Tag Archives: electoral campaign

Romania – The President’s ‘Breaking Bad’: When Does Negative Campaigning Work?

President Klaus Iohannis during a visit at a Romanian military base that was a PR success.  Source: digi24.ro

With one year to go until he stands for re-election, Romanian president Klaus Iohannis appears willing to go outside his defining detachment and become a fire – starter in the already tense framework of cohabitation.

The conventional wisdom that negative political campaigning works has been largely dismissed by research results. Scholars found no evidence of its success (see Lau, Sigelman and Rovner, 2007 for a literature review) or even claimed that the choice of negativity is disadvantageous, in contrast to the effects of positive messaging (Malloy and Pearson-Merkowitz , 2016; Claibourn 2012) and in particular for incumbents (Blackwell 2013).  We then continue to ask why candidates and political consultants believe in the effectiveness of attacking opponents. Most research on this topic focused on the US political system, but throughout the next year of presidential campaigning, Romania may provide a novel experimental setting to answer the same question: is political ‘breaking bad’ a good strategy to win presidential elections?

The Mobilizing Effect of Conflict Framing

Most recently, President Iohannis (National Liberal Party – PNL candidate) concerned the EU by declaring that, (mostly) because of the incompetence of the social – democrat led government, Romania is unprepared to take over the EU’s rotating presidency on January 1, 2019 (NY Times reports). A declaration that was intended to win him points in national politics quickly escalated internationally when the Finnish PM, Juha Sipila, declared they are ready to take over earlier should Romania default on its obligations. This prompted the Romanian Minister of Foreign Affairs to issue an official statement denying the presidential claims and ‘stressing the importance of handling with responsibility information that is not founded on concrete endeavours (sic) and which may affect the image of Romania (…)’. Since this exchange, Romanian diplomats in Brussels have to publicly defend the on-going preparations.  Following this statement, the president suffered a backlash from his usual supporters, motivating him to soften his position by stating it was still possible to be reasonably prepared.

Given the usual dispassion of president Iohannis for political conflict coupled with the positive nature of his discourse in the first campaign (2014) and the first 4 years of mandate, his recent preparedness to lash out with negative attacks on the government can provide the counterpoint in a comparative test of what makes successful campaign strategies. Iohannis’s reactions are motivated by the criticism he endures for not being active on the public stage (I previously reported on this blog on the preference of president Iohannis to use formal powers and overlook informal ones). And in spite of the apparent uselessness of negative discourse, in the absence of a constructive policy agenda and constraining tools, there is one important effect of conflict framing and negativity that can be relied on for electoral success in the Romanian context.

Research results found (conditioned!) effects of negativity on increasing voter turnout. Krupnikov (2012) showed that negativity increases the likelihood that an individual will make a candidate selection. And conflict framing in campaign news mobilized voters to vote even in the less electorally engaging European Parliament elections (Schuck, Vliegenthart and DeVreese, 2014). This factor becomes increasingly important given that voter mobilisation is a substantial concern for presidential candidates in Romania and usually tilts the balance between winners and losers.

Framing the Presidential Run

Conflict framing has been at the base of Romanian elections since the early 1990s (see Anghel 2017 for a review of Romanian ‘anti-’ campaigns). In this broad agenda type of political contests, technical superiority, emotional voting and political calculations have a substantial importance. The position of a non – Social – Democrat Party (PSD) presidential candidate is naturally advantageous. Opposition parties can compensate their organisational weaknesses by unifying non-PSD voters, while the PSD is stuck at approx. 20% in voter preference.  A constant dwindling of turnout to less than 50% has secured PSD (partial) legislative victories, since their approx. 20% supporters also show up at the polls. The higher turnout in presidential elections has failed to deliver the PSD a victory in the past three runs (15 years).

Consequently, the effect of predominant conflict framing may be a mobilizing factor once again and increase the chances of president Iohannis for re-election. But this is highly context-dependent and not all researchers agree that the effect of negative campaigning is substantial on voter turnout (Garramone et al. 2009). It therefore may not be worth pursuing this strategy alone, as it can easily backfire. Other studies show that negative political campaigning evokes negative affect toward both the targeted opponent and the sponsor (e.g. Merritt 2013).

Increasingly aware of his electoral weaknesses, Iohannis also made an appearance at the yearly PNL Congress (August 4, 2018), showing his support for the PNL leadership and program and lobbying for their organisational support in the elections.  Having political proxies (or lobby groups) to deliver negative messages for the candidate is also better than when the candidate delivers them. According to Dowling and Wichowsky (AJPS, 2014), “candidates can benefit from having a party or group ‘do their dirty work’”.  However, the current relation of PNL with the president is jaded and many strong local party leaders lack the incentives to engage in the hard presidential elections for another win for Iohannis, who has not collaborated with them in the last four years.

