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2009 Romanian Presidential Elections

- December 18, 2009


We are pleased to present post-election analysis of 2009 Romanian presidential elections from “Aurelian Muntean”:http://www.policy.hu/muntean/, “Grigore Pop-Eleches”:http://www.princeton.edu/~gpop/, and Marina Popescu. Some combination of the members of this team will also be writing about this election for “Electoral Studies'”:http://www.elsevier.com/wps/find/journaldescription.cws_home/30412/description#description _Notes on Recent Elections_ in the future:

The second round of the Romanian presidential elections took place on 6 December (the first round was on 22 November). Yet, final results were announced only on Monday the 14th of December due to a legal dispute over electoral fraud claims by the challenger, Mircea Geoana from the PSD (Social Democratic Party). The incumbent president Traian B?sescu obtained 5,275,808 votes (50.3%), while Mircea Geoan? won 5,205,760 votes (49.7%), which means that 70,048 votes out of 10,481,568 valid votes made the difference between winner and looser. It is the closest Romanian presidential election result after the close election of President Basescu in 2004 (51.2%). Moreover, it was the first Romanian election (and perhaps one of a handful of examples worldwide) where the overall outcome was decided by the diaspora, which preferred Basescu by a margin of almost 85,000 votes (i.e. more than the overall winning margin.)

The results were somewhat surprising because three of the four exit polls gave Geoana as the winner by a small margin. Not surprisingly, this led to divergent interpretations: Geoana and the PSD complained about widespread fraud, while President Basescu claimed that some of the institutes running the exit polls were biased in favour or Geoana. At least part of the divergence was due to the fact that exit polls were conducted only in Romania and only one of them dared to forecast on a hunch that in such a close election the votes from abroad could be decisive. More importantly, the results were surprising because there was a broad anti-Basescu coalition, which at least mathematically had the upper hand. After the first round of the elections (see “this post”:http://semipresidentialism.com/The_Semi-presidential_One/Blog/Entries/2009/11/24_Romania_-_Presidential_election_1st_round.html) in which the difference between the vote for the incumbent and the challenger was very small (32.4 to 31.1), the liberal candidate (Crin Antonescu) who came in third with approximately 2 million votes (20%) decided to support the challenger and together had embraced the liberal proposal for PM in the person of the “popular mayor of Sibiu”:http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/06/world/europe/06romania.html?_r=1&emc=eta1.

At 57.9%, turnout was higher than at the first round (54.4%) and higher than in the second round of 2004 (55.2%). This turnout increase suggests that the high stakes of an emotionally charged and very close election outweighed the potentially demobilizing effects of widespread political disaffection registered in the last few years as a result of a string of political scandals and a deep economic crisis. Turnout increased most spectacularly in the diaspora, where it was 50% higher than in the first round. Some political commentators have argued that there was a lot of online mobilization in the two weeks between the two rounds and that after knowing the exit poll results that gave Geoana a slight edge, Romanians abroad, preponderantly anti-communists, turned out in bigger numbers. However, such an account is at odds with the fact that the highest increase (almost 100%) occurred in Spain and Italy, where the time difference is just one hour and where most migrants are more recent lower-income and less educated job seekers. Instead, it is possible that diaspora voters, who in the absence of mail-in absentee voting often have to travel considerable distances to the nearest polling station, may have decided strategically to “save” their vote for the second round, since there was less uncertainty about the outcome of the first round .

These were the first presidential elections not to be organized at the same time as parliamentary ones, which may have contributed to an excessive personalization of the campaign. The campaign was dominated by negativism, personal attacks and scandals to an unprecedented extent. It was a record breaker in terms of fines given by the audio-visual regulatory agency to television channels for breaches of the law in respect to objectivity, accuracy, right to reply and language but also a record breaker in terms of audience of the main televised debates between the candidates (both for the first and the second rounds), not least because they were broadcast on all main television channels. Television partisanship and conflicts between politicians and the media reached such extreme levels that for the first time in post-communist Romania these debates were not organized by the media but by civil society organizations. Compared to previous elections, the role of non-party actors remained high, but it took a distinct shape. They focused mostly on citizen mobilization, media monitoring and “promotion of substantive politics and issues”:www.testvot.eu/.

Beyond the excitement of the campaign and its immediate aftermath (in which both candidates claimed victory), it is unclear whether and how this election result will solve Romania’s protracted political crisis. Romania has been run by a caretaker minority government since October, when the grand coalition between the PDL and the PSD fell apart after PSD Interior Minister Dan Nica was dismissed for suggesting in late September that the PDL was preparing massive election fraud for the upcoming presidential elections. The coalition was formed after PDL and PSD became the two largest parties following the 2008 elections (with more than 70% of parliamentary seats), and took many observers by surprise given the long history of rivalry between the two parties since they “emerged from the split of the ex-communist National Salvation Front in 1992”:http://www.princeton.edu/~gpop/APartyForAllSeasons.pdf. The grand coalition was supposed to ensure the necessary political stability for dealing with the country’s serious economic crisis (GDP has declined by 8.6% this year). However, the two parties had a rocky relationship in 2009, and by the fall the political priorities of the presidential campaign clearly took precedence over the demands of the economic crisis. Yesterday, President Basescu has re-nominated Emil Boc (PDL) for the Prime Minister position, but the only coalition partner the PDL has managed to attract so far is the Hungarian minority party (UDMR), which would give the new government only a very slim majority in the Chamber of Deputies and suggests that that partisan tensions are likely to continue for the foreseeable future.