirosca.com. See the full version here.

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