The 2014 presidential elections were a pyrrhic victory for Western values in post-Communist Romania.
Note: a Romanian language version of this article was published by Gazeta de Romania, a London-based newspaper for Romanian expats. Read it here.
Thousands of Romanians living abroad have been disenfranchised in the presidential elections in which the prime minister and candidate Victor Ponta first came in on a ten percent lead from the runner-up, Klaus Iohannis, who won by about the same margin after two rounds, meaning Ponta lost over twenty percent of the voting population in two weeks. Here’s what happened:
Polling station doors were slammed shut twice in the faces of queuing voters across Europe, when the end of the election day rung at nine o’clock. Protest chants and cries of conspiracy to disenfranchise were heard in London, Paris, Brussels, Munich, Stuttgart, Dublin and other cities, when members of Romania’s burgeoning expat class realised that despite hours of waiting they would not have the chance to exercise their democratic right. For these people, the prime minister’s promises that ‘the minister of external affairs gurantees with his job that no Romanian will be refused the vote in the runoff election’ proved as hollow as most of everything else he says. Two ministers quit indeed, but it was too late to salvage the tainted election.
It’s 25 years since the December 1989 Revolution in which one thing we won was the right to vote, but it seems leaving the country has meant forfeiture of this privilege. The United Kingdom, for example, only grants immigrants the right to vote in general election after five consecutive years of living in the country. Most Romanians who were refused their right to vote this past Novermber hadn’t achieved that status yet, rendering themselves essentially stateless as democracy goes – no land’s men swinging between Romania and the UK but having no say on who their rulers are in either country.
Of course, the expats had a massive trump card which eventually turned the polls on their heads: Facebook. Angry rants by the disenfranchised in foreign countries had created and instant grass-roots movement which catalysed already PSD-weary (Social Democratic Party) city dwellers in Romania. The outpour of posts calling for protest back home spurred a movement almost overnight. Tens of thousands marched in Cluj, Timisoara and Bucharest against Ponta’s government after the first poll on November 2nd.
It all happened so fast that the European Union didn’t react at all, though it’s understandable how Brussels wouldn’t be in a rush to admit on the record that one of its newest members and a contender for the common currency is quite unable to organise a decent bout of elections every five years or so.
On November 2nd 2014, election day, my lover and I woke up at noon, half naked in our bed in Stepney, the East End of London. We laughed and had coffee. We fed the cat and ate breakfast and turned on the Romanian news to see how the election was going. The two hours time difference (it’s earlier in the UK) meant the vote was well underway. I had planned this day for weeks and it was finally here: we’d go out and vote for our president today, at the Romanian Cultural institute in 1 Belgrave Square, London, the poshest of posh addresses. Anastasia and I were proud and our hearts brimmed with peace and with earnest, loving smiles. We were in a fine place in the world and our homeland was not too far away. We had just returned from Romania a couple of weeks before on a three hour flight. Even Bobby, the tomcat we adopted from Bengali neighbours down the road was laughing with us. He was proud to be living with Romanians. I wore a smart green shirt and she put on makeup and a nice evening coat.
We went out with an umbrella. It was pouring at one pm but we didn’t care. We still carried the morning’s sunshine inside ourselves. As we crossed the road to enter the tube station a grey Mercedes cut off a black Ford Focus and the driver of the Focus started swerving, revving the engine and bibbing his horn: “You fucking twat! Don’t you have fucking mirrors?” he yelled out the window. We walked behind his car and just then he started reversing. I slapped his car with the back of my hand demanding: “Hey. Be careful!” He didn’t answer. I gave him as stern a look as I could produce and entered the station to top up our travel cards. The machine said the previous user didn’t finish the transaction, so I pushed cancel and went about my business. A tap on my shoulder. “Hey,” an American girl said, “I had a transaction here that didn’t go through.” I said “yes, I cancelled it for you, no money went out of your account.” Then, ominously, she leaped in front of me attempting to block my legitimate use of the self-service Oyster card machine. There were two people waiting behind me. I said “no, miss. You go to the back of the queue and do it over again. It’s my turn to use the machine now.” “How friendly of you,” she said with sarcasm and back she went.
While on the way I called two friends to make sure they went out to vote too. Both said they were on their ways to Brent Civic Centre, a polling station the Romanian Government set up next to the instantly recognisable Wembley Stadium.
I got to Belgrave Square, holding hands with Anastasia, at a little after two pm and there must have been 1,000 people queuing. We traced the queue from the door of the Romanian Cultural Institute (ICR) along the street and then around the corner up to the adjoining street and the other corner of Wilton Crescent and Wilton Terrace, where it stopped. We stood at the end of the queue, excited to see a mostly young crop of Romanians. “I had no idea there were so many of us turning up,” I said. “I’m feeling rather proud of this crowd,” I added. “Yes, and everyone’s looking good. But we’ll be here for a while,” she said. She was right. We stood for eight hours. The polls closed at nine.
