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Eastern Europe 25 years on: catching up or catching cold?

Catch-up 2014 smaller cropped

Image: www.thecatchupindex.eu

25 years on from the fall of communism, the Wall Street Journal recently told its readers, Central and Eastern Europe is still playing catch-up. The reasons are mainly economic and infrastructural. Too little growth by the standards of the Asian tigers. Too few high speed rail links. Not enough motorways. Viktor Orbán bossing it over Hungary in an ever more worrying project of illiberal transformation. A bad subsidy habit fed by an indulgent EU. A Middle Income Development Trap waiting to be sprung. And –when did this ever happen before? –  progress that “ has fallen short of what many of its citizens had hoped”.

 But we shouldn’t be too harsh. The WSJ is not particularly well known for the quality of its CEE  reporting. And this occasion it’s absolutely right: Central and Eastern Europe is playing catch-up. The politics of catch-up, rather than geography or culture or post-communism, are probably what define the region best. If it wasn’t catching up, it wouldn’t be Central and Eastern Europe.  Historians of East Central Europe such as Andrew C. Janos or  Ivan Berend have long been preoccupied by the region’s longue durée efforts to push its levels of socioeconomic– and political – development into line Europe’s core West European states –  although they have sometimes bluntly simply spoken of “backwardness”.

 The post-1989 project of European integration and enlargement, although more usually referred to in terms of ‘convergence’ or ‘Return to Europe’ is also all about one catch-up – and a very ambitious form of catch-up: overcoming deeply rooted east-west divide, which as Janos and others have noted, predates the Cold War division of Europe.  Enlargement and integration – and liberal reform in CEE generally –been sold politically on the basis that the poor, historically peripheral societies of CEE will (and after a painful process of adjustment) reap the full benefits of prosperity, social welfare, democracy and freedom enjoyed by core West European societies that had the good luck to stay out of of the Soviet zone of influence after WWII.

 If, in the long term, integration fails to deliver, there may be significant consequences both for the EU and for the fate of democracy and liberal institutions in Central and East European countries themselves.  As recent developments in Hungary show, liberal and democratic reforms are not irreversible or consolidated as once thought or hoped. If the European project fails to deliver catch-up – or the Western model CEE was busy catching up on with proves exhausted and unattractive – it will exacerbate both centrifugal pressures in the EU and erosion of democracy in some or all of CEE. There is the uncomfortable possibility that in his nationalistic rejection of liberalism, Viktor Orbán may be a leader rather than a laggard as far as the future direction of the region is concerned –  the Central European vanguard of the revolt against a broken Western model that Pankaj Mishra sees rippling out  from Asia. Read More…

Populism in Central and Eastern Europe Spectres of moderation?

Fright on the right?

Radicalism and extremism, especially of the far-right variety, hold an enduring hypnotic fascination for political scientists and journalists.

Extremist populism and illiberal movements more generally, we are told, relentlessly on the rise in both Western and Eastern Europe.

In countries such Austria or Flanders radical right parties have  stacked up sufficient votes to become as major political players and contenders for government office. Elsewhere  in countries such as France, Norway, Denmark they have sufficient electoral clout to influence the parliamentary arithmetic and help  make the political weather.

And just look the electoral breakthroughs in the past couple of years of the True Finns, the Sweden Democrats or Hungary’s Jobbik.

Or the illiberal leanings of mainstream parties of the right in Poland, Hungary and Latvia.  Remember the brouhaha about the British Conservatives’ East European allies?

Jobbik - the far right Movement for a Better Hungary

Indeed, instability, populism and extremism Central and Eastern Europe is surely where it’s at – or where it will be at. Authoritarian nationalism traditions,  high unemployment, vulnerable open economies, rampant corruption, the end of EU conditionality and minority nationalities and Roma  minorities  acting as functional substitutes for the multiculturalism  Western Europe.

