Awaken Thee, Romanian!

“Awaken thee, Romanian!” the Romanian national anthem rallies its citizens from their slumber, to “now, or never, make a new fate” for themselves.

Well it seems that Romanians around the world are very much awake and restive after the first round of voting in the presidential elections on Sunday 02 November.

This was a campaign like no other in Romania’s recent past. Dominated less by substantive political debate, the campaign was preceded by a large wave of corruption-related arrests, suspicions of intelligence services interfering in the political process, and widespread use of smear tactics, with sensitive issues swept under the carpet. Of the 14 candidates competing for the highest office in the land, exit polls put Social Democrat Prime Minister Victor Ponta in a clear lead with some 40% of the votes, trailed at around 30% of the vote by main rival Klaus Iohannis. Like in the French system, the second round will see a run-off between the top two.

While the President is the head of state and the Prime Minister the Head of Government, in reality, both offices have been in something of a power struggle in the past years – with sometimes both turning up to EU council meetings. The current Prime Minister, Victor Ponta, is standing for the Presidency.

Voters waiting patiently in Brussels

Voters waiting patiently in Brussels

But the elections were marred and got terrible PR around the world by the mismanagement of polling stations outside Romania. Tens of thousands of Romanians abroad had to wait in queues an average five hours long at voting stations across the world, many in utter futility, as ballot stations closed before they could get to vote. Cities like Paris, London, Munich, Brussels and New York saw thousands of Romanians shouting “I want to vote”. Police were called in Paris as 1,000 would-be voters protested vociferously at the closing of the polling station. In London, more than 2,000 unable to vote, with some blaming officials who delayed voting to look for pensioners in the queue to vote first, although none was to be found. Suspicions are that this was not exactly the act of chivalry it seemed at first, as the elderly in Romania generally support the Social Democrats. In Brussels over 350 people signed a criminal complaint against the election organisers.

It seems that while all voting stations acted in accordance with the law and were open from 7am to 9pm, the real issue was the number of polling stations and voting booths made available internationally. This was based on the 2009 elections which took place just two years after Romania entered the EU, and when far fewer Romanians were living in other EU states or third countries.

As soon as the polls closed in Romania, President Basescu called for the resignation of the Foreign Minister, Titus Corlatean who is in charge of the diaspora. Hundreds gathered in front of the Foreign Ministry building in Bucharest chanting anti-Ponta slogans and urging authorities to allow Romanians abroad to cast their vote.

Waiting in the dark in London

Waiting in the dark in London

The question now is whether there was a deliberate intention to frustrate the voting outside Romania as the diaspora were considered far more likely to vote against Ponta. This accusation has caused public outrage across Romania, while pro-Ponta media blamed the ambassadors for stealing citizens’ constitutional rights –ambassadors appointed by the Ponta’s rival, President Basescu. The reality is that Romanian diplomatic missions were only hosting the polling stations, and the Foreign Ministry was in charge of organising the polls.

The vote of the Romanian diaspora was of enormous importance as it could have considerably narrowed the difference between Ponta and opposition candidates (specifically, Klaus Iohannis, but also Monica Macovei, current MEP).

What will happen now? The second round of the vote takes place on 16 November. The million-dollar question now is whether the Social Democrat government will surrender to public pressure and streamline the voting process in round two, with the risk of giving tens of thousands of votes to Ponta’s rival for the presidency. A repeat performance would be unthinkable, but then again, stranger things have happened. “Romania, simply surprising” as the country’s tourism brand puts it.

Larisa Pircalabelu is a Consultant with FTI Consulting Brussels

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