2016. Good-bye, reluctantly.

Romanian border pic

It’s getting to be a ‘thing’, that 2016 has been a pretty awful year.

That story started with the death of David Bowie last January, deaths continuing through the year, combined on the political side by the June Brexit vote and November’s surprise victory of a spectacularly unsuitable and risky choice for US President.

So why am I am reluctant to write off the year just past?

Personally, for me the year has been pretty positive.  The first full year of ‘retirement’ included consulting with some clients I genuinely like, making some progress on a third language, plus travelling to places like Iceland, Bermuda and Romania.  And the cottage.  The family was healthy and happy.

But the political problems?  I cannot say good riddance to 2016 because the problems are still building.  Still storm clouds.  It hasn’t even started to rain yet.  I can’t imagine exactly how the Trump years will turn out, because there has been no coherent plan.  What I can be sure of is that the next few years will be turbulent.  And given the polarization in the US, there will be many different people blamed and lessons learned.

I also see signs of tone-deaf style of American politics creeping north.  Our federal Conservatives might next year also see a leadership candidate made famous by reality TV.  Ontario’s politics seems even more polarized.  The political environment will get worse before it gets better, and it may not be long until we look back fondly on 2016.

My decreasing tolerance for politics on our continent must be one of the reasons driving me to fascination with Romania, the land of my mother’s family.  I’m checking the Bucharest news in the morning before the Globe and Mail.  The need in Romania seems greater, the solutions more obvious.

The grimy photo above?  It’s one of the border crossings into Romania, from Hungary.  Not a pretty picture.  The massive queue of trailer transport trucks, waiting there for days to get into the Shengen zone of border-free Europe, represents the most tangible symbol for Romania of the eventual benefits of integration with the continent.

I can only hope that the EU lasts long enough for Romania to make it into the border-free area.  That Romanians find a way to maintain their rapid growth, to improve their social services, to bring their incomes closer to the European average.

Over there, I see a fair bit to hope for in 2017 — and I will continue to look for ways to contribute.  But as for those of us closer to the American orbit, I see in the New Year fewer grounds for optimism.

 

I’m just about done

Sundown in Bucuresti, 2015.JPG

Like this discovery trip to Romania, the daily posting on this blog is coming to a close.

To give you an idea as to what I’ll be saying good-bye, here is a picture of perhaps my favourite building in “Little Paris”, the CEC bank headquarters.  Over on the right side is the patio in front of the Caru cu Bere, one of the most famous restaurants in town.

This picture was taken last year in May, actually.  Before I take any implicit credit, I should admit it was likely taken by our daughter Jenny, who shares some of my fascination with my mother’s home country.

I suppose that one of my objectives in writing was to encourage some of you to be brave and to travel over here some time in the future and sample the excitement of what I sometimes call the Wild East.

I had some other objectives to my trip, to be sure.  To make the first connection with some of my mother’s relatives in about thirty years.  To see how far my newly-acquired Romanian lessons would go.  To understand a bit more about the political situation here, by being on the ground for the last ten days of their election campaign.

And it has been a great trip, that ends tomorrow morning with a 7:05 a.m. departure time.  My toughest job today is to try to discourage my relatives from pulling out one more gift to carry home for the family in Canada.

Right now, I am watching a scrum of the winner in Sunday’s election.  In Romanian, of course.  I am  thankful that that they have a habit of putting little CP24-style subtitle messages below, because my reading in Romanian is a fair bit stronger than my ability to pick out nuances from those speaking quickly.

The post-election horse-trading is still underway.  The President has still to ask someone to form a government.  It is difficult to consider a government led by anyone other than a few senior figures in the leading centre-left PSD party.  But the President (from the centre-right Liberal party) is still proceeding to invite representatives of the various parties to consultations as to how to proceed.

How can I leave all this excitement, you ask?  You’re right, it’s not easy.

And the road is not straight….

Election results cropped.jpg

You would have been disappointed if I didn’t report on the election results?

Several exit polls were released when the polls closed at 9:00pm Bucharest time, to give a sense of the results, as it takes a few hours for the actual results to filter in.

However, the consensus is that the next Prime Minister will be leading a government of the PSD (Social Democratic Party), the centre-left party that arguably has inherited the old Communist patronage machine.  Support for the PSD appears to be in the 42 to 45 percent range, and one of the little parties appears to be above the 5% threshold and willing to join in a coalition.

Their opposition fell short.  The Liberals (PNL) appear to have won only around 20 percent of votes, and the new anti-corruption party (USR) received approximately 10 per cent.  The Liberals had greater goals for this election, and their leader Alina Ghorghiu, may soon be forced to announce her resignation.  The new anti-corruption party had set a goal of 10 per cent of the vote, and its leader Nicusor Dan reacted that the results were a victory.