But, of course, it isn’t

Social conditions and ethnic make-up in CEE region as a variable as they are in Western Europe, if not more so.  And, if far right and illiberal populists have recently broken through big time in Hungary and (slightly smaller time) in Bulgaria with the rise of the Ataka bloc in Bulgaria, they are so far going nowhere electorally most other countries in the region.

National Parties in Slovakia and Slovenia  have a maintained marginal parliamentary presence, based on a vote share of around 5% the Greater Romania Party is out of parliament despite a bounce in the 2009 Euro-elections and the Polish populist-nationalist right (or left, I’m never sure) collapsed.

A low-lying Will O the Wisp - look carefully. Photo: Deborah Tilley

As Cas Mudde shrewdly observed in 2002  extremist movements in Central and Eastern Europe have tended – and this trend has, interestingly, so far endured even in the difficult political and economic times we now  live in – to bite the dust as often as they have risen from the deck to sock it  to established parties.

But there is a spectre of populism haunting Central and Eastern Europe, which should give us pause,

But this one isn’t a scary monster, but a political  will-o’-the-wisp that often gets missed:  a new breed of anti-establishment party  lambasting the political class  in time honoured style but which combines mainstream, moderate, modernising priorities with a potent and uneven cocktail of appeals embracing anti-corruption, political reform, e-politics, ethical government, novelty or sheer entertainment value.

Academics, bankers, aristocrats and journos

Led by a diverse array of anti-politicians – aristocrats,  academics, artists, technocrats, bankers,  businessmen, bloggers, journalists, entertainers – such parties have scored a series of  sometime spectacular electoral victories, which can put even the best performing far-right ethno-populists distinctly in the shade, and lead directly to government office: New Era in Latvia in 1998, the Simeon II National Movement in Bulgaria in 2001, Res Publica in Estonia in 2003 and last year TOP09 and Public Affairs (VV) in the Czech Republic.

While often fissiparous and short-lived such ‘centrist populist’ protest parties, to borrow Peter Účen’s phrase,  seem to spreading and growing phenomenon: Lithuania has no fewer than three such coming up through the political mainstream in successive elections: the New Union (2000), the (mis-named) Labour Party (2004) and in the 2008 elections the National Resurrection Party founded by former TV presenter and producer Arūnas Valinskas, who seems to have been a mix between Chris Tarrant and Simon Cowell.

As Kevin Deegan-Krause observed the new breed of anti-political mainstream protest party is a slippery and multifaceted  thing.

…. not exactly a new party family (though in their cultural liberalism and anti-corruption emphases they share significant elements) and not exactly a new party type … but with strong and intersecting elements of both. Nor is it unique to Central Europe alone but elements of it have emerged also in the West

My UCL colleague Allan Sikk and I nevertheless decided to have a go at pinning down this new phenomenon more precisely, focusing in the first instance on Central and Eastern Europe,  presenting some of our findings in a paper  (downloadable here) at last month’s ECPR General Conference in Reykjavik.

Analysing elections in the region since 1998 using Charles Ragin’s Qualitative Comparative Analysis technique  we found no single story.

Different paths. Photo: Bob Embleton

 But we did find that these Anti-Establishment Reform Parties, as we called them, broke through electorally in three distinct  sets of circumstances:

  • When relatively narrow core of established mainstream parties, flanked by strong radical outsiders, faces  a deteriorating social situation characterised by rising corruption and/or rising unemployment.
  • When established governing parties of the mainstream pro-market right  fail to engage new or re-mobilised voters.
  • When the left or market sceptic conservative-nationalist are in office and opposition mainstream pro-market right – and the party system generally – is weakly consolidated and/or fragmented

Sometimes  these circumstance overlap, sometimes they run in sequence, but – while radical outsiders have walk on part – what matters, unsurprisingly, is the abilily of mainstream, big tent governing parties to hold together and retain a grip on corruption and the economy to stem electoral insurgencies, which are likely to be angry, anti-political, often offbear  but  decided – destabilisingly –  mainstream.