Conclusion: ‘Breaking bad’ badly is…not good

For a political attack to work, it must raise a credible issue. This is not difficult for the incumbent president, as the PSD led government has gone through a series of unpopular controversies related to justice system reforms. Yet the decision to ‘go negative’ to benefit from increased voter turnout appears counterproductive on all other accounts or, at best, difficult to manage. Should president Iohannis decide to continue on this path, the 2019 elections will provide the conditions for a comparative within case study of presidential political campaign strategies.

Armenia – Shortcomings in the parliamentary elections and the long shadow of the future

On 2 April 2017, a parliamentary election took place in Armenia. This was a particularly remarkable event in the political life of the country, as it was the first national vote after the approval of the constitutional reform, in December 2015 and the subsequent adoption of a new electoral code. The victory of the Republican Party, which has been in power since 1999, makes it possible for the incumbent, President Serzh Sargsyan, to think of taking on a prominent political role after the end of his second (and last) presidential mandate in 2018. In spite of the emphasis by the ruling political cadres, the president included[1], on the proper management of the electoral process, domestic and international observers have lamented malpractices both during the electoral campaign and the election itself. In spite of these concerns, most international observers have refrained from condemning the overall result.  This post will offer a detailed account of these issues.

RESULTS

On Monday 10 April, the results were published by the Central Committee Election (CEC).

Of the 105 seats in Parliament, 58 were won by the Republican Party, 31 by the Tsaroukyan bloc (led by the businessman Tagik Tsaroukyan), 9 by the Yeld bloc, and 7 by the Dashnaktsutyun Party (ARF) [2]. As prescribed by the new electoral code, four representatives of ethnic minorities were elected under a special quota. Three of them were allied with the Republican party (Assyrian, Kurdish and Yazidi) while the other one, a representative of the Russian community, run with the Tsaroukyan bloc.

The formations which did not meet the 5% threshold, and therefore were not assigned any seat, were: the ANC–PPA Alliance, the Ohanyan-Raffi-Oskanian Alliance, Armenian Renaissance, the Free Democrats Party and the Armenian Communist Party.

While the results could be interpreted as a narrow victory for the Republican party and will mean that the party will probably resort to a coalition, it is undoubtedly a more favourable result than what was predicted by surveys immediately before the election[3].  Notably, the opinion polls released at the end of March by the KOG Institute and the Demokratijos projektai foresaw the “Tsarukyan bloc” as the clear-cut winner, with 40,4% of the vote, and the ruling Republican Party collapsing to 19.4%. Meanwhile, the poll organised by the Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VCIOM) predicted the Tsarkukian’s bloc would gain 41% of preferences, and the Republican Party 39%.

THE CAMPAIGN

This plurality of candidates had an impact on the electoral campaign, which was characterised by an unusual level of activism by candidates. Most of them were campaigned on a similar political platform, based on day-to-day economic issues, such as unemployment, low salaries and rampant emigration rather than macro issues such as any geopolitical confrontation. Citizens reported an unusually high number of visits from party representatives and pamphlets sent to their address. In spite of this genuine electoral competition, some misconduct has been reported. Notably, at the end of March, the Union of Informed Citizens (UIC), an Armenian civic organisation, declared that school principals across the country were urging their staff and their students’ families to cast their vote for the Republican Party. While the ruling party did not deny this allegation tout court, the actions were dismissed as the spontaneous campaign of private citizens in a manner that was perfectly consistent with the provisions of the electoral code. This last point was contradicted by the UIC’s findings, which outlined 136 cases of school directors being given instructions by representatives of the Republican Party[4]. Due to these episodes, the opposition ORO and YELK blocs appealed to the CEC, asking for the disqualification of the Republican Party. Both appeals were rejected.

In addition, some disinformation campaigns seemed having been attempted.

In March, some Russian Twitter accounts posted the above e-mail supposedly leaked from USAID to demonstrate that external forces were actively manipulating the election results. USAID immediately dismissed the e-mail as a fraud, claiming that the staff would not have sent anything like that (in broken English) from a Gmail account.

External actors were concerned about the conduct of the campaign. On 16 March  Piotr Switalski, the head of the EU delegation in Armenia, invited Armenian voters not to get involved in electoral fraud, either by participating actively or by looking the other way. During his speech, he openly mentioned vote-buying, saying: “Don’t be exposed to the temptation of selling your vote. You may be approached by people who will be offering you money, services, promises in exchange for your vote. There is no money in the world that can be worth selling your vote”. This was not an isolated comment, as, in the following weeks, the United States and the EU Mission in Armenia put out a joint statement noting their concern about: “allegations of voter intimidation, attempts to buy votes, and the systemic use of administrative resources to aid certain competing parties.” In other words, in spite of the electronic system of voter identification provided by international donors (already mentioned in this blog), foreign diplomats based in Yerevan voiced their concern about a fraudulent electoral environment.

