A Disenfranchised Diaspora and a Lesson in Democracy
Nearly a quarter of a century ago, Romanians were out on the streets protesting against the Ceaușescu regime. Over a thousand died during one week in December.
Last month, Romanians took to the streets again to protest against their political leaders. This time the target was Partidul Social Democrat (the PSD) and its leader, Prime Minister Victor Ponta.
Ponta was involved in a presidential election run-off against Klaus Iohannis, the ethnic German leader of Partidul Național Liberal (the PNL), and former mayor of the Transylvanian city of Sibiu. After the first round, the two men led a field of 14, including extremists and individuals subject to criminal proceedings.
Clearly, much had changed since the revolution of 1989. Then, protestors took their lives in their hands: to congregate and call for change was to risk being shot, stabbed, beaten or mown down by a tank. This time citizens could protest safely: some marched and chanted with their children.
Then, Romania was a closed country, with foreign books and media controlled, “subversive” art, literature and periodicals banned and travel restrictions imposed. Today Romanian citizens can travel freely throughout Europe and beyond, watch BBC, CNN and MTV, and, of course, access social media: protests were promoted heavily on Facebook and Twitter.
But much was worryingly similar. Again, citizens were speaking out against a regime perceived as corrupt, with a figurehead seen as sympathetic to Russia and China rather than to the West, which many – particularly the young – consider the best hope for their country.
And again, the right to vote was at stake.
Some background. Five years ago, on the night of the last presidential election, PSD candidate Mircea Geoana was celebrating, exit polls having given him a lead of 51.5% to 48.5% over incumbent Traian Băsescu, of Partidul Democrat-Liberal (the PDL). However, the champagne soon turned flat: Geoana indeed won inside the country, but once the votes of Romania’s large diaspora had been counted, Băsescu snatched a 50.33% victory.
The party that grew out of the remains of the old Communist regime, the PSD is tainted in the eyes of many – particularly the young and educated. Its support is drawn disproportionately from older, rural, less educated citizens, whose primary concern is their pensions. This was reflected in the PSD’s simple sloganeering (“Only Ponta protects pensions”, “Only Ponta cuts taxes”).
Iohannis’s adverts – “România lucrului bine făcut” (a Romania of things done properly) – appealed to more high-minded ideals. The diaspora is made up largely of younger, more informed and educated Romanians – exactly the profile that votes overwhelmingly against the PSD.
On the morning of November 2 – the first round – comments, photos and videos began appearing on social media revealing long queues at polling stations across Western Europe – in London, Munich, Madrid, Paris and Rome, among other cities. Would-be voters reported waiting seven, eight, nine hours to cast a ballot, with many turned away when the polls closed.
The process was slowed further by a rule that a handwritten statement be done in view of voting officials, rather than prior to entering the polling station, which would have saved time. Queuing citizens chanted: “Vrem să votăm!” (We want to vote), “Jos comunismul!” (Down with communism) and “Jos Ponta!” (Down with Ponta). Tensions boiled over and in some cases local law enforcement was called in.
Indignation about the treatment of their compatriots drove those back in Romania onto the street – a protest was held that night outside the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, responsible for organising the ballot abroad. The pressure mounted until minister Titus Corlățean finally stepped down.
This was one of the first signs of a significant shift: whatever scandals engulf Romanian politicians, it is rare for a disgraced official to and resign. Beleaguered miscreants typically cling to power, doing the convenient thing rather than the “decent thing”.
At this stage, it was still theoretically possible that the debacle abroad was due to incompetence, rather than a deliberate attempt to disenfranchise the diaspora. Excuses were floated: accurate estimations of the numbers of Romanians living abroad were difficult to make (they are thought to total about 3.5 million) and polling stations had been overwhelmed.
But any benefit of the doubt evaporated in the second round, on November 16. Rather than be deterred by the prospect of another Sunday spent waiting – possibly in vain – the electorate abroad seemed galvanised. The night before, photos circulated of Romanians outside a Munich polling station brandishing their toothbrushes, sending the message that they were prepared to wait all night if that was what it took to have their say.
Across Europe, queues began forming while it was still dark. Again, voters faced hours-long waits and there were skirmishes with local police. But the scenes also sent a more positive message to the international audience. British tabloid the Daily Mail – no friend of Romanian immigrants – self-servingly used the pictures to illustrate the “scale of Romanian immigration to the UK”.
But even the right-leaning paper commented, “The long queues provide a contrast to elections in the UK where the turnout is often embarrassingly low,” and quoted an impressed onlooker as saying, “‘I couldn’t believe so many Romanians had turned out to vote. They clearly take politics in their own country very seriously, even though they now live nearly 2,000 miles away.”
Early results showed exactly what the PSD feared: in New Zealand Iohannis won 309 out of 330 votes cast – 94%. But would such strong support abroad be enough to overhaul Ponta’s lead – ten percentage points in the first round? Early indications suggested not. Various broadcasters’ polls put the prime minister ahead, again by up to ten percentage points.
Private TV stations in Romania are typically owned by businessmen and politicians with interests to further, so viewers took the numbers with a pinch of salt, but even “anti-PSD” channels gave Ponta a narrow advantage.
Meanwhile, upwards of 10,000 people marched through Bucharest, protesting against the treatment of the diaspora and calling for Ponta to step down. They chanted while checking their smartphones and it didn’t take long for the news to filter through that Ponta had conceded. Iohannis ultimately won 54.43% of the votes.
Romanians had elected an ethnic minority president, who ran on an anti-corruption ticket. And given the watching world a lesson in the value of democracy.