And like the patchy rise of the far-right, such trends –  as Kevin Deegan-Krause notes above and shrewder journalists have also  already  spotted are not be confined to the rarified political climate of Central and Eastern Europe. When Silvio Berlusconi and Forza Italia  burst onto the Italian political scene in 1994, people could have been forgiven for thinking it was just a strange denouement to Italy’s unique corrupt post-war politics.

Yes, Prime Minister? Photo: wiki.editor Jonny

Now you could be forgiven for wondering if varieties of personality-centred, broadly  liberal sometimes) neo-liberal anti-establishment poilitics might gradually be infiltrating in way into  more established democracies andbecoming a more Europe-wide phenomenon.

The Pirate Party has just entered the Berlin legislature with 8.5% of the vote and when we met them in a break in the ECPR conference, Iceland’s anarchic Best Party (see trailer for forthcoming documentary) founded by comedian Jón Gnarr which emerged as the city’s largest party last year (33%), turned out to be among the more focused and serious political outfits we had come across professionally.

When UEA’s Sanna Inthorn and John Street rhetorically titled a paper on young citizens and  celebrity politics  ‘Simon Cowell For Prime Minister?‘  they may perhaps not have been so far behind the curve.

>Clientelism to lead to pension protest in Romania?

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Romanian English language newspaper Nine O’Clock carries the following reflection on the country’s clientelistic and fragmented pension provisions, which seems to have shades of the Italian pattern. I rather doubt the apocalyptic predictions of ‘massive pensioner protestst’ which
uch sectoral divisions strikes me as likely to diffuse unless there is an obviously neglected majority group capable of taking collective actionand/or a highly unpopular priveged special group – in which case one would perhaps expense more generalized anti-political populist protest, if any.

“Pensioner fairytale law

published in issue 4460 page 1 at 2009-06-29

Among the imagines to shock Romania’s future are massive pensioner protests, government and prefecture picketing turned not once into street fights with police forces’ brutal intervention to restore the ‘rule of law’, which rule of law does not stand when it comes to daily life and the
4.6 million-strong pensioners, nearly half of whom have pensions below the minimum wage in the economy and 200,000 benefit from ‘specialpensions’, 70-80 to even 100 times the minimum one, which the governmentin office raised to RON 300 recently.

Romania has several pension laws, the majority of which are drafted in such a way as to unnaturally and immorally favour various categories of political clientele.

Justice, defence, home and foreign affairs and a few other fields benefit from ‘special’ pension laws.

The decisive factor for the pension amount is not the tax paid on it throughout the years, but the way in which a party president, government head or parliamentary group identified themselves with the interests of the said ‘special categories’. Since in Romania, all but every government
official, party head or lawmaker exercise their authority at the expense of the national interest, which results in the bulk of pensioners suffering the most from it.

Such contradictions led to the international financial and political community to ask Romania on and on to sort the salary and pension laws out. The most recent such request was occasioned by the financial loan Romania has taken, with the Boc government pledging to collaborate at the
oonest towards a blanket salary and pension laws. The latter was the subject of long and contradicting talks between government officials, trade unions, employers’ associations, heads of Parliament-represented parties. Yet, only occasionally and by means of mass-media only are
pensioners’ voices heard. Should this be a mere accident?”

It isn’t, as it stands testimony again to blanket pension talks ducking the core of the matter and seeking collateral interest instead. This is why the future pension law doesn’t take into count a fair ration between minimum and maximum pensions, a key lawful and fairness principle that
doesn’t apply to the overall pension law, unlike its salary counterpart.

Moreover, the current or past opposition has often clamoured about the collapse of the pension fund or payment default. Yet none of them refer to the huge ‘special pensions’ as the root of the pension fund being likely to enter collapse. Most of them speak of either the large number of
pensioners and the high unemployment rate, the decline in Gross Domestic Product and the 16 per cent rise in salaries over the past 12 months. Yet, it is exactly such aspects of the ongoing economic crisis that call for cutting special pensions down, as they threaten to bring the pension fundinto collapse. How come this reticence?

