Issues Related to Uninominal Voting in Romania

Nine O’Clock November 14, 2007
by Catalin Bogdan

The Romanian electoral system is heading for a uninominal version. There is a competition between a government bill, enacted as the Executive assumed responsibility on it before Parliament, but whose promulgation was postponed by the President, and the presidential one, which in a first stage depends on the result of an already announced referendum. The stake is by no means trivial, as the decision has far-reaching effects. First of all, it will either encourage the shift towards bipolarism, or re-size the spectrum of the multi-party system.

The temptation of bipolarism is not new. For over a decade since the restoration of democracy, a de facto tandem has dominated the political arena. Ion Iliescu’s party has competed against the centre-right alliance, taking turns in Power. Meanwhile, the political merger phenomenon gained scope, encouraged among others by the raise of the electoral threshold, which strengthened bipolarism.

But while in the left-wing camp PSD reigns supreme, the right wing is affected by chronic splintering, although some mergers were reported.

CDR broke up after 2000, and the PD-PNL alliance ended in an even noisier divorce. If we look at the configuration of Power so far, we see either the single-party government trend or the endorsement of heterogeneous alliances. The major problems with the lack of efficient parliamentary support is the emergence of opposition at a society level and, consequently, political instability. Apart from the temptation of overwhelming majority (in the early ‘90s for the new post-communist left wing, the vigorous resurgence in 2000 of the same party, converted to Social Democracy, the incumbent President’s authoritarian slips) we also see the severe failure of a culture of political partnership (short-lived coalitions, undermined by suicidal conflicts, successive betrayals, quick changes in ideological identity).

The absolute majority system supported by the President will benefit the first ranking party, which happens to be, according to recent polls, his very own favourite party. But beyond short-term calculations, we have the prospect of returning to a system similar to the much-disputed Romanian interwar system. At the time, strong anti-system trends emerged, as much of the electorate felt hardly represented in Power structures. In their turn, post-communist left-wing governments eventually generated vigorous rejection reactions, owing not so much to governmental under-performance (e.g. the quasi-positive image of the Nastase Cabinet), but rather to the sterilisation of representation mechanisms. While a substantial part of the electorate will count of PD candidates, there are sound chances that opinions will change in the short run, de-legitimising de facto a party which believes to be entitled to a four-year term in office.

In fact, this is one of the weaknesses of the absolute majority system, which allows for a shift in political options during a legislative term, but which virtually rules out the early election alternative. It is surprising for a vigorous supporter of early elections (initially aimed at strengthening a fragile majority) like President Basescu to implicitly support the elimination of this option. Another weakness is that those who initially opposed the winners (i.e. those who did not vote for them) are deprived of parliamentary representation. The principle “the winner takes all” risks undermining the credibility of the very principle of representative democracy. If this is consistently preached, but not practiced (even if in a relative form) than the opposition of the public will take more chaotic and unpredictable forms, running the risk of getting out of control (the case of France is often mentioned as an example).

The proportionality principles imply the opposite risk: the risk of instability and fragmentation of the political spectrum. Alliances are always undermined by the principle “you can’t fit two swords into the same sheath.” Local political leaders dream of unhindered power, partly because of the electoral preference for authoritarian and populist politicians (enhanced authority is required, in principle, in order to keep excessive promises). We lack politicians with modest claims, aware of the small size of the party they represent, but also of their importance for the stability of a coalition. As a rule, small-party leaders who joined governments were no late in rising up or simply crossing over to the opposite camp. A further cause of such centrifugal tendencies is the lack of basic consensus between the various political parties, which would allow for limited-time, limited-scope partnerships. The blatant disregard for ideological criteria further narrows this spectrum of possible shared interests.

Essentially, the current crisis is first of all a consequence of the failure of the “ruling coalition” concept. The result: parties cunningly buying time to see which side the bread is buttered on (like PSD), parties seeking authoritarian rule, possible helped by the new electoral law (like PD), parties seeking to take advantage of the negative vote (like PNG or the traditional PRM), parties threatened by marginalisation (like PNL, which lacks “natural” allies except for a feeble right-wing pole). And perhaps the root cause is precisely the disregard for the ideological element. Without a strategic framework, it all comes down to petty, temporary bargaining.