Tag Archives: closed-list PR system

Romania – Social Democrats’ landslide victory in parliamentary election brings about another spell of cohabitation

 

One year after country-wide anti-corruption protests forced Victor Ponta’s Social-Democratic government out of office, the PSD won a landslide victory in the general election held on December 11. The Social-Democrats have topped the polls in each general election held since 1990 and formed the government each time a centre-right coalition was too weak or too divided to coalesce around a common leader. This time, though, their historic 46% of the vote might bring along an outright parliamentary majority – a first in Romania’s post-communist electoral history – after the redistribution of unallocated mandates. However, despite the clear election results, a political crisis might still be looming on the horizon. During the electoral campaign, President Iohannis vowed not to nominate a convicted politician as prime minister, a situation which includes the PSD leader, Liviu Dragnea, who received a two-year probation sentence for electoral fraud earlier this year.

Election results

The Social-Democrats are followed by President Iohannis’ National Liberal Party (PNL) with a distant 20%. Since the local elections held in June, the party has lost about 10% of the voters’ preferences. The election outcome is all the more disappointing for the PNL, as one year ago the party could count on 35% of the public support according to opinion polls. However, instead of calling early election when the PSD government was ousted, President Iohannis chose to appoint a technocratic government led by former commissioner Dacian Cioloş. Some of the PNL’s eroding support was captured by the Save Romania Union (USR), a new anti-corruption party set up only six months ago, which won around 9% of the vote.

Apart from the Hungarian minority party (UDMR), two new parties also managed to cross the 5% national threshold: the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), which is the merger between a PNL faction and the Conservative Party (PC) led by former prime minister Călin Popescu Tăriceanu; and former President Băsescu’s Popular Movement Party (PMP), which broke away from the Liberal Democratic Party (PDL) in 2013 (the other PDL faction merged with PNL in 2014 and supported Klaus Iohannis as a common candidate in the 2014 presidential election).

None of the 44 independent candidates who stood for election across the country’s 42 constituencies managed to obtain an electoral mandate. A couple of newly-formed ethno-nationalist parties also run unsuccessfully, proving that xenophobia and far-right extremism have not found fertile ground in Romania. That said, the election winners were able to capitalise on growing anti-EU sentiments. Turnout to vote was just 39.5%, the lowest on record since 1990. The full allocation of seats in the two parliamentary chambers is yet to be determined.

Chamber of Deputies (330 seats)
Party % Vote share %Vote change
Social Democratic Party (PSD) 45.55 +9.14
National Liberal Party (PNL) 20.04 -4.23
Union Save Romania (USR) 8.83 New
Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania (UDMR) 6.19 +1.82
Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (ALDE) 5.62 New
People’s Movement Party (PMP) 5.34 New
United Romania Party (PRU) 2.79 New
Greater Romania Party (PRM) 1.05 -0.2
Ecology Party 0.91 +0.12
Our Alliance Romania (ANR) 0.87 New
Senate (136 seats)
Party % Vote share % Vote change
Social Democratic Party (PSD) 45.71 +12.19
National Liberal Party (PNL) 20.42 -7.99
Union Save Romania (USR) 8.88 New
Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania (UDMR) 6.25 +1.14
Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (ALDE) 6.0 New
People’s Movement Party (PMP) 5.64 New
United Romania Party (PRU) 2.95 New
Greater Romania Party (PRM) 1.18 -0.29
Ecology Party 1.1 +0.31
Our Alliance Romania (ANR) 0.95 New

The electoral campaign

Several factors contributed to the PSD’s stunning victory. The new electoral legislation, as well as the laws on political parties and campaign financing adopted by the parliament in 2015 played a significant role. A previous post discussed the change in electoral rules, from the mixed-member system used in the 2008 and 2012 elections to the closed-list proportional system with moderately low-magnitude districts, which was employed until 2004. The new law on party financing capped campaign budgets for individual candidates to 60 gross average salaries, severely restricted the range of electioneering activities – such as street advertising and the dissemination of electoral gifts – and increased the parties’ dependence on state budget for campaign spending. These regulations favoured the two big parties, the PSD and the PNL, and limited the ability of newer parties to make themselves known outside the big cities. Under these circumstances, door-to-door canvassing and online campaigning became an essential part of campaign strategies. These techniques were also skilfully used by USR, due to its strong ties with civil society and its popularity among educated voters who are more likely to use the internet for political information.