ASSESSING THE VOTE

Most assessments of the Election Day, except by the CIS monitoring mission[5], mentioned some types of irregularities. However, external observers refrained from labelling the overall process as not free and fair. The International Election Observation Mission (EOM) reported that: “The 2 April parliamentary elections were well administered and fundamental freedoms were generally respected. [However], the elections were tainted by credible information about vote-buying, and pressure on civil servants and employees of private companies”. In other words, while the overall process was not dismissed as fraudulent, the broader electoral climate was described as plagued by illegal practices and petty corruption. A similarly cautious statement was made by an EEAS spokesperson who, while fully endorsing all the shortcomings pointed out by the EOM, commented that: “The election result nevertheless reflects the overall will of the Armenian people”. It also added: “We look forward to working with the democratically elected new Parliament and Government”. This statement was not complemented by any declaration of the EU delegation in Armenia, as ambassador Switalski declined to comment on the electoral result.

Domestic criticism, from both civic and political activists, was much more critical. The Citizen Observer Initiative denounced widespread violations in the conduct of the elections, outlining episodes such as controlled voting, the manipulation of voter lists, pressure and bribes, inefficient commission work, insufficient vigilance at polling stations, and the failure of the technical devices[6]. The unelected ANC-PPA not only complained about fraud, but formally appealed to the CEC for the invalidation of the electoral result. Even though this claim was rejected[7], the parliamentary election results were annulled in a central village in the Aragatsotn province due to widespread fraud. Remarkably, the handing out of vote bribes was admitted even by Eduard Sharmazanov, the spokesperson of the Republic Party, who, however, added that isolated episodes did not affect the overall result. In spite of the shortcomings mentioned above, plus others that had not been included in this post (for reasons of space), people did not take to the streets to demonstrate against the dubious result. That is surprising, considering that, in the past years, elections have almost always triggered widespread demonstrations. Notably, both in 2008 and in 2013, several thousand activists protested against the allegedly rigged presidential election[8].

WHAT ABOUT THE PRESIDENT?

In spite of all the controversies, both during the campaign and the vote, the Republican Party has emerged as the winner of this election. While the current Prime Minister, Karapetyan, will keep his job until May 2018, the scenario after the end of the presidential mandate of Serzh Sargsyan is still to be defined. As reported previously in this blog, the recent constitutional reform will reduce the prerogatives of the president, making this office mainly ceremonial, and increase those of the prime minister. This power-sharing innovation, introduced shortly before the end of the second presidential mandate of Serzh Sargsyan, has been widely interpreted as an attempt by Sargysan to avoid relinquishing power. For his part, Mr Sargsyan has been extremely laconic in declarations about his future plans. For example, a few days after the elections, he declared in an interview: “I have never planned where I will be in the next stage of my life. I always found myself in places where I was of greater help to our security.” Turning to Prime Minister Karapetyan, he is by far one of the most popular figures in the party. Even though he was not a candidate for parliament, since he did not meet the residency requirement, his image dominated the campaign of the Republican Party. However, he does not seem to have a solid support network in Yerevan that would enable him to determine his own political future. In conclusion, while no open declaration about the future of Mr Sargsyan has been made, this electoral success may give him the option of avoiding an early political retirement.

This research was supported by a FP7/Marie Curie ITN action. Grant agreement N°: 316825

Notes

[1] ARMINFO News Agency. 2017. “Serzh Sargsyan: Big work has been done on conducting elections in accordance to international criteria”, April 3 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[2] ARMINFO News Agency. 2017. “Armenian CEC presented the final results of Parliamentary elections”, April 10 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[3] Some speculations are made on the relationship between the Republican party and the Tsarukyan bloc. For example, it has been hypothesised that President Sargsyan covertly supported it, since it subtracted support from other opposition forces. Similarly, before the elections, the analyst Emil Danielyan conjectured about Tsarukyan and Sargsyan having a “tacit understanding” for the future, which could lead either to a formal coalition or a role for the ‘Tsarukyan bloc’ as “constructive opposition”. As of this writing (11/04/2017), a coalition between the two has not been announced.

[4] Some school principals involved have sued the Civic Initiative which brought the scandal up to public attention.

