Romania: the strategic use of referendums. Power to the people (later)!

by Veronica Anghel, Johns Hopkins University – SAIS Europe and Institute for Central Europe, Vienna

Spontaneous anti-government protest followed the result of EU elections and referendum on justice  under the eye of the gendarmerie. Bucharest has witnessed several large scale  protests that resulted in clashes with police forces  ©Marius Tudor

In broad strokes, we may identify the purpose of referendums as a useful tool to enhance democracy and citizen participation in policy outcome ( e.g. Bowler et al. 2007) or a populist weapon to mobilize supporters for electoral gains (e.g.Nemčok and Spáč 2019). Considering the increase of the use of referendums during the past decades (Qvortrup 2018), we are further motivated to better understand elite incentives to resort to this tool. In this text, I introduce the case of Romania as a study into the strategic use of this electoral institution by the executive branch– whether government or presidency. The Romanian case comes in support of the latter strand of scholarship and emphasizes how a referendum reveals its main use for the initiating actors to spread their message and gain popularity while the actual act of popular vote is irrelevant and has rather limited ability to shape policy outcome.  

During the past legislative year (2018 – 2019), the tool of referendum was used twice. In October 2018, Romanians voted to narrow the constitutional definition of family from a ‘marriage based on the union of spouses’ to ‘marriage between man and woman’. The governing Social Democrat Party (PSD) and coalition partner Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (ALDE) organised the referendum faced with a petition in favour of the constitutional change signed by 3 million citizens and supported by the Orthodox Church. Turn-out did not reach the 30% quorum needed. From the 21,1% of voters who turned –out for the referendum, over 90% supported the change.  This figure represents about 3,5 million Romanians. The referendum was boycotted by the opposition in a display of anti-government protest. This strategy was less as a show of solidarity with the human rights demands of the LGBTQ community than an oppositional stance.  President Klaus Iohannis, the most vocal contender of the government, nevertheless turned out to vote in the referendum. In a largely conservative country, it is of little worth to antagonise potential voters.   (see European Values Study and The Romanian Group for the Study of Social Values for useful data-bases). In this case, the motivation to organise the referendum lacked on all political sides, but mitigating potential loses not to have it became paramount.

The lack of interest in this issue was evident from the start. The PSD led cabinet set up a helpful legal context for the referendum to pass (lower threshold, two day voting process) and counted on the conservative values of the electorate and the involvement of the Orthodox Church to take effect. However, in a country where voter turn-out has constantly decreased in the last 30 years – averaging 40% – main parties’ ability to mobilise their active electorate is key for any election outcome. This requires willingness to invest significant financial and human resources and see potential gains out of such a feat. The dominant PSD calculated a lower investment return for this referendum and had no incentives for party activism compared to their usual display of organisational force during local and legislative elections. However, not organising it was a risk the government was not willing to take. The Orthodox Church has always served as an ally for the PSD. As in many Eastern European countries, politics and religion have an interdependent relationship. Incumbent politicians who associated their image with the church benefit from public acclaim and a positive standing with the well organised ecclesiastical network. The referendum had no actual effects over policy outcome and it did not lead to greater debate regarding same-sex marriage.

The second referendum was triggered by President Klaus Iohannis and organised on May 26th together with elections for the European Parliament. According to the Romanian semi-presidential constitutional system, the president has little formal powers to constrain the government or the parliament (see a previous blog post). Mr. Iohannis decided to use one of his prerogatives in response to what he considered ‘an assault through emergency ordinances on the justice system’ led by the PSD – ALDE governing coalition. In a country which witnessed massive anti-corruption and anti-justice reform protests, all association with this issue is electorally beneficial.  

Citizens were asked two yes/no questions: whether they agree to prohibit granting amnesty and pardons for sentences of corruption and whether they agree to outlaw issuing emergency ordinances regulating crimes, punishments and the reorganization of the judiciary. The results showed great support in favour of limitations to government led justice reform. Despite the complexity of the questions, their actual meaning was less debated. The underlying message was rather understood as a separation between those in favour of ‘tough justice’ vs. ‘lenience for corruption’. The referendum results are thus mostly symbolic. It is highly unlikely to see written into law the outcome of the vote.  They reconfirm the anti-corruption sentiment of Romanians who in recent years have often mobilized in protest to stop the governing elite from delivering self-serving justice reforms. 

The electoral gains of anti-government parties were far greater. With six month to go before the presidential elections in December 2019, front-runner and incumbent Klaus Iohannis benefited from an early electoral platform. Calling for this referendum gave him the opportunity to participate in rallies for the EU elections organised by his party, the National Liberal Party (PNL), despite the constitutional ban for the president to engage in partisan politics. The ‘anti-corruption’ rhetoric primarily benefited newcomer Save Romania Union (USR) – PLUS 2020 Alliance and their leader and presidential hopeful Dacian Ciolos. USR – PLUS received 22% of the vote, a significant feat for a new comer. Mr. Ciolos is now also in the run for the same anti-government votes of enraged citizens. Similar to Mr. Iohannis, he will also employ an anti-corruption, anti-establishment strategy in the upcoming elections.

Conclusion

In the first case, the exercise of the referendum was a way to fend off unwanted criticism and mostly employed a ‘nothing to lose strategy’. It failed as a result of lack of party mobilization in its favour, despite a favourable social values milieu. The second referendum benefited from heavy mobilisation on a salient issue. Regardless of the technicality of the questions, the mobilising message was perceived. Electoral gains were at the core of both of these decisions, while neither referendum will shape policy outcomes.

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