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First, there is a change in electoral rules, as the mixed-member system used in the 2008 and 2012 elections has been replaced by the closed-list proportional system, which was employed until 2004.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.
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.