The depersonalisation of the electoral campaign was another factor that enhanced the Social-Democrats’ chances (or at least prevented them from haemorrhaging support as in 2014, when the centre-right electorate mobilised against Victor Ponta and handed over the presidency to Klaus Iohannis). The campaign lacked the usual debates between party leaders and PM candidates and the clash of political programmes and policy proposals. Learning the lesson of the 2014 presidential election, the PSD refrained from making any nominations for prime minister, although everything pointed to its current leader, Liviu Dragnea, as the party’s first choice for the PM post. As Dragnea received a two-year probation sentence for electoral fraud earlier this year, his endorsement for the prime ministership ahead of the election would have been an easy target for the centre-right parties, which campaigned on an anti-corruption platform.

On their side, PNL and USR chose to associate themselves with the record of the technocratic government, praising its efficiency in the reform of central and local public administration. Both parties tried to lure PM Cioloş into their ranks. When the premier turned down their offer, the two parties ended up endorsing his political platform and nominating him for a second term as head of government. The move backfired for two reasons. On the one hand, it showed that PNL is still in search of leaders for top national positions, a weakness that also cost the party the defeat in the race for the mayor of Bucharest in the June contest. In fact, PM Cioloş was reluctant to even take part actively in the campaign. On the other hand, it allowed the PSD to associate the centre-right parties with the mishaps of the Cioloş government and its refusal to consent to populist public spending measures passed by the PSD parliamentarians in the eve of the electoral campaign. Moreover, just a few days before the general election, PSD presented plans for next year’s budget, which included proposals for a national reindustrialisation programme and consistent wage increases for public sector employees. This generous stance on boosting social spending and tax cuts was contrasted with PM Cioloş’ firm position on containing the budget deficit, despite Romania’s GDP growth by 6% this year.

Although President Iohannis refrained from getting too involved in the campaign, he did make three notable interventions. First, he tried to force PM Cioloş into joining the PNL ranks by announcing that he would not appoint an independent prime minister after the December poll. Faced with the premier’s refusal to join a political party, the president backed down saying that Cioloş could in fact continue in office if political parties endorsed him for a second mandate. The second time President Iohannis showed off his constitutional role in PM appointment, he ruled out designating a criminally prosecuted or convicted politician, regardless of that person’s parliamentary support. Then, less than a fortnight before the election, he prohibited officials with a criminal record to take party in the formal celebrations organised for Romania’s National Day on December 1. As a result, several high-ranking PSD and ALDE politicians, including Liviu Dragnea and former PM Popescu-Tăriceanu, were denied access to high-visibility events organised by the Presidency. Arguably, these interventions anticipated the President’s intention to make active use of his formal powers in government formation and to prevent the PSD leader from taking over as prime minister.

Towards a new government and another period of cohabitation

Although the allocation of seats has not been officially announced yet, the Social-Democrats and their smaller ally ALDE are likely to reach a sizeable majority. Consequently, the PSD will be granted the first chance in nominating a new prime minister candidate. While so far no official proposals have been made, senior PSD figures have strongly endorsed their party leader for this role. However, not only has President Iohannis vowed to deny appointment to convicted politicians, but a 2001 law also forbids convicted persons to be appointed to government posts. Nevertheless, PSD insists that constitutional provisions, according to which the president must appoint a candidate for the PM post following consultations with the party holding the absolute majority in Parliament, should take precedence in this case. As Liviu Dragnea is unlikely to allow a political rival to capitalise on his electoral success, the conditions for a new constitutional crisis seem in place. Its resolution might once again depend on the decision of the Constitutional Court, or, as several PSD members suggested, could lead to another attempt to impeach the president.

