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Băsescu and the people on the Axis of Good

Arthur SUCIU

 On November 25, Romanians are invited to polling stations in the first non-binding referendum in post-1989 history. President Traian Băsescu has requested the electorate to express an opinion on the introduction of the uninominal voting system in parliamentary elections.

The topic has been intensely debated over the past 10 years, but as it often happens in Romanian politics, a solution is yet to be found. Opinion polls indicate that most eligible voters believe the introduction of the uninominal system to be necessary. This is why the President’s move seems natural. He means to step up the legislative process; moreover, he seeks guarantees that there will be no further postponement. This would have been the case, had Traian Băsescu not decided to schedule the referendum on the date of elections for the European Parliament. His choice of the date assigns political undertones to an event that should have been entirely dedicated to a distinct theme. 

  The referendum is, in theory, a democratic tool. Indeed, to a certain extent it is part and parcel of the very definition of democracy as it took shape in ancient Greece. For nothing is more democratic than people directly expressing their sovereign will. But history has proven that people may be wrong sometimes. An entire nation may be blinded by their leaders and devotedly follow them as they are led to disaster. So a referendum is no perfect recipe for good decision-making. It should be accompanied by parliamentary debate and expertise, and endorsed by people’s elected representatives. The people express their opinion, but the one which makes the decision, which enacts the law, is Parliament.
     The topic chosen by Traian Băsescu for the November 25 referendum has a distinctive feature as against other possible topics. It concerns a change in how Senators and Deputies are elected, and therefore it makes direct reference to a Parliament-related matter. As a rule, Parliament is directly involved in a referendum, through the legal opinion it gives when consulted by the President and through enactment of the legislation, after the referendum. Parliament plays a key part in the referendum, complementary to the President’s role. But in the case at hand, Parliament is also the very object of the referendum.
     On the day when (party-list) elections for the European Parliament are held in Romania, a referendum is also scheduled, over the introduction of the uninominal voting system in elections to the national Parliament. The political involvement sought by the President is therefore dual: first by holding the referendum on the first day with an election, and secondly by choosing Parliament as the object of the referendum. Two types of topics will be discussed in the 30-day electoral campaign: one regarding the election of party candidates to the European Parliament, and the other regarding the referendum. While both are complex fields, requiring in-depth knowledge of EU institutions in the former case and of electoral systems in the latter, the uninominal system will most certainly catch the eye of voters. The uninominal topic outdoes the European area of interest in terms of simplicity (one topic alone), immediacy (a domestic topic) and accessibility (a lot more is known about uninominal voting than about European issues). Further, while the uninominal topic was put forth by the most credible and best known politician, European topics will be discussed by lower-profile candidates. Not least, the uninominal topic may easily be simplified, converted into an exciting political debate, whereas European topics can hardly be approached in other than technical terms. In conclusion, the uninominal theme and Traian Băsescu will most likely outshine the EP election and candidates in the eyes of the voters. As a key actor in the political arena, the President intervenes in a ballot in which no other actor can challenge him. In other words, the President becomes a player in an election in which he does not run, to the effect that the actual candidates will be overshadowed.
     The question asked in the referendum refers to a specific type of uninominal voting system. But the campaign as such will refer to something else. Since the substance of the regulation is too complex, it will be hardly interesting for much of the electorate. But the political meaning of the change proposed by the President is quite clear and interesting for everybody. The referendum is aimed at the reform of the political class (by means of the uninominal voting, it goes without saying). It targets the replacement of current politicians, regarded as obsolete, inefficient, immoral, etc., with new politicians, directly elected by the people and working to promote their interests.
     But it’s the representatives of the current political class who will run in the EP election. To the extent to which parties stand for the political class, it’s the current political parties which will take part in these elections. Candidates will have been selected against the old criteria by the current parties, and there will be a party-list vote, rather than a uninominal one. Under these circumstances, are we to understand that politicians and political parties in the old class will take part in the EP election, and therefore that the elected MEPs will lack legitimacy? We should, if we didn’t consider the impact of the referendum on the election. The referendum will actually shape the election. Thus, the candidates supporting the President’s endeavour will be perceived as belonging to the new, reformed political class. In exchange, those who challenge the legitimacy of this move will be labelled as old-school, backward looking, etc.
     By tackling a topic which concerns Parliament and which is actually targeted at the replacement of Senators and Deputies, Traian Băsescu also uses the referendum as a tool that works against Parliament. The uninominal voting system referendum is a retort to the impeachment referendum. It is therefore a political move targeting the President’s opponents, those who suspended him six months ago. Instead of playing a positive part as an active participant in the referendum, Parliament will be a target. The referendum initiated by Traian Băsescu is ultimately a unilateral political move through which fundamental national decision-making is transferred from the area of the Executive-Legislative relationship to the President-people relationship.
  

Publicat în : English  de la numărul 52

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