Political analysts believe that voter turnout in Romania’s upcoming December 11 election will be, same as in the previous parliamentary ballot, somewhere at 40 – 50 percent.
Political analysts and sociologists Radu Magdin, Cristian Pirvulescu, Alfred Bulai, Marius Pieleanu, Bogdan Ficeac and Barbu Mateescu maintain that the winter holidays don’t represent a determining factor in respect to the voter turnout, but they expect the turnout rate to decline in the event of unfavorable weather forecasts.
“The winter holidays will influence a reduced number of people registered on the electoral rolls. I would rather go on the unforeseen circumstance key, if there is a bad weather warning, snowfalls keeping people at home and physically preventing them from reaching the polling stations. In this scenario, the low turnout will benefit the big parties or the most vocal competitors in the election campaign,” Radu Magdin believes.
Barbu Mateescu explains that parliamentary elections usually take place “in November or December, but not that close to Christmas for this holiday to have an impact,” and Alfred Bulai thinks that December 11 “isn’t such a dangerous date.”
In Cristian Pirvulescu’s opinion, the decline in the Romanians’ mobility to voting, since 1990 up to now, was due to presidential and parliamentary elections being organized separately.
“After 1990, when the presidential and legislative elections took place simultaneously, and the voter turnout stood at 86 percent, the mobilisation to voting inevitably entered a declining trend, going from 76 percent in 1992 and 1996 to 65 percent in 2000. In 2004, it stood at 58 percent, for it to reach 39 percent in 2008, and 41 percent in 2012. This was most likely the effect of the separation of parliamentary from presidential elections. As the conditions haven’t changed from 2008 and 2012, the turnout will not be much higher,” the analyst says.
Bogdan Ficeac believes that the voter participation flatlining at 40-50 percent is due to the fact that “generally speaking, the political class has disappointed.”
“The turnover, most likely, will be under or near 50 percent, as usual. I don’t believe there will be a great stake in these elections, because, generally speaking, the political class has disappointed, and those newly emerged on the political stage haven’t convinced yet,” Ficeac says.
Alfred Bulai sees a possible explanation for this turnout in the fact that Romanians have lost interest in parliamentary elections. He maintains that voters rather prefer to voice their opinion by vote when it comes to electing the head of state or solving the local communities’ problems.
“The turnout will range around 50 percent, somewhere in the regular margin, because the stake is and isn’t big. I mean it is not as big as in the presidential elections, where there usually is the greatest interest, but it is not at the level of local elections, where again there is a great interest because there is an involvement of everyone on a local level. However, it depends on very many things that will happen in this campaign, on how spectacular and exciting it is. For now, my feeling is that there is nothing dramatic, significant going on, so as to move a large part of the population. Therefore, it will be a lower turnout than in 2014, but around what we usually have,” Alfred Bulai said.
Barbu Mateescu doesn’t rule out “the possibility of the Romanians’ turnout reaching significantly higher rates”, and Marius Pieleanu says that although at present the turnout is estimated “somewhere at 40 percent,” it might “increase or decrease depending on how things evolve in the election campaign.”
“If there are no ‘November surprises’ in the election campaign, the turnout will remain similar to that in the previous legislative elections,” Cristian Pirvulescu also maintains.
Radu Magdin draws attention that undecided voters should be the stake of the political class, as “this quiet majority can have the capacity to capsize all sociological predictions, when there is a strong enough motivation.”
“If we were to follow the local elections trend, which gathered around 50 percent voter turnout, we can say that we won’t have any major surprises in this ballot. However, the average-term stake of the political class should be represented by the rest of 50+ percent of voters who don’t turn out to polls for various subjective reasons: disappointment, apathy, lack of representation, etc. (…) We must take into account the confidence level which the political parties, as organisations, have in the eyes of the target electorate – we are not referring here to the tough electorate, those voters who are well crystallized, but to the enfranchised citizens who are undecided, who are fluid in terms of making decisions. They are disappointed with the current political class and they will probably sanction certain candidates with a negative vote or by not casting ballots on the day in question,” the analyst says.
The return to voting on lists to the detriment of uninominal voting represents for Radu Magdin a return “to the discipline of big parties and to a voting machines competition,” and Barbu Mateescu maintains that “the brand of the party will matter more than candidates.”
“Voting on a list supposes a party action, namely programmes, candidates, responsibility in designating the candidates and presenting the programmes. It means less money because we noticed that in the uninominal voting system, a lot of citizens were introduced on the lists who didn’t have much to do with politics, but far more with business or the money funding the campaigns,” Bogdan Ficeac says.
In Alfred Bulai’s opinion, returning to voting on lists does not have an electoral impact, but only confers to parties’ leadership a higher control over the lists of candidates.
“Before there was also a control on nomination, but in the campaign it is more unitary now, as the interest is in the list and not in the constituency under the nominees’ responsibility. People cast ballots the same way, namely for parties, and, possibly, for a person or two on the lists. In fact, in the uninominal voting system too, a great part of the candidates weren’t known and people actually voted for the party,” Bulai brings to mind.
Marius Pieleanu says that “there will be a rather political voting,” to the detriment of independent candidates and small parties.
“If so far independents or persons running on small party lists, but meaning something for the local community, stood chances, today, as we speak, the big parties will be in advantage, those having electoral pools homogeneously distributed nationwide and with a well-designed electoral network. The least advantaged will obviously be those running as independents or the small parties without electoral structure,” Pieleanu says.
Cristian Pirvulescu underscores that the “seat allocation algorithm does not change” following the return to list voting.
