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Sunday, November 30, 2008

Romania votes under a new electoral system

by Manuel Alvarez-Rivera, Puerto Rico

Voters in Romania went to the polls on Sunday to choose members of both houses of the South-eastern European nation's bicameral Parliament, the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies. However, voters cast ballots for candidates in single-member constituencies - 137 in the Senate and 315 in the Chamber of Deputies - under a new electoral system introduced earlier this year, which replaced the party-list proportional representation system in place since 1990, following the downfall of Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu the preceding year.

Romanian expatriates also took part in the election, with six constituencies (two in the Senate, four in the Chamber) set aside for them.

Romania's Central Electoral Bureau's 2008 parliamentary elections website has preliminary results in Romanian only; results are also available at the bottom of this posting, under Update.

Although the election took place in single-member constituencies, it should be noted that the new system - introduced to make Romanian parliamentarians more accountable to voters - is not strictly first-past-the-post: candidates need an absolute majority of the vote in order to win a constituency seat, and the overall distribution of seats in each chamber will continue to be carried out by proportional representation among parties winning at least five percent of the nationwide vote, or first place in a minimum number of constituency seats (three in the Senate, six in the Chamber).

Romania's proportional representation system calls for seats in each house of Parliament to be initially allocated by the Hare quota in forty-three multi-member constituencies - Romania's forty-one counties, plus the municipality of Bucharest and the special constituency for Romanians abroad - with unfilled seats and remainder votes pooled on a nationwide basis, where they are apportioned by the largest average method (the D'Hondt rule), and subsequently assigned to the multi-member constituencies, following a complex procedure designed to insure that these seats are allocated without changing the nationwide distribution of mandates among parties or multi-member constituencies.

Then, in each of the multi-member constituencies any single-member constituency seats won by a party will be deducted from its corresponding proportional seat total, while the remaining seats will be distributed among unelected candidates in a way such that every member of the Senate and the Chamber represents a single-member constituency, and that every constituency is represented in Parliament. Finally, the constitution guarantees one Chamber of Deputies seat to lists representing national minorities that fail to obtain the number of votes for representation in Parliament.

In many ways, Romania's new electoral system closely resembles the system used for elections to the Italian Senate between 1948 and 1992, in which candidates also ran in single-member districts; an even larger majority of 65% was needed in order to secure a constituency seat, while unfilled seats were proportionally allocated (at the regional level). However, in practice the Italian Senate electoral system operated in a proportional manner because very few candidates secured the required majority at the constituency level. This may turn out to be the case as well in Romania, where no single party has commanded an overall majority since 1992.

Unlike other Eastern European countries, Romania had a decidedly tumultuous transition to democracy in late 1989, when a National Salvation Front led by less-than-reformed Communists stepped in to fill the power vacuum created by the violent overthrow and subsequent execution of Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena. In a not quite transparent (some would say fraudulent) election held the following year, the Front won a large majority, and party leader Ion Iliescu - a prominent Communist leader who had fallen out of favor with Ceausescu - became president. That said, Romania acquired a democratic constitution in 1991, and subsequent elections have been generally regarded as free and fair. In 1996 the ruling party, which by then had changed its name to the Party of Social Democracy (PSD; subsequently the Social Democratic Party) lost to the right-of-center Democratic Convention. However, the Convention's government proved to be fractious and inept, and by 2000 Iliescu and the Social Democrats were back in power, while support for the far-right Greater Romania Party (PRM) soared to unprecedented levels: in that year's presidential election, PRM leader Corneliu Vadim Tudor - a court poet during the Ceausescu era who subsequently gained notoriety for his demagogic utterances against ethnic minorities and gays - polled strongly, although he was soundly defeated by Iliescu in a runoff vote.

In the 2004 general election, PSD remained the largest party in both the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies, but narrowly lost the presidency to Bucharest mayor Traian Basescu of the centrist Truth and Justice Alliance, which brought together the Democratic Party (PD) and the National Liberal Party (PNL). Basescu, who campaigned on a platform against corruption - an endemic problem in Romania, even after the country's entry into the European Union in 2007 - subsequently appointed Calin Popescu-Tariceanu of PNL as prime minister (Romania has a semi-presidential form of government, in which most powers are vested in the prime minister, although the head of state retains reserve powers in defense and foreign policy); Popescu-Tariceanu then formed a coalition government composed of the Alliance parties, the Humanist Party - later known as the Conservative Party (PC) - and the Democratic Union of Hungarians in Romania (UDMR), which represents the country's sizable Hungarian minority.

