Votes in times of Covid

Cristian Pîrvulescu (TRANSLATED BY COSMIN GHIDOVEANU)
English Section / 08 decembrie 2020

Votes in times of Covid

The stake of the parliamentary elections of 2020 should have been the reformation of the government, of the administration and public sector. The crisis caused by the Covid pandemic has shown the weaknesses of this ancient political organization. But the pandemic has changed the electoral behavior and so voter turnover, has become the main hurdle, like in a referendum. And voter absenteeism has once again become the main topic of debate! Or, amid this absenteeism, which is equally chronic and circumstantial, reform seems to be a failed objective. The Romanian political party system, stuck in the 90s, seems to still withstand pressures. What should have been a historic reversal for the PSD, were it not for the pandemic, has turned into a head-to-head race between the system parties for the top spot. And USR-Plus, lacking territorial structures on a national level, couldn't break up that balance.

Even though between 2004 and 2020 the Romanian political system underwent significant changes, that did not lead to the stabilization of the political system. Quite the contrary, these transformations have reflected institutionally through unpredictability, caused both by the almost ongoing cohabitation between the Parliament and the President, as well as in the chronic governmental instability (in 16 years and 4 parliamentary cycles, the government had 9 prime-ministers, so on average 1 year and 7 months per PM). Meanwhile, lacking a presidential majority, the president has been transformed from a central player of the political system into a spectator of the political life. And if these elections don't bring about a clear presidential majority, he will also remain that way!

That is why the great unknown of the Parliamentary elections of December 6, 2020 was voter turnout. Even without the Covid-19 pandemic voter turnout in the Romanian parliamentary elections was low, but the fear of contagion together with the lack of interest in politics have further decreased Romanians' political appetite. It was already a certainty that voter turnout would be low: since the local elections when September 28th, 2020 when voter turnout was 46.02% (over 2% below 2016 - 48.27%). On the other hand, since 2008 - after 2004 which was the last electoral cycle when the parliamentary and presidential elections were held together - turnout in the legislative elections has been low, ranging from a minimum of 39.20 % in 2008 and a maximum of 41.76 % in 2012.

Without neglecting the fact that in each of these elections several million voters were not in the country, it is obvious that the interest in the Parliamentary elections has always been low compared to the local and presidential elections. Whereas in 2004 voter turnover was 58.51 %, după after the elections it fell significantly, which has also been influenced by the placement of the elections at the end of the electoral cycle, both in 2012, as well as in 2016 and this year. On the other hand, four years from now, in 2024, all elections (European, local, parliamentary and presidential) will take place in one year, which will have implications on the electoral behavior.

In the Parliamentary elections of 2016 the low turnover had a direct impact on the results, favoring the PSD, whose disciplined electorate showed up to vote. Or, back then, the vote turnover was 39.5% of the registered voters (7212022 in the country and 106038 abroad), whereas now it was below 35%. The only important increase in terms of presence was the diaspora electorate, which has surpassed by over 150000 votes the result of 2016.

It was also low turnout that caused the bi-party trend, which had been visible for a long time and confirmed by the recent local elections, to be confirmed this time as well. The two political parties with a significant territorial structure - the PNL and PSD - succeeding in getting together over 60% of the votes. Concerning the three decades after the change of government in 1989 we notice that the PSD is traditionally faced with an alliance of parties (1992, 1996, 2000, 2004), and it actually experimented itself with such an alliance in 2012 (USL), and after 2008 it was faced with a dual-party pressure.

But already in 2008, PDL (31%) and PSD (32%) were close to being equal, which has not prevented the disaster of the PDL in the local and parliamentary elections of 2012 and in the end its absorption by the PNL in 2014. And in 2016, the PNL and PSD got again over 60% of votes, and that the PSD had 45% and the PNL only had 20%. This time the relationship between the two parties is far more balanced, and the PSD endures well in its traditional strongholds.

At the same time, past the results, the ability of the PSD to negotiate a government is unlikely. On one hand, the third party, USR-Plus, has succeeded in compensating the lack of territorial structure with the vote in the diaspora and will play a key role in the formation of a new majority, on the other hand, isolated in the Parliament, the PSD has no potential for a coalition.

But after the massive absenteeism, a negative trend of these elections is the return of extremism in Romanian politics. After it had been integrated for a decade and a half in the PSD - which had not only acquired the voters, but also the leaders and messages of the PRM - nationalist and conspirationist nationalism, which had already been experienced in the parliamentary elections of 2016, the PRU, has now returned to Romanian politics through AUR, a party which seems to have made it its goal to "infect" and destabilize Romanian society. Perhaps the results of this party are still modest, but it reveals the consolidation of a new chasm between Europeans and anti-Europeans.

At the same time, the traditional rifts - urban-rural, center - country edges (Old Kingdom-Transylvania or North-South), and even between the state and the Church - have once again been visible and have reconfirmed the existence of a hard to reconcile Romania, for which the Parliament alone could be the place where a common ground in terms of common interest is reached. Or, when parliament cannot exert its function anymore in the achievement of compromise - which is essential in a liberal democracy - and the President is almost always been placed in a constitutional defensive, the positive policy, focused on goals and conflict, as well as the reformation of the state run the risk of being compromised. And in Romania reform is the only solution for the unlocking of a state that is frozen in a transition that tends to become perpetual.

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