Thursday, March 06, 2008

Romanian electoral reform: from pillar to (first-past-the) post?

The Romanian parliament has, as expected, finally passed a new electoral law changing the country’s voting system from list proportional representation to what the Romanian are referring to as a ‘uninominal’ system - a single member district (SMD) first past the post system to be used for both Senate and National Assembly - oddly, the Romanian constitutional doctrine seems to be that to enjoy equal legitimacy both upper and lower house of parliament must be elected in the same way (exactly the opposite of how the Czech see things - the Czech constitution insists on different voting systems). The new ‘uninominal’ set up supersedes the mixed system previously legislated for but not signed into law by the President. Presumably, this one will meet with his approval.

Things are not, however, as straightforward as they seem - the new system seems to have some distinctly odd features. For example there are electoral thresholds (5% of the national vote or six members elected in SMDs for parties) and a mechanism for redistributing seats involving a list, which seems to suggest that there will be some ‘floating’ seat. Does this mean that if a party wins 1-5 SMDs its candidates will be debarred? Will the second place candidate ‘win’? Unfortunately, it’s hard, however, to find any coherent English language account of the exact workings of the new system. The clearest one I could find was offer by Radio Romania International and that still leaves me confused. As it correctly notes, whatever its finer points the new more majoritarian system is likely to be less a political ‘flat tax’ solution sweeping out party corruption, as many commentators and most of the Romanian public seem to believe, than a measure empowering local political bosses at the expense of higher level party and state structures.

A more detailed but still more baffling account of the new system is carried by SEEurope.net. Romania’s own electoral commission has a flashily designed website with an English version that boasts of its ‘young, dynamic and active team’ and even has a section on ‘electoral deontology’ (presumably a post-modern interpretation of elections?) but nothing in any language on the new system. Its most recent press release in Romanian is from 22 February.

The premier electoral systems blog, Matthew Shugart’s Fruits and Votes is currently obsessed with the US presidential race and has nothing on Romania’s very interesting moves toward majoritarianism.

6 comments:

James R MacLean said...

I'm not sure I understand why this is an improvement. Anglo-American political systems are notoriously unresponsive and reactionary relative to the opinions of nationals (e.g., US public opinion, as registered in polls, is mostly to the left of its political officials; that's not saying very much!). I would think a reforming political system would imitate a progressive society known for high levels of transparency, e.g., Denmark or Sweden.

Sean Hanley said...

Supposedly because it will reduce the power of political parties to determine who is elected by determining the ranking in electoral lists and by establishing a direct link between local communities and their legislative representative - UK and US legislators being quite good at taking up low level local concerns etc. This is argument has quite a long history among advocates of first past the post in post-communist Central and Eastern Europe - it was used in Czechoslovakia by Vaclav Havel in the early 1990s, for example.

Personally, I share your scepticism that Romania's new electoral law - when we can actually find out what it is - will do more than empower local political bosses and local vested interests and suspect, if anything, it would be a retrograde step. On the other hand, there is, probably ,no simple quick institutional model that can transplant Scandinavian levels of transparency and civic engagement to Romania or elsewhere in the region....

James R MacLean said...

Thanks for the response.

I just read several books on the Civil Rights Movement in the US Southeast (they were: Jason Sokal, There Goes My Everything; Charles M. Payne, I've Got the Light of Freedom; and the Taylor Branch series; also very useful is Lassiter's The Silent Majority).

One of the surprises is the importance of the "movement" in Usonian politics. Basically the uninominal district (FPTP) system in the Southeast led to the primaries being the real election, and the general election being largely inconsequential. No surprises there, naturally, but in other states where two parties are competitive, then unnamed movements act as a sort of parallel to party. In recent years, for example, the movement of liberal hawks (e.g., Sen. Henry M. Jackson [D-WA], Daniel Patrick Moynihan [D-NY], plus a bevy of cabinet officials). In the 1990's, badly diminished in strength by the GOP conquest of the rural/suburban southeast, the Scoop Jackson Democrats jettisoned the economic populism of LBJ and became the DLC. The DLC has in fact used elaborate movement politics to stifle political opposition to the extreme neoliberal, hyper-militaristic, neo-segregationist politics of the GOP.

James R MacLean said...

In recent years, for example, the movement of liberal hawks (e.g., Sen. Henry M. Jackson [D-WA], Daniel Patrick Moynihan [D-NY], plus a bevy of cabinet officials).

Sorry, this sentence wasn't finished. It out to have read

In recent years, for example, the movement of liberal hawks (e.g., Sen. Henry M. Jackson [D-WA], Daniel Patrick Moynihan [D-NY], plus a bevy of cabinet officials) ...has gradually morphed into the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), bound together by its "3rd Way" think tank, the "Progressive Policy Institute."

MSS said...

Thanks for the link, which led me to find this. It is the first I have heard of the possible reform since almost a year ago (when I did note it at Fruits & Votes).

That it will empower local notables seems about right to me.

On bicameralism, if the cabinet must depend on the confidence of both chambers, it certainly makes sense that the chambers be elected by congruent electoral systems. Italy is the preeminent case. I do not recall whether either chamber can oust a cabinet in Romania. In the Czech Republic (as in Japan, Germany, and most other parliamentary or semi-presidential bicameral systems) the second chamber has no such powers. Then, I would argue, having incongruent electoral systems (and districting) is a coherent aspect of institutional design: introduce some degree of veto (depending on other powers of the second chamber), without adding an extra complication to cabinet formation/durability.

Sean Hanley said...

I checked the Romanian Constition -votes of confidence and censure seem to be the exclusive perogative of the lower house, the Chamber of Deputies, although the Senate can table a motion of no confidence.

I'm also so slightly wrong about the empowerment of local notables - see later post.

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