The Economist, and its coverage of Romania


Grindeanu Economist.jpg

I’ve been a subscriber to The Economist “newspaper” for much of the last few decades.  It has thorough international coverage, and I appreciate its editorial perspective, which favours free enterprise and an open democracy.  It’s written with a dry wit throughout.

Its sense of humour might be the reason why The Economist is one of the few publications to give regular coverage of the political goings-on in Romania.  How better to have a funnies section alongside those interminable stories about coalition-building in the EU?

And sure, we all get it.  Dracula, werewolves, and until 1989 communist cult-worship almost as crazy as the North Koreans.  But, in Romania, all delightfully harmless.

But is it possible that the rigid style guide of The Economist might cause it to miss some real news?  Take the article, pictured from their recent June 24, 2017 number — covering the defeat and removal of the Social-Democrat PM by members of his own party.  Starts The Economist:   “In ordinary politics, it is opposition parties who attempt to bring governments down.  But politics in Romania is rarely ordinary.”

Really?  This commentary coming from the United Kingdom, where Mrs Thatcher was ambushed by her own caucus, or where the current Prime Minister is more concerned by a rebellion of her own troops than being toppled by the rabble opposite?

More than a curiosity, last month’s tremors in Bucharest could be signs of growing weakness in the governing Social-Democrats, a party that maintains considerable continuity with the pre-1989 Communist regime.  The ouster of Prime Minister of Prime Minister Grindeanu, less than six months after his appointment by party president Liviu Dragnea, comes at a high cost.  This week, a popular former Prime Minister Victor Ponta, also complaining about the authoritarian style of the party president, announced that he will leave the Social-Democrats to form a new political party.

(And in the reasonably pure Proportional Representation system under which Romania operates, Mr Ponta is known well-enough to quite likely poll more than the 5 per cent minimum threshold that would give his new party seats in the next Parliament.  You could read my analysis of Proportional Representation in earlier posts.)

So, it’s not for the comedy section, but it’s been a bad few weeks for Romania’s governing Social-Democrats.  And if the opposition parties can manage to capitalize, Romania might just manage to complete the anti-Communist revolution that it started, but never quite finished, in 1989.




This doesn’t feel like my democracy


A blog about my Romanian trip last month may seem like an odd place to discuss the online survey about Canadian electoral reform.

But the launch of the survey — and its subsequent ridicule — all happened during the two weeks I was out of circulation.  I even missed a prompt to participate myself, until I heard that today might be the last day the site is active.  For me, the survey is unfinished business from my trip.

So I went through it this weekend, with the benefit of some more perspective.  In addition to the fairly vicious media commentary about this initiative, I’ve seen proportional representation at work in another country.  Plus we’ve seen the Minister responsible for Democratic Renewal be shuffled out of her post.

Like others, I found the survey manipulative. I didn’t appreciate that we weren’t being asked about actual electoral reform models (except for ones that seem appalling ideas, like mandatory voting or reducing the voting age), and I found some of the tradeoffs between democratic principles quite forced.

I amused myself through the survey by trying to imagine what it was that the masters of this survey were trying to accomplish via each question.

And I suppose this is the real issue.  I don’t mind the federal government asking questions so much.  But I would be very wary about what it would tell Canadians about what they believe, based on this survey.

The answers to this survey seem to be highly dependent on the tradeoffs set up in the questions.

It would be one thing if the government releases the results of the questions, one by one, with the questions asked and the answers given.  That way, we all can see what people said, based on the rather odd questions that were asked.

But I think that Canadians would frankly dismiss any attempts to portray these results as support for one electoral system or another.  We don’t know how representative was the slice of Canadians who bothered to respond.  And we certainly don’t know the transmission mechanism between the principles in the survey to particular electoral reform proposals.

And one thing I learned in my trip to Romania, is that not every electoral system other than first-past-the-post generates a democratic panacea.  Recently in Bucharest we have seen sworn in a government with legislative representatives very accurately reflecting the proportion of votes cast, it is true, through the party-list Proportional Representation system.  But we also have low electoral participation, and a sense of profound malaise through the system.  The stability of the party list system helps perpetuate the corruption that is pervasive and a real barrier to Romania’s development.

Now, I’ve said before that a party-list proportional system doesn’t appear to be the first choice of Canada’s leadership either, and about that I am glad.  But I mention the Romanian point, as it’s important to get down to the brass tacks of actual electoral reform proposals.  For some reform proposals come with side-effects that might be worse than the pendulum of over and under-representation that we get from first-past-the-post.

So if we are to have electoral reform, let us talk about the actual proposals.  I’m enough of a junkie, that enjoyed filling out the survey just a little bit.  But if I start hearing stories built on this shaky foundation about what Canadians believe — as if the responses have the authenticity of a referendum result — it will not at all feel like my democracy.







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.