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Victoria Square: an everyday tale of queuing for Bratwurst and Bucharest

Victoria Square: an everyday tale of queuing for Bratwurst and Bucharest

🕔18.Nov 2014

At a time of disillusionment with democracy, Chris Game from Institute of Local Government Studies tells a tale from our own Council House to re-igmite belief in the ballot box. 

Bittersweet is the classic oxymoron – a taste or feeling that’s simultaneously good and bad, happy and sad. In Romanian, according to my Google Translator, it’s amărui, and my bet is that there were large numbers of Romanians on Monday morning, in a good many Western European cities and certainly here in Birmingham, experiencing that amărui sensation.

The sweet part is that they’ve got the new President, Klaus Iohannis, for whom a sizable majority of them voted. The bitter part is that most spent their Sunday queuing for literally hours in order to cast those votes, only to find, almost immediately they got home, that they needn’t have bothered.

The man they wanted out, the present Prime Minister, Victor Ponta, had conceded an eventually decisive defeat before the votes of those Romanians living and working abroad – the diaspora – were even counted and recorded.

And I’m telling you this why, I hear you ask – unless, that is, you were among the crowds who decided to give this year’s Christmas Craft Market an early look-see, in which case you’ll know exactly why.

Throughout Sunday, until both the market and the Council House polling station closed at 9.00, Victoria Square was shared, amicably and rather extraordinarily, by two sets of people.

Both groups queued, but for market patrons it was for minutes at most and their quick material reward was a Bratwurst, chocolate crêpe, Glűhwein or mulled cider.

For the thousands of Romanians, gently shepherded by police as they inched painfully slowly from about the old central library round to the entrance to the Council House, their much delayed gratification was to do something that after less than a quarter-century is manifestly still a valued act: voting for their country’s leader in a more or less democratic election.

Yes, the democracy is ‘more or less’; Romania, as well the EU’s second poorest state, is one of its most corrupt; and the winning candidate is seen even by some supporters as the lesser of two evils.

Nevertheless, witnessing most of one of our city’s minority communities good-humouredly queuing for hours in the cause of their home country’s pubescent democracy would be moving in any circumstances. In a country that almost revels in treating its own democratic institutions and processes with contempt, it verges on humbling.

In fact, the queuing in this instance had its own intrinsic as well as instrumental significance. It was a key, possibly decisive, issue in the campaign itself.

As in France, Romanian Presidents can serve a maximum of two five-year terms and are elected in a two-round or run-off system. If no candidate gets an overall majority in the first round, there is a run-off a fortnight later between the two leading candidates.

This month’s elections were about choosing the successor to the centre-right President Traian Băsescu, a former sea captain who was elected in 2004 on an anti-corruption ticket, was twice suspended from office, took Romania into the EU, and completes his two terms within months of his younger brother being arrested for (allegedly) taking a bribe from a convicted gangster accused of attempted murder. It’s that kind of country.

Victor Ponta, the Social Democratic PM appointed by Băsescu in 2012, has had his controversies too: from accusations of plagiarising his doctoral thesis to, most recently, using EU funds for electoral bribe food packages.

Still, even without the President’s parting publicity gift, Ponta, whose political role model is one Tony Blair, was so confident of victory – if not in the first November 2 ballot, because of the surfeit of candidates, then comfortably in the second – that he planned to sit back and watch the first round results on television “with a packet of popcorn”.

Following the first ballot his smugness seemed vindicated. An impressive 14 candidates collected the 200,000 signatures required to stand, including for the first time two women and three from Romania’s ethnic minorities.

There were two Hungarians and Klaus Iohannis, a centre-right ethnic German Mayor: wealthy and propertied, but a Bucharest outsider, with no communist past and a record of having transformed his Transylvanian city of Sibiu into a thriving tourist hub and cracked down on corruption.

Only two of the 14, though, managed more than 6% of the vote – Ponta with 40% and Iohannis with 30% – and, with a Ponta ally in third place, the 10% gap seemed unbridgeable, and opinion polls seemed to agree.

Think of Romania as being vaguely France-shaped but half the size, with the capital Bucharest in the deep-south, around Avignon. Ponta looked to have the whole south tied up plus everything north-east of Paris, leaving Iohannis’ Transylvanian/Lutheran support concentrated in the generally more prosperous north-west: Normandy, Brittany, down to about the Loire Valley.

However, up to a fifth of Romania’s 20 million population currently live abroad, and their electoral experience on November 2 in numerous European cities – Paris, Strasbourg, London, Dublin, Brussels, Oslo, Bonn, Munich, Stuttgart, Turin, Rome, Madrid – had been organisationally catastrophic.

There were far too few polling stations, officials and election stamps, required forms that were undownloadable, kilometer-long queues, voters locked out, extended voting hours refused, and embassies accused of colluding in the obstruction of voters who were assumed, undoubtedly correctly, to be predominantly Iohannis supporters.

The predictable joke in Victoria Square was that the city council had never seen so many voters and simply couldn’t cope, but in this case the blame lay firmly with Bucharest, not Brum.

The Foreign Minister was forced to resign, in a vain attempt to deflect blame from Ponta himself, but, as no additional polling stations were authorised, his polling lead began to close, and the determination of overseas Romanians to turn out and swing a possibly knife-edge election naturally increased.

Sunday’s second ballot, outside Romania, was predictably even more anarchic – turnouts up everywhere, queues longer, more voters locked out – and the opinion polls, possibly because of the huge expat vote, proved comprehensively wrong with a final result giving Iohannes a nearly 10% lead.

Ponta announced that his defeat constituted no reason for him to resign as PM, and that his ruling alliance will continue in office until the 2016 parliamentary elections. We shall see. My personal feeling is that, once you’re beaten in a campaign in which your opponents’ main slogan Spoonerises your name into ‘Puie Monta’ – as in ‘KEEP CALM and Puie Monta’ – your career’s probably on the skids.

If you’re curious, Google Translator won’t help – unless you know what a Spoonerism is and try ‘Muie’.

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