As you (hopefully!) know, next Sunday, July 29, there will be a nationwide voting day in which all Romanian citizens have a single issue before them – whether Traian Basescu should be removed from office as President. All political factions have “bet the farm” on this referendum and a lot of people, including my friend, want this to be over after Sunday. Let the winner be announced and then things can return to normal.
Sadly, I am afraid this will not be the case. As they say in the now incredibly popular “Texas Hold’Em” variant of poker, USL has gone “all in” on this referendum. If they lose, meaning that by whatever means Basescu is returned to office, they are in major trouble. Interim President Antonescu has promised to resign is Basescu returns and “Once, Twice, Three Times a Plagiarist” Prime Minister Victor Ponta is likely to resign as well. But we’ve got a loong way to go before we get there.
Today the CCR (Constitutional Court) will make several rulings on the referendum, the most important of which concerns the hours that the polls will be open. Using yet another one of their “emergency decrees”, the USL has ordered that the polls will be open from 7am to 11pm, allowing a full 16 hours for citizens to get down to a polling station and vote. The CCR today will rule whether that is constitutional or whether the old rules (8am to 8pm) are in effect.
If you remember, less than three weeks ago (although it feels like years), the USL was ready to full steam ahead with a referendum in which the majority of voters present at the polls would decide the outcome. The CCR ruled that the old law on referendums, i.e. 50% + 1 of the electorate need to be present for it to count, was in effect. Backed up with direct intervention by Manuel Barroso in his famous “11 commandments” letter, the USL had no choice but to respect this ruling.
Therefore for the USL to win this, they need two things. First, they need 50% + 1 of the Romanian electorate (estimated at roughly 9 million people) to show up and vote on Sunday. If less than that number vote then everything is in vain because the results of the referendum will be invalidated. The second thing that the USL needs is (assuming enough people show up) for the majority of votes to be “YES”, people in favor of removing Basescu in office. They’re extremely confident of the latter but shaking in their boots with fear about the first.
Pump Up the Volume
Before the USL was forced to respect the 50% + 1 rule, they originally wanted to restrict the opening of polls for Romanians to vote in foreign countries. Antonescu himself originally wanted to only let Romanians who could prove they had paid income tax (in Romania) permission to vote, the thinking being that Romanians living in foreign countries were largely more pro-Basescu than pro-USL. Once the 50% + 1 rule was enforced by the EU/CCR, the USL has been breaking their legs to open as many polling stations in foreign countries as possible – a total of 301 wordwide including 21 in the United States, 56 in Italy and 46 in Spain.
Lengthening the hours that the polling stations will be open in Romania is only the tip of the iceberg. Over 100 new voting stations (new compared to the June 10, 2012 elections) will be in operation, including dozens at or near the Black Sea. Ostensibly this is so that Romanians on holiday can vote but this region of the country is dominated by the execrable Radu Mazare (PSD) and his mafia. Indeed, some of these new polling stations will be inside of bars, hotels and restaurants. Elsewhere in the country, new polling stations have been established, many of them also in USL-controlled businesses (including in one hotel owned by a PSD senator).
Emil Boc and the PDL have been trying to combat this measure by requesting that the video cameras used earlier this summer for the Baccalaureate exam be installed at the polling stations to prevent fraud. Looks like that isn’t going to happen though.
The USL, again with their “emergency decrees”, have also changed the rules about voting, trying to squeeze out every advantage. All Romanians have an identity card with their permanent address. Ordinarily during an election, Romanians go to their local polling place with their names already pre-registered based on their address. If they are away from home for whatever reason, they have to add their name and information to a list of “supplementary voters”. This supplementary list is forwarded to the Election Bureau and is more heavily scrutinized to prevent fraud, double voting, and other irregularities.
The USL’s “emergency decree” has done away with all of that. No longer will there be the normal list of local voters pre-registered and then any non-local voters registered on a separate list. The referendum on July 29 will be entirely on one list, irrespective of whether the voters is local or non-local. As long as you have a valid Romanian ID, you can vote anywhere. If you speak Romanian, there’s much more information on this here.
Normally in an election, votes are registered at each individual poll station and then forwarded onto the city or town Election Bureau, which then inspects the results and forwards it onto the County (Judet) Election Bureau, which then inspects the results and then forwards it onto the National Election Bureau. On July 29, one of those layers has been removed entirely. Except for in Bucharest (and in voting stations outside Romania) the results will be forwarded immediately to the County Election Bureau, bypassing all local control. This means that there will be less scrutiny of the voter rolls and tabulation of the results before they are passed on.
Far more worrying than even all of the above is the case of the stamps, or the lack thereof. Normally in a regular election there is an established “chain of command” over the stamps used in a polling place. When a Romanian goes into the booth and votes, the election official places a “stamp” on the back of their ID card which says “voted” (votat). Normally these stamps are counted before being distributed to the polling stations and then counted after voting is over in an attempt to match up the number of recorded ballots with the number of “voted” stamps given out. During the July 29 referendum there will be no counting of stamps either before or afterwards, leaving the door open to fraud.