However, by 2005 Basescu and Popescu-Tariceanu were at odds over a variety of issues, and the differences eventually erupted into open conflict. In 2007 the prime minister dismissed eight cabinet ministers supported by PD and Basescu. Moreover, with the support of PSD Parliament voted to suspend Basescu from office, on the grounds that he had allegedly violated the Constitution; however, the decision was overturned by voters in a referendum held later that year on the president's impeachment. Since then, Basescu has continued to clash with Popescu-Tariceanu (who remained as head of a minority PNL-UDMR government), most recently over a law increasing the salaries of schoolteachers.

Romania's economy has enjoyed unprecedented growth in recent times, but the country remains the EU's second poorest member (neighboring Bulgaria is the poorest). Meanwhile, a large number of Romanians have emigrated to other countries (chiefly among them Italy and Spain), and the country's population has declined by more than a million and a half persons since 1990.


Pre-election polls had the Democratic Liberal Party (PD-L) - a merger of PD with the Liberal Democratic Party (PLD; a 2006 PNL offshoot) - as the likely election winner, with the PSD+PC alliance in second place and PNL in a distant third place. As it was, the PSD+PC alliance narrowly outpolled PD-L in both the Senate and Chamber elections, but PD-L nonetheless won the largest number of seats in both houses of Parliament, according to final results published by the Central Electoral Bureau on its 2008 parliamentary elections website.

The results of the Chamber of Deputies election were as follows:

Democratic Liberal Party (PD-L) - 2,228,860 votes (32.4%), 115 seats
Social Democratic Party+Conservative Party (PSD+PC) - 2,279,449 votes (33.1%), 114 seats
National Liberal Party (PNL) - 1,279,063 votes (18.6%), 65 seats
Democratic Union of Hungarians in Romania (UDMR) - 425,008 votes (6.2%), 22 seats
Greater Romania Party (PRM) - 217,595 votes (3.2%), no seats
New Generation Party-Christian Democratic (PNGCD) - 156,901 votes (2.3%), no seats
Others - 299,918 votes (4.4%), 18 seats

Meanwhile, the Senate election had the following results:

Democratic Liberal Party (PD-L) - 2,312,358 votes (33.6%), 51 seats
Social Democratic Party+Conservative Party (PSD+PC) - 2,352,968 votes (34.2%), 49 seats
National Liberal Party (PNL) - 1,291,029 votes (18.7%), 28 seats
Democratic Union of Hungarians in Romania (UDMR) - 440,449 votes (6.4%), 9 seats
Greater Romania Party (PRM) - 245,930 votes (3.6%), no seats
New Generation Party-Christian Democratic (PNGCD) - 174,519 votes (2.5%), no seats
Others - 70,802 votes (1.0%), no seats

Both PD-L and PSD+PC won 114 seats each under the proportional allocation of Chamber seats; however, in Arad county PD-L was entitled to four seats but won five single-member constituency seats by absolute majority, which brought its total to 115 seats - one more than PSD+PC. However, the PD-L upper house seat plurality resulted entirely from the nationwide distribution of unfilled Senate seats.

Only 85 of the Chamber's 315 single-member constituencies were filled by absolute majority, of which 40 were won by PSD+PC, 27 by PD-L, 14 by UDMR and four by PNL. Likewise, only 31 out of 137 Senate seats were decided by absolute majority: of these, twelve went to PSD+PC, eleven to PD-L, one to PNL and seven to UDMR. Moreover, one side effect of the new electoral system is that some constituencies will be represented in Parliament by candidates who arrived in second place (or lower), due in large measure to the fact that proportional representation produced a different distribution of seats than first-past-the-post: according to the Central Electoral Bureau, PD-L topped the poll in 138 Chamber of Deputies constituencies, PSD+PC in 117, PNL in 37 and UDMR in 23, while in the Senate PD-L came first in 58 constituencies, PSD+PC in 55, PNL in fifteen and UDMR in nine. Not surprisingly, there has been much consternation in the Romanian press about the workings of a system that makes winners out of apparent losers. However, it should be noted that this was also a common occurrence in Italian Senate elections from 1948 to 1992.

Finally, parties representing national minorities other than the Hungarians secured a total of 18 seats in the Chamber of Deputies, but the far-right PRM was left without parliamentary representation for the first time since 1992.

Voter turnout in the election stood at just 39.2%, sharply down from 58.5% in 2004. However, it should be noted that unlike previous legislative elections in Romania, the 2008 parliamentary elections were not held at the same time as the presidential election, due to the fact that a 2004 constitutional amendment expanded the presidential term to five years (whereas parliamentary elections will continue to be held every four years). As such, while the drop in turnout may be indicative of popular discontent with Romania's political establishment, it is quite likely that many voters weren't interested in taking part in the event simply because the presidency wasn't at stake.