Unless the exit polls are shockingly wrong,  tomorrow morning the discussion will be about the identity of the new PSD Prime Minister.  Given the very high incidence of corruption charges against sitting PSD politicians, and the fact that the President has said that he will not appoint as Prime Minister an individual who has been so charged or convicted, the PSD was coy as to whom was its candidate for Prime Minister.  This way, the Anti-Corruption prosecutor would not have an opportunity to prepare a dossier on the new Prime Minister before s/he develops some immunities that come with the office.  So as the PSD leader, Liviu Dragnea, has had previous legal issues, he was clear during the campaign that he was unlikely to be Prime Minister.

This legal hide-and-seek is how politics will look in Bucharest for the next few years.  For while the PSD appears to have won today’s elections, it will be — to use the term first used by the French to describe Presidents of one party being forced to deal with legislatures controlled by another party  — “co-habiting” with President Iohannis, who is aligned with the Liberals.  Plus the Anti-Corruption directorate is also a very strong counterweight to the power of the Legislature and government.

While centre-left in fiscal policy, the PSD is pro-NATO, pro-EU, reflecting the Romanian consensus towards western integration.  Yet a persistent system of corruption has been widely identified as a barrier to Romania’s development, and running with a “chicken in every pot” type of platform, the PSD is clearly not strongly committed to cleaning it up any time soon.

But a new very Western anti-corruption party will for the first time have a strong group of members, about 10 per cent of both houses of the legislature.

Hence while Romania has come a long way, the road to its fuller potential is not straight.  It was an unusual election with none of the major parties putting forward a Prime Minister to lead its campaign, surprisingly low-key by most of the participants.  The next few days may see some further twists and turns.

Romanians flock to polls

I’m writing this about 4 1/2 hours before the polls close. This morning, I accompanied my relatives to the polls held in the elementary school across the street.

I can report that business was brisk in that school, with several polls held there and a steady stream of couples and elderly folk.

There were lots of polling officials, and even police. They were there to enforce a few regulations, including a ban on pictures of the actual voting process.

So you wouldn’t be too surprised that I managed anyway to take a quick bad picture. It shows officials on the right, the ballot boxes in the middle (one for the lower house, one for the senate), and the private booths on the left, covered in flag coloured banners, where people try to figure out which party list to vote for. Each ‘ballot’ is a booklet of about a dozen pages.

Of interest is that every Romanian is issued an identity card, which must be shown in order to vote. It is scanned, and the fact that you have showed up to vote is stored centrally. And if you try to show a second time to vote, you are prevented. No wonder the international organizations are not keen to spend money to monitor the election process here…the Romanian election process seems to have some better safeguards than some countries countries we know.

As far as hard news goes, on election day before the polls close, there is really nothing to say. I can’t really tell if turnout is higher than normal, and exit poll results are banned until polling closes.

While the absence of content doesn’t prevent the news channels from yammering all day long, I will sign off until there are results!

 

Perhaps Proportional Representation shouldn’t always get good PR

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I was greeted this morning with a leaflet dropped off by the largest party in Romania, the PSD (Social Democratic Party).  The inheritors of the old Communist machine, the PSD credits itself in the document with everything good that has happened since 1989, and equally gets blamed for much of the persistent corruption and inertia that impedes Romania’s progress.  The election takes place tomorrow!

Two parties (including the centre-right Liberals and the anti-corruption USR) are lining up to challenge the PSD, and if their combined proportion of seats adds up to a bigger number than the PSD and its allies, could prevent the PSD from winning the election and installing its choice as Prime Minister.

But one thing will be certain after the election.  Because Romania has a Party List Proportional Representation system, the most senior members of the PSD, the ones tarred with perpetuating a system of corruption, will have a paycheck on Monday morning as members of the legislature.  For in a party list system, voters are asked to choose which party they prefer.  When the seats are allocated according to the parties’ share of vote, the people who get to fill those seats are determined by the “Party List”, and I suspect that Liviu Dragnea, the Leader of the PSD is at the top of the list.  With the PSD likely to win between say 35 and 45 percent of the vote, there is effectively no way that voters could rise up and deprive Mr Dragnea of his job.

It’s a system which perpetuates incumbents’ control of the main parties.  Mavericks inside the parties, if they challenge the leadership, have a difficult route to rise up the party list.

And the operation of the system can be complex for voters to understand.  PR makes it generally easier for minor parties to win representation (above a mininum 5% threshold). And in fact, there are three parties now hovering in the 3 to 8 per cent range.  As these parties are likely to have different preferences for coalition partners, the ultimate winner in the election will depend on which parties cross that minimum 5% threshold.

Confused?  Just think of whether the fine old folk in northern Transylvania without the benefit of the Globe and Mail are pondering the effect of their minor-party vote on the construction of the post-election coalition.

And I suspect that turnout is low in countries where people don’t understand what is happening, and feel powerless to turn out the people with whom they are unhappy.