Because of the clan spirit, since both in civilian, and political-parliamentary life especially, there is a strong clan spirit with the most contradicting results. ‘Special pensions’ are therefore held
to be a ‘legally earned right’ that cannot be touched by any new law. The fiercest I this respect are the magistrates, whose views drastically change when it comes to the apartments that quite a few Romanians purchase legally from the state. When such properties purchased both legally and in good faith have been claimed by the so-called descendants of the former owners, court rulings are handed down in their favour more often than not.In this instance, there is no such thing as the ‘won asset’ law , as if the Romanian state of 1996 is not the same with that nowadays.

Further more: many at the high end of the rank and file are rushing to retire under the old laws, still in force, which favour them. And ‘special pension; recipients are advised, rank and file wise too, to get their pensions on cards, so that they remain ‘secret’. On the other hand, there
is a trend for decision makers to step in so that the value of the pension fund is no longer tied to the average salary in the economy, so its increase will no longer reflect on pensions too, which are to be frozen indefinitely. Other call for special pensions to be frozen at their current level, until the new ones catch up with them. Yet, since such aspiration is estimated to take about 15 years to come true, its perfidious intention is plain to see, as 15 years from now most of the
pensioners will no longer be among the living, which makes the blanket pension law into a ‘pensioner fairytale’.

by Mihai Iordanescu”

>Romania gas emergency decree hits pensioners

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One group of victims of the current gas supply crisis – acute in SE Europe where supply seems to have been stopped and reserves are low to non-existent – are Romania’s pensioners. However, it’s less because they are freezing in unheated homes, but because – Nine O’Clock reports – emergency government decrees make it illegal to receive a state salary and a pension simultaneously. This common (and discriminatory practice) of applying financial sanction against working pensioners – or pensioners who want to work – has more often been seeen as means of shaking out the labour market and helping the young unemployed, but here seems to be have been smuggled in as an emergency measure. Romanian trade unions seem to defending the interests of their retired (former) members.

Update: Romania’s Constitutional Court has a subsequent report notes since ruled this element in the emergency decrees illegal and unconstitutional, although the government seems intent on pushing the policy through legislation (the ruling centred on the permitted scope of emergency decrees). Prime Minister Boc has come out with all populist guns blazing, claiming that the measure is needed to prevent ‘debauchery of state funds’ by unnamed elite groups (seem to include some former judges) rather than hard pressed retired public employees who may need a few extra lei to make ends meet.

>Romania on their minds

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An interesting post by Manuel Alvarez-Riveraon on the recent Romanian elections – and the working of the new election system – can be found the Global Economy Matters blog here. Further interesting discussion can be found on the Fruits and Votes thread on the subject. There is also a link to Robert Elgie’s newish blog on semi-presidentialism.

>Romanian elections: the dust settles

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As the dust settles on the Romania elections, it becomes clear that the Democrat Liberals (PDL) have done rather better than predicted, running the Social Democrats (PSD) a very close second in terms of the popular vote. The kingmakers are the third placed National Liberals (PSD), who should, if ideology means anything, ally with the PDL, but whose relations with the presidentially sponsored party are so bad that they could equally work with the PSD, apparently. The only other party to make it over the electoral threshold is the Hungarian minority party (UDMR).

The far right Greater Romania Party (PRM) is dumped out of parliament adding to a trend across the region for radical nationalists to be less than electorally resilient and, perhaps as as a consequence, to fade out of the region’s political systems, although the political comeback of the Slovak National Party in 2006 shows that it ain’t necessarily so. The big unresolved question is , of course, how global economic recession will crunch CEE political systems, but the tendency of extreme populists and radical nationalists to flop as larger blocs hoover up votes (also seen in Poland in 2007 and Croatia last year) suggests that the usual predictions of a return to atavistic extremism again may be wide of the mark. More telling perhaps was the record low turnout of around 40%.

