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.









Hello Timisoara…


Touchdown was today, in Timisoara, the birthplace of the 1989 Revolution.

It was anything but a typical December day.  It turns out December 1 is the National Day of Romania, their celebration of the Romanian state that corresponds to our July 1st celebrations.

In Romania, they take the national day rather more seriously.  There was a military parade before I arrived, and throughout the day I was hearing radios playing patriotic songs.

Including of course the national anthem with the catchy lyrics, translated here:

Wake up, Romanians, from the sleep of death, Into which you have been sunk by the barbaric tyrants

Now or never, make a new fate for yourself, to which even your cruel enemies will bow.

Now or never let us give proof to the world That in these veins a Roman blood still flows,

That in our chests we hold a name with pride, Victorious in battle….

Mixed in with these ancient Balkan struggles, is the preparation for Christmas, which Romanians also take quite seriously.  There is a Christmas market, in the same style and scale as  you might be familiar with in Munich.   At the end of the night there are fireworks, and a good time is had by all.

This year there is an English mist over the proceedings, keeping the numbers down.  The picture is actually from these festivities in Timisoara in a previous year.  It feels to me a bit like the Canada Day festivities in Ottawa with a temporary stage in front of the National Theatre building.  And even the lousy weather isn’t preventing things from proceeding quite vigorously (as I can tell as the main square is just around the corner from the hotel).

More on Timisoara in the next two or three days when the weather improves.




The saga starts this week

Most people have an urge to dig a little into their roots.

The British Isles and parts of Europe are often packed in the summer with Americans carrying guidebooks and asking for help in discovering their home town and how to order the local beer. The Canadians are much the same, but more polite.

And tapping the roots on my father’s side wasn’t too difficult.  My father in fact wrote a little history, taking the family tree back two hundred years.  To see the places they lived, visiting Northern Ireland and Scotland is not too challenging.  And the local beer is just fine.

But my mother’s side, that’s another story.

Her family left Transylvania, in a town called Medias, around 1924.  Medias was one of the fortified towns founded by Saxon Germans.  While there were Hungarians who lived in the area, the majority of the population was Romanian-speaking. My grandfather had his lungs damaged by a gas attack, fighting for Romania against the Central Powers in World War I.

But that’s one of the few stories I know, for despite the mythology of Canada as a mosaic of many cultures, it was not easy to preserve much about Romania when my mother was growing up in southwestern Ontario.

They were the only Romanians in the little town of Strathroy, not far from London, Ontario. My grandfather ran a shoe repair shop, learned English, sent his kids to the Presbyterian Church. By the time I was born in the 1950s, there was no Romanian spoken in the house, and my mother claimed to know not a word. She could make some Romanian recipes: cabbage rolls, stuffed peppers, and placinta crepes for dessert. That was about it.

After my grandfather died, my grandmother would save up to visit her brother and his family back home. She went two or three times. I can remember she used to bring back sweet wine and very stinky cheese. She didn’t have good things to say about Mr Ceaucescu.

I would try on periodic visits to ask my grandmother about what things were like back in Transylvania before she came over. She was in her eighties, and her answers were getting vague. She was not very interested in social commentary. Other than that the Communists had done significant damage to her homeland.

She was in a nursing home by the time I visited her during the Christmas holidays in 1989. Her TV was carrying coverage of the capture and execution of the Ceaucescus, and it was an optimistic time for Romanians. But I couldn’t get her to focus on the news. She was tired. That was the last time I saw her before her death a few months afterward.

Fast forward 25 years, I’ve largely wound down my career in the advertising business. My resolution for New Years 2016 was to learn the Romanian language, from a zero base. (Well, other than from knowing some French and even three years of high-school Latin which can teach you something about the genitive/dative case of neuter nouns.) During the year I’ve made a fair bit of progress, and I’ve reconnected with my relatives, now living in Bucharest.

My continuing interest in things political has encouraged me to follow the course of Romanian public affairs. I’ve been reading their history and their newspapers. There has been much progress since the short and bloody Revolution of 1989, but their democracy is still fragile in some respects. Legislative elections are taking place on Sunday December 11.

And starting next week, armed with my laptop and a largely untested Romanian vocabulary, I’ll be there taking the pulse of the motherland. First in Timisoara, where the 1989 Revolution was sparked, and then in Bucharest where I will meet the relatives. Doesn’t everyone visit a cold climate in December?

If it’s okay with you, I might share a few things I discover.