[5] Armenpress News Agency (English). 2017. ‘CIS observer mission assesses Armenia’s parliamentary election as “open and transparent”’, 3 April (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[6] BBC Monitoring Trans Caucasus Unit. 2017. “Armenia: Observers say polls tainted by vote-buying, pressure”, April 3 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[7] Arminfo News Agency. 2017. “Sharmazanov to Ter-Petrosyan: Parliamentary elections are the best indicator of Armenia’s democratic development”, April 10 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[8] Loda, Chiara. “Perception of the EU in Armenia: A View from the Government and Society.” In Caucasus, the EU and Russia-Triangular Cooperation?, pp. 131-152. Nomos Verlagsgesellschaft mbH & Co. KG, 2016, 146.

Romania – Can an incumbent president campaign in favour of a political party?

This is a matter that Romania’s Constitutional Court was asked to clarify ahead of the European Parliament election that will take place on May 24-25. The Court’s verdict is expected on May 21, just a few days ahead of the poll.

The stakes in Romania’s European Parliament election are raised by the proximity of the next presidential election scheduled for November. President Băsescu is nearing the completion of his second term in office and is not allowed to stand for another one. As a result, the campaign is dominated by national politics. In this context, PM Ponta of the Social Democrats (PSD) has asked the Court to determine whether President Băsescu’s role in actively promoting the newly established centre-right Popular Movement Party (PMP) is legal. If the Court found his behaviour unconstitutional and the president continued to campaign for the PMP, then the ruling Social-Democrats would be ready to initiate a new suspension procedure.

The president is accused of breaching article 80 of the Constitution, which requires the head of state to act as a mediator between political actors, and article 84, according to which he cannot join a political party while in office. According to the prime minister, President Băsescu has infringed the constitution by declaring his explicit intention to vote for the PMP in the European election in numerous occasions, including a press conference organized at his official residence. Moreover, a few photos of him wearing a t-shirt with the inscription “Vote for PMP” were posted on Facebook.

The PMP is a new political party formed after President Băsescu broke with the Democratic Liberal Party (PDL) in March 2013. The rift between the head of state and his former party widened considerably during 2012. The president backed up unconditionally the austerity measures introduced by Emil Boc, the former PDL leader and prime minister between 2008 and 2012. As a result, he was unhappy to see PM Boc’s government ousted by a no-confidence motion in February 2012. He was even more displeased to see Emil Boc constrained to resign as PDL leader after the party polled a record low of 14% in the 2012 local elections.

After PDL’s crushing defeat in the 2012 general election, Băsescu urged the party to elect a new leader capable of winning the 2016 general election. In the internal contest organized in March 2013 he supported Elena Udrea, a minister of tourism in the PDL government (2008-2012) and one of his loyal supporters. Following Udrea’s defeat, President Băsescu broke definitively with the PDL and vowed to create a new right-wing political movement.

The PMP registered as a political party in January 2014. It has attracted the head of state’s supporters in the PDL, such as Elena Udrea and Emil Boc, and has a 16-member parliamentary group. The new party is also closing the gap on PDL in opinion polls and is expected to obtain around 10% of the vote for the European Parliament, only 1% less than the PDL. The difference between the two parties has decreased significantly since the president has explicitly stated his support for the new political grouping in early 2014 and started to attend its public events. Thus, the strategy used for the identification of the new presidential party seems to be working.

The European Parliament election will be hard-fought in Romania as political parties see it as a last chance to measure their popularity ahead of the November race, which will be a key issue in the formation of new political alliances and the designation of presidential candidates.

The ruling PSD is expected to obtain half of Romania’s 32 seats in the European Parliament. According to recent polls, its approval rating increased to almost 41% after the National Liberals (PNL) broke the Social-Liberal Union (USL) and left the government in February. The social democrats are expected to stand their own candidate in the presidential election, which is the main reason why the liberals left the ruling coalition.

The outcome of the European elections is not so easy to predict as far as the parties on the right are concerned. Crin Antonescu, the PNL leader, vowed to resign if his party polls less than 20% of the vote. This is a likely scenario, considering that PNL’s current approval ratings do not raise above 17%.

Alongside the PDL and the PMP, the Hungarian minority party (UDMR) and the Civic Force party led by former prime minister and aspiring presidential candidate Mihai Răzvan Ungureanu are also likely to pass the 5% electoral threshold.

Political commentators believe that centre-right parties can compete with a good chance in the next presidential election only if they agree on a common presidential candidate instead of fielding their own contenders. President Băsescu, who intends to return to active party politics when his second term ends, is also a staunch supporter of the right’s reunification. His ability to influence the formation of a new political alliances and the designation of a common candidate of the right could depend on how well the PMP does in the European election. Therefore, he has good reasons to continue playing an active role in the current electoral campaign.