The final talking point is the new electoral system, a complex mixture of majoritarian single member district and (where – as in most cases – no one wins 50%+ in a SMD) proportional allocation of seats within larger electoral districts. The complex bit seems to be that the ranking of candidates for these proportionately distributed seats is done not by the parties themselves, but on the basis of a candidate’s vote in his/her SMD. You can thus be elected to represent an SMD if you are one of your party’s best perfomers in the region, even if you came a long way behind other candidates in the SMD. So for example, Ludovic Orban (PNL mayoral candidate in Bucharest in June) got 28% of the vote in one constituency but will become its Deputy despite being out-polled by the PSD and the PDL candidates in the constituency) his vote was one of best by a PNL candidate in that sector of the capital, so he is one of the first in line for that party’s share of the seats redistributed on a PR basis within that sector. PIt is not quite clear happens if two candidates get the highest vote for their party in the same constituency. PSD leaders with more of a local power base /levers of patronage to pull seem more often to have got into parliament via the 50% rule than leaders of either of the two Liberal groups.

For this example and explanation I am endebted to Ed Maxfield.The Romanian electoral commission’s swanky website, which zooms in and out of an interactive map, shows which party won which SMD, but as far as detailed voting figures were concerned all I got was a Rezultatele nu sunt disponibile. That at least I did understand.

>Romania: President’s party calls foul over electoral boundaries

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Vehement complaints from representatives of the pro-presidentia Democratic Liberals in Romania, reports Nine O’Clock, (PD-L) that the opposition Social Democrats (PSD) and National Liberal Party (PNL), who currently form a minority government are colluding in the Electoral Code Commission, which is drawing up the (sort of) single-member (‘uninominal’) districts, which are an element in the new electoral system. Less than confidence inspiring to read that this body, which is loosely equivalent to the UK’s Boundary Commission is made up of representatives of political parties and works mainly on the basis of proposals agreed in deals between parties at local (counyt) level. Still, I suppose gerrymandering is a fairly well established practice in some ‘advanced democracies ‘as well….

>Romanian electoral reform: bitter fruit?

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Alan Renwick posts the following explanation of the new Romanian electoral system as a ‘seed’ (comment) on the Fruits and Votes electoral systems blog, which has picked up the story. There is some very interesting clarification of the seat allocation mechanism for the PR stage:

“The new Romanian electoral system really lives up to the old cliché, ‘a complex form of PR’. Here is an attempt to make sense of it, for which Marina Popescu takes primary credit.
In autumn 2007, following years of popular pressure fomented by an NGO and the press for improving accountability and strengthening the linkages between citizens and elected representatives via the shift to a ‘uninominal’ (i.e., single-member-district) electoral system, the Romanian government proposed a mixed-member system. This would have been similar to the one used for the Italian Senate from 1993 to 2005, but would have ensured proportionality by having a variable number of at least 50 per cent of seats reserved for compensation, rather than just 25% as in Italy.
This bill passed through parliament, but the President did not sign it. Instead, he called a consultative referendum, which unexpectedly proposed introducing a French-style two-round majoritarian system. Following a campaign appealing to concerns with improving accountability and aversion to party lists, 83.4 per cent of the voters supported the initiative but the turnout (at 26.5 per cent) fell short of the 50 per cent quorum required. The President then appealed to the Constitutional Court, which annulled the government’s electoral reform legislation arguing that the anticipated use of a national list amounted to an indirect election and was thus anti-constitutional.
The current electoral system was adopted in February-March 2008 by parliament and is based on SMDs [Single Member Districts] only in the limited sense that the pre-1993 Italian Senate was. All 42 counties of Romania are divided into single-member districts and each citizen has a single vote to be cast for a candidate. Candidates win the seat automatically if they obtained over 50 per cent of the constituency vote. Nevertheless, the overall composition of parliament will be proportional: the two-tier seat allocation method used in the old closed-list system is retained, using the Hare quota at the county level, and then d’Hondt for nationally cumulated votes and seats remaining after the county-level allocation, with a five percent legal threshold applied throughout. Parliament can vary in size to guarantee each party the number of seats due to it proportionally. But parties may end up with more seats than that if they win enough seats with an absolute majority.
Now here’s the really complicated bit. Besides the SMD outright winners, a party’s seats are allocated to candidates in decreasing order of the ratio between the absolute number of votes they received and the quota in the county where they ran. However, the seat allocation mechanism assures that every SMD is assigned a representative who actually ran for election in that district, and this goal is consistently prioritized over rewarding the highest vote getters. How will all of that work in practice? We don’t have to wait too long to find out: elections are due by the end of November.
Seed planted by Alan Renwick — 16 April 2008 @
01:16
What I’m still left wondering about is a) whether – perhaps that should be, how in a Romanian context – SMD boundaries will be gerrymanded to maximise certain parties’ chances of winning seats straight off (thus presumably reducing those to be distributed by PR, although there seems to be some confusion of this – Alan Renwick’s explanation above clearly assumes this will not happen, but as other Fruits and Votes posters note, there is a constitutional stipulation abut population per depputy and not doing so would result in some SMDs having 2 representatives ; and b) whether the new system will create incentives for local notables to deploy heavy duty patronage and rule-bending.

