There is always something rather farcical about elections in post-communist Romania: there are the much sought after buckets given away by candidates to poor citizens in rural areas, there are condoms for the more liberal minded, community barbecues, there are voters queuing up for free food parcels – tokens of good will to give hesitant voters a boost to head to the polling station and vote for their generous benefactors; there are candidates with questionable credentials and/or criminal convictions, spy scandals, endless corruption allegations across the board – no candidates spared, and even the odd less than tasteless campaign poster (see self-styled iron lady promising to [literally] wipe out corruption with a baseball bat or presidential candidate posing as glamorous school girl sporting a pink backpack). 25 years since the fall of communism have clearly not been enough for Romania to make the transition to a fully-fledged democracy, as corruption and incompetence continue to plague Romanian society.
On 2 November 2014 Romanians went to the polls to elect a new president as the incumbent’s second term in power is drawing to a close. What was meant to be a fairly predictable election, with the current PM Victor Ponta hinted as the likely winner, quickly turned into a public scandal as thousands of Romanians abroad were left to queue up for hours outside polling stations to cast their vote. There were long queues in London, Paris, Brussels, Munich, Madrid, Vienna and New York, with some waiting as long as six hours to vote. Worse still, some were told they will not get to vote at all as polling stations closed at 9.00pm, despite public pleas for extended opening hours. Determined to vote, many refused to go home after the polling stations were closed until the police were called to ask them to leave. Some were left feeling angry with the poor organisation, many felt humiliated by a state that has already failed them in so many other ways.
Voters queuing up outside one of the three polling stations in London.
As frustration rose among those waiting to
cast their vote, news spread fast on the social media, sparking public outrage at
home and calls for the resignation of the Foreign Minister. Meanwhile in
Bucharest some were hailing the expats who had patiently waited to cast their
vote as heroes,
while others were adamant that the long queues merely demonstrated there can be
no suspicion of fraud
at the polling stations. And so a blame game ensued with no leaders stepping up
to take responsibility for the fiasco. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which
was in charge of setting up the polling stations abroad, insisted that all was
planned according to the requirements of the law, emphasising that the number
of polling stations abroad (294) was the same as at the previous presidential
election in 2009 (although this seems hardly like a good idea seeing how much
the number of Romanian emigrants has risen since 2009 when Romania had only
joined the EU for 2 years and working restrictions for Romanians were still in
place in most EU countries). Many remain unconvinced though and suspect that
the social-democrats in power have deliberately limited the numbers of polling
stations abroad, as many Romanians living abroad are thought to be less likely
to vote for the social-democrats.
There is perhaps a much simpler explanation: the crass incompetence of the Romanian government. The fiasco at the polling stations abroad was largely due to an overly bureaucratic process (and no option to vote by post or online), poor preparation at the polling stations (with uncertainty about the forms required, lack of staff, and incoherent information cascaded from the central election commission), and, most significantly, a gross underestimation of the number of Romanians that live abroad (as the Romanian Ambassador to the UK acknowledges in this video). There are around three million Romanians living abroad (although the exact figure is impossible to know), and 161,054 came out to vote on Sunday, a spike of 70% compared to the last election in 2009 when only 95,068 Romanians voted abroad. It seems naive if not downright stupid that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs should assume the same number of people as in 2009 would vote abroad. The failures of this election are symptomatic of a failed state, with a rotten infrastructure and a dysfunctional administration; a crushing, abusive, arrogant, incompetent authority repeatedly letting its citizens down.
There is something farcical about elections in Romania, but the issues at stake could not be more serious. The country remains one of the poorest in Europe, and despite a mass of bright, well-educated citizens, a strategic position in Europe, and a wealth of natural resources, Romania underperforms across all sectors as it remains crippled by corruption, nepotism, tax evasion, and little regard for the rule of law. As a run-off is scheduled for 16 November (since no candidate achieved an overall majority in the first round of voting), there is hope that some lessons have been learnt. There is a growing body of politically conscious Romanian citizens; some live abroad, some live at home; what they share is the determination to hold their political leaders accountable, demand their rights, challenge the status quo, and not be silenced.