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Sunday, December 13, 2009

The unexpected and controversial outcome of Romania's 2009 presidential runoff election

by Manuel Alvarez-Rivera, Puerto Rico

Confounding most pollsters, Romanian voters apparently re-elected President Traian Băsescu to office in a runoff vote held last Sunday, December 6. According to definitive figures issued by Romania's Central Electoral Bureau (available in Romanian on the official 2009 presidential election website and in English on Presidential and Parliamentary Elections in Romania), Băsescu, supported by the right-of-center Democratic Liberal Party (PDL), prevailed over Senate president Mircea Geoană of the alliance of the center-left Social Democratic Party (PSD) and the Conservative Party (PC) by a very narrow margin of 50.3% to 49.7% - the closest-ever outcome of a Romanian presidential election.

However, Geoană and the Social Democrats insist the election was marred by "massive fraud," and went to Romania's Constitutional Court to challenge the outcome. Although the Central Electoral Bureau rejected a PSD request for a vote recount, on Friday, December 11 the Constitutional Court ordered the Bureau to carry out a recount of 138,476 invalid votes cast in the runoff - a figure nearly twice as large as Băsescu's reported margin of victory (albeit just slightly higher than the invalid vote total in the 2004 presidential runoff election). Nonetheless, as of Sunday, December 13 the ongoing invalid vote recount appeared unlikely to overturn the election outcome: according to Romanian news media reports, President Băsescu had actually increased his lead over Geoană.

Băsescu narrowly topped the poll in the first round of voting last November 22, but his re-election chances appeared slim after Geoană subsequently secured the support of both the third-placed National Liberal Party (PNL) and the Hungarian Democratic Union of Romania, which along with the PSD+PC alliance commanded a combined 55% of the vote in the first round. However, last Sunday's presidential runoff election had a higher voter turnout rate (58%) than the first round of voting, when 54.4% of the electorate went to the polls. While this phenomenon is common in French presidential elections (which are also carried out under the runoff voting system), this had never been the case in Romania until now.

Moreover, the results of the runoff vote indicated a substantial increase in the already high number of voters who cast their ballots in special polling stations set up for Romanian citizens away from their place of residence on election day. While observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) have expressed concern about the implementation of this provision of Romania's electoral law, they are of the view that both rounds of the presidential election were carried out according to international standards.

There was also a sizable turnout increase among Romanian expatriates, whose votes decided the election in favor of Băsescu: Geoană actually won a very narrow majority of the votes cast in Romania proper.

At any rate, the impasse over the outcome of the presidential election threatens to aggravate the ongoing political crisis in Romania. The southeastern European nation has been without a government since last October, when the Social Democrats pulled out of the ten month-old grand coalition government headed by PDL leader Emil Boc, and subsequently joined forces with the opposition parties to bring it down in a parliamentary vote of confidence. Under Romania's constitution, the president chooses the prime minister, and Geoană had committed himself to appoint the popular mayor of Sibiu/Hermannstadt, Klaus Ionannis - an ethnic German - as head of a PSD-PC-PNL-UDMR coalition government. However, if Băsescu remains in office, it's far from clear if and what kind of government could be formed by a prime minister appointed by him, given that PDL is well short of an overall majority in both houses of Romania's Parliament, following an inconclusive legislative election last year.

To be certain, the president could call an early parliamentary election, but 1) he cannot do so during his last six months in office, so he would have to wait until the beginning of his new mandate; 2) Parliament would have to reject twice the president's proposed candidate(s) for head of government; and 3) the early election couldn't be called until two months had passed since the first such appointment. Moreover, the outcome of the presidential election's first round showed little variation in party strength since the last legislative election, which suggests a fresh poll might bring little change in the composition of Parliament.

To make matters worse, Romania's political crisis is taking place in the middle of a severe recession that has caused its economy to contract by eight percent this year, while the unemployment rate has reached a seven-year high of 7.5%. The IMF and the European Union have agreed to a thirty billion dollar emergency aid package, but payments are on hold until a new government is in place in Bucharest - which does not appear likely to be the case anytime soon.


On Monday, December 14, 2009, Romania's Constitutional Court validated the election of President Traian Băsescu for a second term in office, thus rejecting the Social Democratic Party's request to annul the results of the recently held presidential vote. The ruling came after a recount of invalid votes cast in the runoff election found 1,260 valid votes for President Băsescu and 987 for Social Democratic challenger Mircea Geoană, who has accepted the Constitutional Court's decision.