>Romania’s election law: Everything you always wanted to know…

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.… but couldn’t really be bothered to ask.

But if you, like me, have been kept awake at night wondering how Romania’s new variant of the first-past-the-post electoral system will work, help is at hand. SSEES PhD student Dan Brett has heroically trawled the Romanian press to come up with the following explanation of the new system. I have inserted a few comments of my own in square brackets

  • The elections take place in one round only.
  • The national territory is divided into 42 electoral districts, corresponding to the 41 counties plus Bucharest.
  • Each electoral district contains a number of single member districts (SMDs) corresponding to the number of deputy/ senator seats for that district. [The new system will be used for elections to both houses of parliament]. Up to 95% of the number of mandates will be the same as in the 2004 elections, thus there will be 330 uninominal colleges [which I think is Romania political-speak for single member district] for the House of Deputies and 135 for the Senate, the rate of representation being of one deputy to 70,000 citizens and a senator for 160,000 [a provision carried over from the previous electoral system, presumably because article 62.3 of the Constitution specifies that “The number of Deputies and Senators shall be established by the electoral law, in proportion to the population of Romania.”
  • The electoral threshold for the parties is 5% (nationwide); there is also an alternative threshold which entitles those parties to enter Parliament that did not reach the electoral threshold but have winning candidates in 6 single member districts for the House of Deputies and in 3 for the Senate.
  • In each SMD a political party has the right to sign up one candidate only; the elector votes by applying the stamp on one candidate for the House of Deputies and on one candidate for the Senate.
  • The candidates who obtain in an SMD 50% plus one vote become MPs.
  • If the party they belong to has not reached the electoral threshold, they do not become MPs.
  • All the votes obtained by the candidates are added to the county and national electoral subtotal [Rom. zestrea = the dowry] of the party they belong to.

  • The remaining seats will be distributed according to the following procedure follows:

(i) in the first stage it is calculated how many seats go to each party in each electoral district [presumably proportionally?]; from this you subtract (if there are any) those seats obtained directly by the parties in that particular county through winning a SMD by a qualified majority. [This is a fairly classic mechanism used in so-called Mixed Proportional electoral systems – where the PR element functions as a compensatory mechanism for parties which do badly in SMD contests. Elections to the Scottish Parliament use this mechanism, for example]

(ii) then at the level of each district they draw up a ‘party list’ which will contain all the candidates of the respective party in the descending order of the votes obtained. [This procedure of creating a ‘party list’ by ranking individual candidates from the same party is used in Finland, I believe]

(iii) At the district level, seats are distributed to the better positioned candidates of those parties entitled to seats, but only function of the electoral quota they obtained.