“As a matter of fact, the electoral system has stayed proportional all the time, with only some balance adjustments being operated. For instance, the electoral bonus system was introduced in 1926, but the proportional seat distribution has been constantly observed. The 2008 and 2012 elections took place in the single-member constituency system, but the county-wide seat distribution was still proportional, as was the national allocation of the seats left over, just the way the proportional representation procedure has always worked in Romania. Moreover, the representation disproportion – the difference between a party’s vote percentage and the seats assigned to it – has been lower in 2008 and 2012 than before. In 2000, for instance, with 37 percent of the vote the Party of Social Democracy of Romania (PDSR) won 46 percent of the seats, and the Greater Romania Party (PRM), with 21 percent of the votes reaped 26 percent of the seats. The situation will most probably repeat in this year’s election, where parties with less developed local organizations will not be able to make it past the 5 percent electoral threshold and the votes obtained by them will be reassigned to the parties that will exceed the threshold. These are not the consequences of the electoral law, but of the new law on political parties,” argues the analyst.
Radu Magdin explains that the current legislation requires political parties to keep within the same expenditure ceiling and bans many of the classic communication practices that had been used before – street advertising, flyering, branded gifts, “forcing candidates to tap into their creativity during the electioneering campaign and setting the same starting line for all those in the race for a seat of Senator or deputy, regardless of the party or alliance they belong to, of whether they run as independents or not.”
“Leaving aside procedures, legislation and electoral calculations, the difference between the two voting systems is given by the typology of the candidacies. In other words, in the single-vote system it was the person, not the party logo that was elected. It was a battle on two frontlines: the targeted voter group, fought depending on each individual constituency – urban or rural, with all the respective micro-specifics; and inside the party, against the other peer competitors,” says Magdin.
He explains that the single-vote system was “costly” but “theoretically, the most capable candidate in terms of the campaign and message was the winner.” Radu Magdin sees a downside of this voting system in that “certain constituencies were easy to approach in electoral terms, easy to win and with a high number of voters on the roll,” but then again there were also constituencies difficult to approach from the viewpoint of electioneering.
“Apart from that, the system was misleading the voters because there were cases when the candidates of the same party were running different campaign messages even on the same street – remember that street banners were not forbidden. There have been cases when a candidate didn’t land a seat in Parliament although he garnered the majority of the votes,” adds Radu Magdin.
The analyst considers that in the case of the list voting the procedure is simplified as the “election campaign is consistent,” but lining up the candidates under the party logo could trigger “an inertial non-combat” attitude among Parliament hopefuls.
As for the current electoral legislation, the analysts believe it could determine the political formations to turn to online media or door-to-door canvassing in order to send out their messages to the electoral pool.
“It’s quite possible that we’ll see a repeat of the situation at local elections, given that there’s a stricter control on campaign financing. These methods are anyway cheaper and more accessible,” considers Bogdan Ficeac.
Marius Pieleanu cautions that online campaign has never been a success in rural areas.
“Door-to-door canvassing will be definitely further used. In large urban communities, online campaigning will have an impact, but in rural communities, just as by now, the impact of the online campaign will be almost nil. Things will be probably decided in the TV encounters, in large audience space, on the main television channels,” says the analyst.
Radu Magdin says door-to-door canvassing is “the backbone of any healthy electoral campaign.”
“I agree that only this way can the politician / candidate build a sound, solid and tightly-knit base of voters. But door-to-door canvassing must be run constantly. Many voters have a short memory and the general subjects capturing the attention of the public opinion are changing constantly. You can’t fatten the pig on market’s day and you cannot have high expectations of a campaign run two weeks before election. The politicians should stop underestimating the electorate and should not sit back and just rely on the votes received from the hardline electorate,” he argues.
Magdin estimates that those to intensely rely on door-to-door canvassing in the current campaign are “the candidates on almost eligible positions, where the battle is for an extra 1-2 percentage points.”
“From the perspective of online campaigns, this tactic will progressively gain ground due to its high capacity to propagate a highly targeted message. Unfortunately, at this moment the Romanian online media is very caustic, but in time the target audiences will grow more attentive and better informed about the political candidate,” adds Magdin.
Alfred Bulai believes that candidates should use the local structures to discuss with the citizens in their attempt to entice them to vote.
“Given the current, totally aberrant restrictions in force, political parties are no longer allowed to use a lot of instruments, so there isn’t much they can do. They’ll have to talk to the citizens, and do this through local structures, because at local level it’s still the mayors, local councilors and of course, the candidates who will try to do various events and actions. The strong, moneyed candidates will try to use media channels too. Access will not be that affordable, it all depends on the money the parties have,” underscores Bulai.
Cristian Pirvulescu says this summer’s local elections allowed parties to “strengthen their local structure” and “once (re)confirmed in office, the mayors are the major voter mobilization instrument.”
“Under these circumstances, the election campaign will be rather a compulsory routine with national rather than local features. Whereas in the local elections door-to-door canvassing was a reasonable instrument, as long as the candidates were traveling an environment they were familiar with, such a campaign is less important now, but won’t be dropped altogether,” says the analyst.
As for the online campaign, Pirvulescu mentions a study published in 2015 by Robert Epstein which shows that “the search engine manipulation effect – SEME can influence elections in a perverse way.”
“Internet search engines such as Google or Facebook have a significant impact on consumer choice as long as they trust the way these engines rank – through sophisticated algorithms – the search results. But – as Epstein demonstrates in his study – these rankings are far from neutral and adjust to the preferences of each consumer, in our case – the voter,” Pirvulescu explains.
He adds that Epstein cautioned that search algorithms can easily change the voting preferences of undecided voters “by 20 to 80 percent for certain isolated demographic groups.”
“As in Romania the Internet is used mostly by those aged less than 55, the effect will be stronger on this group. Otherwise, just as it happened in previous general elections, the televised campaign will play a significant role in mobilizing a specific electorate,” concludes Cristian Pirvulescu.