Romania has no software or computer network in place to automatically tabulate the votes or compare the ID numbers of voters to make sure that no multiple votes have been recorded. Instead, all votes must be counted by hand and determining fraudulent votes is a lengthy and difficult task (over 1,500 cases from the June 10 election are still being investigated). An attempt to set up a computerized system was rejected by the national election bureau as being too complicated to install in such a short period of time (for the July 29 referendum).
Three Ways to Commit Voting Fraud
I remember back in 2004 when it was a commonplace occurrence to do what Romanians call “voting tourism”. Romanians with valid ID cards are loaded onto buses, driven to a polling place where they then disembark and vote. They return to the bus, scrape off the “voted” stamp (still incredibly easy to remove) and then head to another polling place and rinse, lather and repeat.
Technically this “double voting” is subject to a large fine and a maximum of 5 years jail sentence but it can be very difficult to detect. Sometimes it takes months before ID numbers are compared between different polling stations and the votes are counted long before then.
Another technique, also illegal, is the “cash for vote” scheme. A poor person, whether a gypsy or a person in the countryside or an elderly person with a limited income, is promised a sum of cash for their vote. They go into the polling station, mark the desired box and then take a photo of their ballot with a camera. They exit the polling station, show the photo and then get paid. Paying for votes is illegal but this system is difficult to detect. When combined with the “election tourism” method above, large-scale fraud is possible.
A third technique involves a willing official at the polling place itself. Ballots marked for an opposition candidate can be “double stamped” by an official, making them invalid. In other words, if someone voted “no” (in support of Basescu) a willing official could also mark “yes” on the same ballot, this making it null and void. Since it is only the number of votes cast that matter (50% + 1 of the electorate) and not the number of valid votes, this is a way to suppress the number of “undesired” votes.
After July 29
There are three total possible results of the July 29 referendum:
1) 50% + 1 of the electorate does indeed vote, with the majority of votes cast to remove Basescu permanently from office.
2) 50% + 1 of the electorate does indeed vote, with the majority of votes cast to return Basescu to office.
3) Less than 50% + 1 of the electorate turns out to vote, which means that no matter what the results, the referendum would not be considered valid.
Many people are intentionally boycotting this election. Others will not vote due to apathy, indifference or inability to reach a polling station (being in a foreign country, hospital, having to work, etc). It is extremely unlikely that the requisite 50% + 1 threshold will be met.
If the majority of votes cast are to remove Basescu but the referendum fails due to not meeting the threshold, it’s likely there will be a lot of screaming by the USL and they will renew their attacks against Basescu. Only in the case of #2 above, which is virtually impossible, would there be a clear mandate from the people and thus silence most of the USL’s (and their supporters’) criticisms.
If by chance #1 should occur, then Basescu would be removed from office and then a new presidential election would be organized, likely to be in late October or November of this year, perhaps concurrent with or in close proximity to nationwide parliamentary elections.
One last Hail Mary
The PDL has been warning about one bullet in the USL’s gun, which is that according to their last “emergency decree”, if the CCR rules that the referendum is not valid for whatever reason, the Parliament itself reserves the right to determine the outcome.
Effectively this means that should less than 50% + 1 of the electorate turn out, meaning that the CCR will say the threshold hasn’t been met, but the majority of votes are to dismiss Basescu from office, the Parliament is reserving the right to step in and say “the people have spoken” and declare that Basescu has been removed from office.
Basescu himself was on television last night for an interview and was asked specifically about this. He denied that this final desperate measure would ever actually be employed due to the widespread condemnation it would receive from the European Union. Nonetheless, theoretically speaking this option is still on the table. If they truly are going “all in” on retaining power in this little coup d’etat, they could use it.
Even if the USL keeps this “final ace” in their sleeve and doesn’t use it, they still retain control of the Parliament and could throw up as many roadblocks to the return of Basescu to the presidency as they like. They could obstruct the courts, wrest control of more state institutions away from presidential control and continue their hijacking of the organs of state.
Basescu, both last night and repeatedly over the past three weeks, has promised criminal investigations into the USL’s activities of late as well as promising justice will be served on many of the USL’s biggest backers, including the mafia dons Dan Voiculescu and Catalin Voicu. Knowing that they are literally on the verge of receiving prison sentences, these people right now must be frantically preparing their next moves, whether that means fleeing the country or else convincing their allies to hang onto power at all costs.
Regardless of what happens, who wins, what the voting results are or who resigns or doesn’t resign, what’s sure to happen is that the frustration and anger will continue long past July 29. The “losers” are going to remain incredibly bitter and angry at what they see as an unfair process. The “winners” will crow about their victories but will have to contend with an angry populace that is largely disgusted with the entire political process as it now stands.
Whichever party or parties that end up playing the role of the opposition will be able to use this widespread discontentment to promote their own agendas, some of which may be quite radical and nationalistic indeed. Positions on all sides will be hardened and extremist rhetoric will be the rule rather than the exception.
And for godness sakes, whoever is in control after July 29 needs to do something about the currency. The Romanian leu has fallen to record lows, being traded now at 4.6 to one euro and 3.8 to the U.S. dollar.
May God have mercy on us all.