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


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.

The revolution started here?


Part of my quest in Timisoara is to understand why a Revolution that would topple the Ceaucescu dictatorship would start in a Hungarian-speaking church.

And since the building is not open during the week,  the only way to get inside is to be there on Sunday morning.  Where else would I be at that time of the week?

The special challenge, of course, is that the service is totally in Hungarian.  Now, I have travelled a distance into the Romanian language, but that would not get me far here.  Far from it, in fact.  And you may know that Hungarian is for many a uniquely impenetrable language, part of neither the Germanic nor Romance families.

But I could recognize what was happening during this reformed or Calvinist service.  An Advent candle was lit.  People repeated the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer.  One of the hymns was written by “Luther Marton.” They stood for the Gospel, after singing a verse of “Holy, Holy, Holy,” to the tune Nicaea just as I had every Sunday morning of my youth.

During the sermon, the lengthy sermon, I had some time to observe the congregation.  The demographic represented most heavily were seventy-year old women, but there were others.  Proud couples wearing their best dark long coats.  Families with all the children.  A building that seated 200 was a good three-quarters full, some up in the balcony.

The Minister preached from that pulpit high above.  He had no notes, speaking freely and firmly.  The Bible was open in his left hand, and he read a few verses during the sermon as well.  A fellow maybe in his thirties.

About the same age as Laszlo Tokes would have been about 27 years ago when he refused to be reassigned from this, the downtown church in one of Romania’s biggest cities to a small parish in a tiny village.  Tokes would not be silenced by his Bishop, a collaborator with the Ceaucescu regime.

And his parishioners were not happy either.  As Tokes was being evicted from his Manse, a couple of hundred joined on the street to protest.  Some started shouting “Down with Ceaucescu,”  and soon they were joined by some of their Romanian neighbours.

By the next day, the crowd included far more than just the congregation from the Reformed Church.  Thousands massed in the main square of Timisoara, even as the regime sent machine guns to shoot at the crowds.  Signs read:  “Jos Communism” (Down with Communism), “We’re not leaving”, and — possibly the most subversive thing to say to a Communist regime — “Dumnizeu exista”  (God lives).

Sure, there would have been no revolution without the support of thousands of Romanian citizens who risked their lives, and many who sacrificed it.  And, even if Laszlo Tokes had not been the one to spark the Revolution, as all the other Communist regimes had fallen, it would likely have taken place later, another way, eventually.

But I looked into the determined faces of the folk sitting there. They hold to a minority faith within a minority community, a group that cannot be pushed around.  And I am not surprised that a revolution might be started by people like these.

Cosmopolitan, really?

Timisoara is Romania’s ‘most western’ city.  In two senses of the word.

Close to the Hungarian border, and the most pluralistic.  Timisoara, part of the region known as the Banat, has been a waystation of German, Hungarian, Serb, Italian, as well as of course its Romanian residents.

The picture, on the right, is one of the buildings of the Universitatea de Vest din Timisoara.  Western University in Timisoara, if you will.  With a good and growing reputation.

But is there much in the modern Romanian state that deserves to be called cosmopolitan?  Much of the German population fled just before the end of World War II.  In the 1950s, many  Serb-speaking residents of the Banat were sent to Serbia.  And the relationship with the Hungarian population has long been thorny:  some of the Magyar population fled westward, especially in the 1980s, when Ceaucescu’s Stalinist policies made Romania an increasingly difficult place to live.  Timisoara is not as cosmopolitan as it once was.

Despite some official policies to recognize its Hungarian minority, the Romanian state has very much been run to preserve and protect the Romanian culture.

There’s nothing like Canada’s welcoming of immigrants from various nationalities, which we might see also in the United States in a good year, and even to a degree in countries such as the UK and Germany.  Romania, like several other Eastern Europe states, carries no pretense about cultural pluralism.

This even in the face of a severe demographic problem.  Romania’s population has fallen over 12 per cent from 1992 levels, the problem intensifying after it joined the European Union in 2007.  Millions of Romanians are working in EU countries such as Italy, Spain and the UK earning pay levels well above the average income at home.

Yet in the current election campaign, I have been watching the immigration policies of the leading political parties.  And there seems to be a consensus that the only type of immigrant that all the parties wants to encourage, is the return of Romanians currently working in other parts of Europe.  This is something that will happen only when Romanian income levels start to approach the west.

So Timisoara is the most Western, the most cosmopolitan, of Romanian cities.  But Romania needs to find a way to welcome and attract skilled workers with other nationalities.  Perhaps Timisoara’s history can provide a model for co-operation.








Still bringing down that wall

The Romanian Revolution in 1989 started in Timisoara, which I will admit was part of the attraction.  Let’s find out a little bit more about what makes this place tick.

So I went this morning to the “Memorialui Revolutei din Decembrie 1989.”  For those who   haven’t taken Romanian lessons, you’ve discovered the encouraging overlap in some vocabulary.

A permanent display is located in an old military building on the edge of town, still pockmarked with bullet-holes from action in 1989.  It was not a polished display, almost a scrapbook of memories from the brutal but exciting time that local townsfolk from Timisoara stood in front of machine guns of the Ceacescu regime, until they couldn’t bear to keep shooting.  Some of the art, and the AV display, I found pretty moving.

There didn’t seem to be much if any funding from the Romanian state.  The display is sponsored by an association dedicated to keeping alive the memory of the several hundred Timisoara victims of the revolution in 1989.

In fact there is a little struggle for ‘ownership’ of that Revolution. In Bucharest, you hear mostly about the day that Ceaucescu called for a rally of support in front of the Communist Party headquarters in Bucharest…which turned into a riot against his regime.

But there are some suggestions that the pendulum in Bucharest was actually swung by a rival faction within the Communist establishment, reckoning that their best hope for survival was to shed Ceaucescu and put a reformist face in front of the people.  By this line of thinking, Romania’s largest political party even today, the PSD (Partidul Social Democratic) — the subject of many criticisms of corruption in its exercise of power — is the direct inheritor of the Communist machine.  Meaning the revolution is still incomplete.

A nice part of the Memorial was putting it in the context of what was happening in neighbouring countries in 1989.  Hence the little chunk of the Berlin Wall, together with some wreaths to memorialize the Timisoarean victims in the same struggle.

It was no coincidence, to my mind, that the sparks that started the end of the Ceaucescu regime were generated in Timisoara.  For those experts of World War I history, Timisoara is part of what is called “the Banat,” a fertile but featureless land which for many years was between Romania, Hungary and Serbia and tended to be trampled on by invading armies.  It is a relatively cosmopolitan place.  So in 1989, Serbs and Hungarians could pick up on their radios or TVs the news of the Berlin Wall falling, and of Hungary and Yugoslavia reforming.  Compared to the worldview of Romanians further east, held back by their state-controlled media, Timisoara could smell freedom.

And, walking through the displays this morning, I could sense they weren’t giving up.