While I fully understand that Canada’s first-past-the-post (FPTP) system has its pendulum of disproportionality, there is something cleansing about the Canadian elections that can dispense with governments so cleanly. Somebodies in the Cabinet can become ‘nobodies’ (to use the term coined by our Prime Minister’s father) as the ballots are counted.  It’s something that just might do Romania a world of good.

The ideal type of electoral system is a not something to settle in a travel blog, I agree.  And Lord knows that Romania has a long set of problems of which Proportional Representation is far from its greatest.   I suppose all I want to suggest is that the country I am visiting reminds us that certain types of Proportional Representation do present some issues. Party List PR systems, in my opinion, have the effect of perpetuating power in the hands of party leaders, and hence are resistant to change.   A problem in a country like Romania, that needs some changes to happen soon.

There will be some back in Canada who are keen on changes to Canada’s FPTP system, and I have time to talk about improvements.  But we have to be careful to understand the effects.  And to be fair to our new Canadian government, I believe that our current Prime Minister also does not have a preference for (fixed-list) Proportional Representation systems.  We just have to be careful how we run our elections.  Because in Canada we have accomplished a few things that other countries would love to replicate.

 

Toronto, I hate to break it to you…

img_20161209_095136I hate to burst Toronto’s sense of complacency, but Bucharest’s Metro system seems to offer much more than ours.

The picture shows one of about five lines, heading into the downtown at about 9.30 am earlier today. The people sitting in the large quiet cars are all intently staring at their smartphones, because of course all the cars come equipped with WiFi, and not just in the stations.

Fares are only about $1 a ride. Stations are spacious. Most impressive of all, the construction continues.  They are building two new lines, one through the downtown and another up to the international airport.

Now, I wouldn’t want to suggest that Bucharest has it all figured out in terms of urban transportation.  For Bucharest’s (car) traffic situation is quite critically awful.  Rush hours are nasty, brutish and long-lasting.  Mixed in with a healthy disregard for the finer points of traffic signals and a fairly aggressive driving style, and you have one of the reasons that Romania has been called the ‘Wild East.’

I wouldn’t want to pretend to be an urban planner, but it just appears to me that too many people take their cars into the downtown.  Thirty years ago, the shortage of consumer goods and petrol kept the traffic volume down.  But the number of cars has mushroomed in the last decade especially.

You would hope that the availability of transit would lure people out of their cars.  But it appears that the tramway system is lightly used, and neither are the subways at capacity. It’s just too easy to dump their cars for free roadside or even on sidewalks.  The streets are a jumble of cars strewn in every direction.

It seems to this observer that there are two sides to taming the traffic beast.  A great subway system is part one of the solution, and Bucharest is ahead of Toronto here.  But the second part involves making it less possible for cars to dominate the downtown, starting with some meters and parking enforcement.  Toll roads/congestion charges and pedestrian-only sections of the city would be more controversial tools towards that goal.

No easy solutions.  In the meantime, I’ll just write this blog and send it, while I’m heading back out of town on the Metro.  Toronto had better get with the program.

27 years after the Revolution

img_20161208_115536The picture is of my young cousin, first name Tudor, quite pleased with the gift I brought. I had figured, correctly, that a track suit hoodie carrying one of those multinational brands might be a hit.   That’s his grandmother, with whom I’m staying, looking on.

Young Tudor is lucky that after scoala is finished at noon, he is looked after by his grandparents. And his grandparents are lucky, frankly, in that looking after the young one gives them a purpose and a spring in their step.

I went with grandpa to pick up the young one, with the mothers and fathers and other grandparents, at noon after a walk in the neighbourhood.

It was a suprisingly eye-opening walk. My expectations were not high, given the apartment bloc gives off few positive impressions. A collection of four floor apartment blocks, Communist-era relics, in need of investment.

Behind the facade are tiny apartments that vary according to the tastes and preferences of the owner. I am staying with the grandparents, and their place is full of traditional pictures, some Orthodox iconography, along with the big flatscreen TV.

By contrast,  their son’s apartment across the street has been reconstructed down to the studs, new floors, new windows, new furniture, new IKEA furniture and kitchen. The badge of a middle-class job with a multinational.

Or is it more telling that young Tudor is ushered after school to twice-weekly lessons in English, in swimming, and karate. On his shoulders rest the hopes of the family.

What surprised me more on our walk were the beautiful kids’ playgrounds around the school, an impressive swimming facility part of the lyceul (high school) but shared with the public, and then a large park nearby that is genuinely well-kept. I’m not going to jump to conclusions based on my n=1 survey, but there would seem to be some decent public sector investment at the municipal/school board level. Do we have facilities like that in Leafy Leaside? Nu!

As for the health sector, I’ve heard horror stories, but it might be fair to say that health systems are harder to get right.  (And you won’t blame me if my plan is to stay as far away from the healthcare sector as possible.)

Otherwise, my research is just beginning.