Either way, Romania seems headed towards a new period of cohabitation. It will be interesting to see what role President Iohannis will choose to play in this situation. Will he attempt to become the leader of the opposition, like Traian Băsescu in 2007 and 2012? So far there have been few signs of the president’s willingness to take an active role in the confrontation with political parties. That said, the presidential elections scheduled for 2017 could provide a strong enough incentive to capitalise on the eventual eroding popularity of the centre-left government.

2016 Romanian Parliamentary Election: Pre-Election Report

 

Romania is almost mid-way through the electoral campaign leading up to the parliamentary election due on 11 December. Although the results are unlikely to take anybody by surprise, especially if last summer’s local election is anything to go by, the general election brings several novelties.

First, there is a change in electoral rules, as the mixed-member system used in the 2008 and 2012 elections has been replaced by the closed-list proportional system, which was employed until 2004. Second, while the left-wing Social Democrats (PSD) and the centre-right National Liberal Party (PNL) are expected to top the polls, probably in this order, neither looks likely to win an outright majority. As a result, the composition of the next government will be decided by the performance of several small parties that are hoping to pass the 5% national threshold. Third, this electoral campaign is one of the least personalised in the history of Romanian post-communist elections, as all party leaders have refrained from throwing their hats into the ring for the prime minister post. While the centre-right parties have coalesced around Dacian Cioloş, the independent Prime Minister who took office one year ago, the social democrats are refusing to make any nominations for a prime minister candidate. So far, President Iohannis has refrained from getting involved in the electoral campaign.

Return of the closed-list proportional system

 After experimenting with a mixed electoral system in the 2008 and 2012 elections, 2016 marks the return to the closed-list proportional system that was used for general elections until 2004. Romania’s version of a mixed electoral system combined a single round of voting in single-member constituencies with a complicated system of seat allocation for parties that surpassed an electoral threshold of 5%. Candidates who won over 50% of the votes in single-member constituencies were automatically elected and the remaining seats were distributed among the political parties first at the county level and then at the national level. The complex rules of the redistribution of seats had two key effects that rendered the system highly unpopular.

First, candidates who were ranked third or even fourth in a constituency were elected at the expense of candidates who were ranked second in the same constituency, depending on the quota that their parties reached in the respective counties. Second, in the 2012 election, the success of the PSD-PNL coalition in the single-member constituencies generated 118 overhang seats, bringing the total number of MPs to 588. The increase in the number of parliamentarians was all the more negatively perceived as in a referendum passed in 2009 the vast majority of voters opted to reduce the number of parliamentarians to 300.

Overall, voting in single-member districts did not seem to increase the quality of representation as it had been hoped. The Romanian parliament continued to be hit by corruption scandals; party switching in parliament did not slow down and remained as serious a threat to government stability as it had been before 2008; the ties between citizens and their representatives showed no signs of strengthening; and the MPs’ involvement in legislative activities did not increase. Under these circumstances, the parliamentary parties decided to return to the closed-list proportional system that had been used until 2008. The new electoral law was passed by parliament in June 2015.

Under the new law, 312 deputies and 136 senators will be elected in a two-tier system. The country is divided in 42 administrative counties, with a 43rd constituency dedicated to Romanian citizens living abroad. Additionally, 18 seats are reserved for ethnic minorities. Similar to 2004, the size of district magnitude in the lower chamber ranges from 2 to 29 in capital Bucharest, with an average of around 7. The electoral thresholds are kept to the 2000-2004 level, with a 5% national threshold for single parties and 8%-10% for alliances. A party failing the 5% national threshold may still get into the parliament if it obtains 20% of all votes cast in at least 4 counties. The alternative threshold might favour the party representing ethnic Hungarians in Romania, UDMR, whose support is concentrated in Transylvania.

Post-electoral coalitions

Over the last year, the country has been governed by a technocratic cabinet led by former European Commissioner Dacian Cioloş. The previous PSD government resigned in November 2015 amid country-wide protests against corruption in central and local administration. However, the unprecedented wave of protests that swept Romania just one year ago fell short of shaking the party system. The old parties still hold the monopoly over the political system and the composition of the next parliament is unlikely to look very different from the present one. The results of the local elections held in June have confirmed the clear domination of the two biggest parties. PSD topped the polls across the country with almost 38%, including an unprecedented victory in the race for Bucharest mayor, while President Iohannis’ centre-right PNL scored nearly 32% of the vote nationally.

