>Uncertainties of Romanian electoral reform

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Electoral systems, as I always tell my students, are sticky: they tend not to change, sometimes because they are legally or constitutionally entrenched, more often because those parties that benefit from the existing system are (by definition) powerful and block (or fail to agree) changes that might weaken their dominant position and give more representation to competitors. This broadly speaking seems true of Central Europe since 1989. Most changes to electoral systems that have occurred have been variants on the theme of list PR, changing thresholds for representation, electoral formulae or the number of electoral district.

So I was intrigued to hear that – as a kind of afterthought to last year’s presidential-partliamentary standoff – Romania’s has passed legislation changing its electoral system from a list PR system to ‘mixed’ system combining PR and first past the post. A referendum sponsored by President Basescu to change the electoral system to a pure first-past-the-post model with two rounds of voting was held at the same time as the recent Euro-elections failed due to low turnout, so parliamentary parties got together and passed their own version of electoral reform. It is, apparently uncertain, whether and if Basescu will sign the bill into law or the country’s main political forces will have another bite of the cherry and try to introduce a straight first-past-the-post system.

The new ‘mixed’ system apparently agreed is itself interesting emough. It seemingly loosely approximates to the German system with half the deputies to the lower house chosen using PR lists and half from single member districts using the first past the past (what Romanian-sourced reports in English call a ‘uninominal’ system). There will be a national threshold for representation (presumably applying to the PR section. If new system is (as seems to be the case) the same as the compromise proposals on the table reported in The Diplomat in July, independents will need an absolute majority to win in SMDs (which seems unfair). However, if the new law follows the proposal in the Diplomat report) instead of having two votes (as in Germany), Romanians will vote only in single member constituencies with votes of losing parties being pooled and used as the basis for electing members by PR. The effect of such linkage (I think) would be to reduce the representation of winning party and boost the representation of second running parties, which may still pick up a bonus of tactical votes from those want to help them to victory in single member districts.

Romania’s change in electoral system unusual both for the fact it took place at all and because it bucks a global trend towards greater proportionality, but surprisingly, it seems nigh on impossible to find any information about the new law in English or French and as I can’t read Romania, I’ve been asking Romanian specialists at SSEES all week for details about the change and why it happened The answer – as with the failed project of Czech electoral reform in 1999-2001 – seems to be a deal between the two big parties of left and (centre-)right: the Social Democrats and the pro-Presidential Liberal Democrats (not to be confused with the National Liberal Party) to dish smaller competitors and force political concentration and consolidation around themselves. The Hungarian minority seems likely to be relatively unaffected as its support is geographical concentrated.

Lots of worthy reasons for changing the system are reported (eliminating party faction fighting, reducing the power of party bosses, bringing MPs closer to communities etc), vaguely echo the arguments of President Havel in early 1990s as he tried in vain to introduce SMDs into Czech(oslovak) political system. However, I suspect the net effect in Romania – and indeed the CR if they ever tried it – would be to weaken party structures increasing the power of politicians with local power base and probably increasing (or just changing the pattern of?) clientelism and pork barrel politics as local bosses sort to deliver for their own backers. All in the best Romanian and Southern European traditions, of course. Still, as I also my student, clientelism is in a certain sense functional for linking state and society– in the short term.

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