(iv) It is possible that after this stage not all seats will have been distributed. Those undistributed are redistributed, function of the percentage obtained at the national level by the parties, to the best rated candidates in their parties in the respective counties. It is not possible for a MP to ‘travel’ to another district. [This additional national tier .distributing unawarded seats loosely resembles what happens in Hungary, except that in Hungary unawarded seats from regional PR lists are awarded like this, as the Hungarians have a second run-off round to sort out who is elected in SMDs]

  • For the first time, Romanians residing abroad elect – from among themselves – four deputies and two senators. [A Croatian style ‘virtual constituency’ – I am not quite sure how this will square with the population requirement given the generally low turnout of ex pat voters]
  • The Presidents of the District Councils [regional authorities] are elected by a vote in one round, the winner being the one who obtains the simple majority. [This rather controversial provision seems to have been tacked on Social Democrat deputies, but doesn’t concern national elections, as far I can work out]

The 64, 000 dollar (lei?) question is, of course, what happens to the large number of SMDs likely to be unfilled because no candidate has 50%+ of the poll and those SMDs where a candidate does win with 50%+, but his or her party is debarred from representation because it doesn’t meet the national threshold. Presumably, they will be redistributed using (using a proportional mechanism?). If so, the whole system is in fact likely to be in effect a ‘mixed’ election system with Finnish style open PR ‘lists’ with the interesting variant that the precise balance between deputies elected by SMD and those elected by PR will not be clear beforehand.

The intention behind the new system apparently is to exclude ‘independent’ local political bosses dominating the system by having a party threshold and requiring a high (absolute) majority for SMDs. Personally, however I am still a little sceptical as it does not seem too hard for half a dozen dominant local independents to band together in a ‘party’. Indeed, the 50%+ requirement for elections in SMDs seems almost an incentive for heavy duty patronage and/or vote rigging on Russian lines. My colleague Prof Denis Deletant, who knows Romania and Romanian politics better than anyone at SSEES, also points that Romanian politicians have a habit of passing framework legislation and then filling in important details at the last minute, things may turn out differently anyway and we have all been losing sleep unnecessarily. So good night and good luck.

>Romanian electoral reform: from pillar to (first-past-the) post?

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The Romanian parliament has, as expected, finally passed a new electoral law changing the country’s voting system from list proportional representation to what the Romanian are referring to as a ‘uninominal’ system – a single member district (SMD) first past the post system to be used for both Senate and National Assembly – oddly, the Romanian constitutional doctrine seems to be that to enjoy equal legitimacy both upper and lower house of parliament must be elected in the same way (exactly the opposite of how the Czech see things – the Czech constitution insists on different voting systems). The new ‘uninominal’ set up supersedes the mixed system previously legislated for but not signed into law by the President. Presumably, this one will meet with his approval.

Things are not, however, as straightforward as they seem – the new system seems to have some distinctly odd features. For example there are electoral thresholds (5% of the national vote or six members elected in SMDs for parties) and a mechanism for redistributing seats involving a list, which seems to suggest that there will be some ‘floating’ seat. Does this mean that if a party wins 1-5 SMDs its candidates will be debarred? Will the second place candidate ‘win’? Unfortunately, it’s hard, however, to find any coherent English language account of the exact workings of the new system. The clearest one I could find was offer by Radio Romania International and that still leaves me confused. As it correctly notes, whatever its finer points the new more majoritarian system is likely to be less a political ‘flat tax’ solution sweeping out party corruption, as many commentators and most of the Romanian public seem to believe, than a measure empowering local political bosses at the expense of higher level party and state structures.

A more detailed but still more baffling account of the new system is carried by SEEurope.net. Romania’s own electoral commission has a flashily designed website with an English version that boasts of its ‘young, dynamic and active team’ and even has a section on ‘electoral deontology’ (presumably a post-modern interpretation of elections?) but nothing in any language on the new system. Its most recent press release in Romanian is from 22 February.

The premier electoral systems blog, Matthew Shugart’s Fruits and Votes is currently obsessed with the US presidential race and has nothing on Romania’s very interesting moves toward majoritarianism.