Romanian legislative elections take place a week from today. We’ve dealt with this before, so stop looking so surprised. Our last post summarized the main parties, candidates, and early polling, so it’s time to turn to the clusterfuck details of what promises to be a messy outcome.
Following the collapse of communism, Romanians elected their MPs through a closed party list system. Voters selected their party preference, and seats were subsequently distributed based on percentages. There was a 5% threshold for parliamentary representation, with set-aside exceptions in the Chamber of Deputies (the lower house) for ethnic minorities.
Electoral reforms in spring 2008 replaced this system with what are more or less single-member districts. Romania’s 42 judets (counties) were cut up into electoral units at both the Chamber and Senate levels. Anyone who wins his district with an absolute majority gets in. This reform had significant backing from NGOs, who believed that tying MPs to districts would improve their accountability and help shift their sense of responsibility to their constituents rather than their parties.
This being Romania, there’s more and it’s bad. The IFES Election Guide explains:
“The seats in districts where no candidate wins an absolute majority of votes are then distributed to parties proportionally. To gain representation in the Senate, a party must win at least 5% of the national popular vote or win an absolute majority in at least 3 single-seat districts…To gain representation in the Chamber of Deputies, a party must win at least 5% of the national popular vote or win an absolute majority in at least 6 single-seat districts.”
So the question: “distributed to parties proportionally” to what? Proportional to total national vote? Not quite. Professor Alan Renwick, who gets paid to understand this stuff, tries to clarify the distribution of the non-majority seats:
“Besides the single-member district outright winners, a party’s seats are allocated to candidates in decreasing order of the ratio between the absolute number of votes they received and the quota in the county where they ran. However, the seat allocation mechanism assures that every SMD is assigned a representative who actually ran for election in that district, and this goal is consistently prioritized over rewarding the highest vote getters.”
In case that didn’t help, a similarly nonsensical explanation cribbed from Dr. Sean:
(i) in the first stage it is calculated how many seats go to each party in each electoral district; from this you subtract (if there are any) those seats obtained directly by the parties in that particular county through winning a SMD by a qualified majority.
(ii) then at the level of each district they draw up a ‘party list’ which will contain all the candidates of the respective party in the descending order of the votes obtained.
(iii) At the district level, seats are distributed to the better positioned candidates of those parties entitled to seats, but only function of the electoral quota they obtained.
(iv) It is possible that after this stage not all seats will have been distributed. Those undistributed are redistributed, function of the percentage obtained at the national level by the parties, to the best rated candidates in their parties in the respective counties.
Ground control to Major Tom? A total lack of information in English has left non-Romanian scholars grasping at straws. Romanians I’ve spoken to are equally clueless as to how this will actually be implemented once the votes have been counted.
It will be especially difficult to sort out districts with significant ethnic minorities. The Hungarian party UDMR generally checks in at 6% of the national vote, giving them a powerful bloc of MPs willing to serve in any governing coalition that makes appropriate concessions to their group interests. A new Hungarian party, the Hungarian Civic Alliance, now threatens to peel off 1-2% from UDMR, potentially dragging both down under the 5% threshold for parliamentary representation. In the past, this had a simple outcome: neither party would be represented, apart from the one ethnic Hungarian set-aside seat going to whichever of them received more votes.
The new system is chaos in Kolozsvár. What happens in a Chamber district where a Hungarian, Roma, or German candidate wins 50% of the vote but his party fails to meet the 5% threshold nationally? Would the candidate be replaced by a losing candidate from a mainstream party? Previously, winning 6% of the vote meant winning 6% of the national seats. The new system’s impact on minorities will not be known until after the election. The Hungarians are concentrated in very few places, with 98% of them living within three of the country’s eight regions. Roma, on the other hand, are spread more evenly; the three regions with the largest Roma populations cover barely 50% of the group’s total numbers. Summary of the situation:
(Unknown minority distribution within the new single-member districts) +
(maintenance of national-level party vote thresholds) =
(massive rubber band ball.)
The people who are supposed to oversee this have a real spiffy website that gives no useful information in any language. The problem is, a huge number of these districts may have to be distributed based on that nonsensical proportional system. If we held elections in America under these rules, most of the seats would simply go to Democrats and Republicans. Only a handful would require proportional distribution in places where Greens, Libertarians, or independents held the winner below 50%. However, Romania is a three-party system, and also has a strong Hungarian party and a weaker Roma one capable of peeling off decent numbers of votes in particular districts.
Because there is no district-level public polling, we simply don’t know whether 10%, 30%, or 70% of the seats will need to be distributed using the proportional method. The ratio of seats to actual national votes could be significantly skewed. The districts were drawn by the Social Democratic Party (PSD) and National Liberal (PNL)-dominated parliament, so presumably they will advantage those parties at the cost of the Democratic Liberal Party (PDL). That said, it’s still all guesswork.
Certainly, the reformed electoral code has changed the nature of campaigning. One person I spoke with said candidates are “all running for Mayor.” Thanks to the new single-member districts, local issues have supplanted debates over national policy. Additionally, parties searching for strong individual candidates have nominated a number of celebrities including Gymnastics icon Bela Karolyi for UDMR (“DAHR” is UDMR); former Presidential Councelor and national starlet Elena Udrea for PDL; and Eurovision bronze medalist Luminita Anghel for PSD. Finally, the new system will mean a shift away from party money towards personal financing of campaigns. This will likely reduce the number of women MPs, the striking Ms. Udrea notwithstanding.
The election is scheduled for a Sunday before a national holiday, which could drive down turnout. Autumn polling shows PSD, now allied with the small Conservative Party (PC), closing a gap on PDL for the lead:
|Polling Firm||Date||Source||PDL||PSD – PC||PNL||PNG||UDMR||PRM||PNTCD||PIN||PCM||Undecided|
(If you think the Romanian political party system has anything to do with the traditional left-right cleavage, let the pre-election alliance between the Social Democrats and Conservatives disabuse you of that notion…) Once it’s over, once there’s an actual distribution of seats, then the fun really begins. Assume something approximating a 35%-35%-20% electoral split, with PSD and PDL coming in neck and neck with PNL trailing. This leaves three possible combinations for forming a government:
- PSD-PDL: Ideological opposites. Will not share power.
- PDL-PNL: PDL was built by PNL defectors. This combination ran the country until 2006-2007 as the Justice and Truth Alliance, which fell apart amidst personality conflicts and general backstabbing.
- PSD-PNL: These two parties have learned to more or less get along in the parliament, functioning as a check on President Basescu. They could form a center-left coalition.
A PSD-PNL government, backed by a few extra MPs from PC and UDMR, would be led by Mircea Geoana. This being Romania, there’s more and it’s bad. President Basescu, PDL member and long the most popular politican in the country, gets to name the Prime Minister. He has already suggested that neither Geoana nor PNL’s Tariceanu are acceptable. Adrian Nastase, president of PSD’s National Council, has said that if Basescu “disregards the people’s will” then the new governing majority parties would walk out. If that occurred, the current PNL minority government would remain in office as the lamest of ducks until new elections could be held concurrent to the Presidential balloting in 2009.
While Basescu may be blowing smoke, he does have motive to muck up the process. His party’s popularity is largely a function of his own, and pairing legislative elections with Presidential elections would likely result in a better outcome than PDL can score on Sunday. Hopefully, public pressure brought on by the economic crisis will compel the belligerents to settle on someone. Presidential elections aren’t for almost a year, and the government has some big issues to address. Hopefully, we’ll know by the New Year who gets to face these challenges.