That said, anti-system feelings did fuel the emergence of a new political party that condemns the endemic corruption of traditional parties. In the local election held this summer, Union Save Bucharest came second in the battle for the mayor of Bucharest. The party will run in the general election as Save Romania Union (USR) and is expected it to win around 10% of the votes according to opinion polls. USR has continued to play the anti-system card that paid off in the local election and has refused to engage in pre-electoral talks. The party is nevertheless expected to join PNL in a coalition government if it enters the parliament. Several ministers stepped down from the PM Cioloş’ cabinet to run on USR lists in the general election. The Hungarian minority party, UDMR, which could contribute 5% of legislative seats, might also join the PNL-USR coalition. Another potential coalition partner for the PNL could be former President Băsescu’s Popular Movement Party (PMP), which broke away from the Liberal Democratic Party (PDL) in 2013. The other PDL faction merged with PNL in 2014 and supported Klaus Iohannis as a common candidate in the 2014 presidential election. Thus, PMP would not be the most unnatural of partners for the PNL, despite President Băsescu’s bellicose attitude towards his former allies. The former president tops the Senate list in Bucharest, but his party is currently trailing below the 5% threshold.

In comparison to the National Liberals, the Social Democrats have fewer options for a post-electoral coalition. In fact, the party has ruled out any coalition partner except for the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), a merger between a PNL faction and the Conservative Party (PC), which won 6% in the local election. Given that PSD is expected to poll around 35-40% and it should also benefit from the redistribution of mandates at national level, a PSD-ALDE coalition might suffice for a parliamentary majority. While no other parties are expected to pass the electoral threshold, minority governments have previously been formed in Romania with support from the ethnic minorities, who hold 18 seats, and independent MPs.

Prospective prime ministers

So far, the electoral campaign has been one of the least personalised in the history of Romanian post-communist elections. For different reasons, the two big parties, PNL and PSD, have refrained from nominating their leaders as frontrunners for the PM position.

The PNL is still in search of leaders for top national positions and the party once again had to look outside for a candidate for the PM post. Although the technocratic government experienced its fair share of mishaps, PM Cioloş is still seen as one of the most effective players in the anti-corruption fight. At first, President Iohannis and the PNL tried to condition their support for the independent PM on his formally joining the party if he wished to continue in office after the election. USR also courted the incumbent PM. However, a few weeks before the electoral campaign started, PM Cioloş launched a political platform outlining the basic principles of his governing program and pledged not to stand in the elections and not to join a political party. Moreover, Cioloş ruled out entering a PNL-PSD government or any government that would include PSD. Under these circumstances, both PNL and USR rushed to endorse the “Romania 100” platform and nominate Cioloş for the top government post. The prime minister accepted the two parties’ nomination, despite his initial reluctance to be associated with any political party during the campaign.

The Social-Democrats strongly oppose PM Cioloş’ political platform but have so far refused to nominate their own candidate. In this way, the party hopes to avoid losing the election due to the mobilization of voters against unpopular or corrupt politicians, as it was the case in 2014, when former PM Ponta lost the presidential election to PNL’s Klaus Iohannis (it is worth remembering, though, that Iohannis was also seen by many as an outsider to the PNL, just like PM Cioloş). In fact, Liviu Dragnea, the current PSD leader, is largely expected to take up the PM position if the PSD and ALDE obtain a majority of seats. As Dragnea received a two-year probation sentence for electoral fraud earlier this year, his nomination ahead of the election would be an easy target for the PNL-USR campaign, which have committed to support PM Cioloş’ national anticorruption strategy.

To sum up, in the 2016 general election Romanians are faced with a choice between two options. On the one hand, a heterogenous, unbalanced, and potentially unstable centre-right coalition, which has nevertheless found common ground in supporting an independent prime minister who is committed to continue the anti-corruption fight. On the other hand, a return to the PSD administration, whose former prime minister was indicted on corruption charges and would probably not hesitate to place another leader sentenced for vote-rigging in the prime minister office.