The atmosphere turned gloomy as night set in and we realised we’d never make it. Reading the Romanian news on our phones conjured up the worst tales of bogus communist elections: Ponta was saying on television that the crowd we were in had been brought with coaches by ‘agitators’ and we never even intended to vote. A light in my girlfriend’s eyes went dim that fateful night when the curtain to the polling station window pulled in our disbelieving faces as we were standing quietly on the pavement by the windows.
As reports emerged of tear-gassed would-be voters in Paris and Turin, the noise from the Belgrave Square crowd grew louder. The place no longer resembled an elegant, upscale neighbourhood. There were about 600 of us outside and the doors to the station had been firmly shut, the personnel locking themselves inside fearing lynching. It was over. Police vans started arriving and a cordon of officers stood by the door to the building acting as a buffer for the scared staff inside. The ambassador, Ion Jinga, came out unguarded and said a few soothing words. Eventually the crowd dispersed and went home. Nobody was in the mood for violence, it turned out, and the police were sensitive towards our pathetic ordeal. “It’s really silly and unfair what’s happening. I’m sorry,” one cop told me as a Metropolitan Police helicopter was hovering above. Then we, too, left.
The air was tense. She couldn’t utter more than two short sentences coherently in one go. I couldn’t talk at all. She started complaining that we had nothing good to eat. We went out to buy something but the supermarkets were closed – it was near midnight. Anastasia eventually settled for a veggie burger and said “I’m always the last. I always get leftovers from others or not even that…” and didn’t eat the sandwich. I didn’t pay much mind to this as I knew she is an intense woman. But an hour later, with even less strength in her voice than before, she said to the cat as I brought it back from outside: “Bobby, did you exercise your right to an evening stroll?” and then she laughed nervously.
The anxious stupour of the recent events took over her once-warm look. Desperation had infested our house and murdered the harmony that once lived there. She fidgeted in cold sweats and gurned her teeth all night, keeping me awake. I couldn’t stop her and I felt the illness creeping up my spine too, slowly but implacably gaining ground.
It served to harden us for the runoff. We went again to Belgrave Square on November 16th and we arrived just before 11 am, with supplies – sandwiches, water, beer and warm clothes. We were morally and physically prepared to spend all day in the rain. Some faith had rebuilt over the two weeks. Everything everyone had been talking about in Romania was the disenfranchisement abroad; it became the central issue of the election.
The events in the first round had generated so much publicity that thousands instead of hundreds turned up to vote this time, and the queue went around the four streets surrounding the Romanian Cultural Institute, stretching for half a mile. It occupied the whole width of the pavement and estimates had it at about 3,000 people at any given moment. There was a constant flow of people and cars from all directions, and even national television stations flew over crews who perched up their cameras, filming the queue. Everyone texted, posted, tagged, shared, liked and commented on their phones. By the afternoon Youtube and Facebook were rife. The crowd laughed off the bad signs with a logic of inverse exceptionalism: “It’s Romania, whaddaya expect?” many were saying. But they still held on, queuing. Hoping.
4,626 voted at a reported pace of 1.2 ballots a minute, nearly triple the previous 1598 at this station. Anastasia and I weren’t among them, along with about 2,000 other luckless Romanians at Belgrave Square. Twice tried, twice blocked. Some 500 had been there since the polls opened at 7 am GMT. Camaraderie and humour dominated the day, but things soured again at nightfall when it became clear it wouldn’t be possible for all of us to vote. Police came and formed a cordon around the embassy to ward off troublemakers. Chants against the Government and against Ponta and a general menace and feeling of deja-vu pervaded the final four hours up to closing time.
For a few minutes. Then it turned suddenly into celebration for Iohannis when preliminary results came in that he had actually won. If you didn’t know that everyone kept a smartphone and watched the news on a small screen by themselves, but all at once, you’d have easily thought the mood swing was nothing but pure collective insanity. About a thousand protesters started applauding and cheering when a second before they were sneering and fuming. The only comparable situation that comes to mind is a football stadium filled with diehard fans watching their team score an own goal and expressing their hate accordingly, when the very next minute their striker slips one into the rivals’ goal without stopping the game. But all without the football game, or any other visible motive. As if they were all dreaming the same dream.
It was an awkward spectacle to see my countrymen switch at the snap of a smartphone-tapping finger from furiously protesting their right to vote to cheering ecstatically for the winner of the election they had just been kept out of. Anastasia and I had queued for sixteen hours or just about.
A film by a young Romanian filmmaker, titled ‘the Diaspora’s Victory’ and shared on Facebook by Iohannis himself goes some way to capture the overall atmosphere on November 16th: anger against disenfranchisement before polls shut was swiftly replaced by jubilation that Ponta lost. People were no longer upset they’ve been robbed of a fundamental right as long as it was ‘down with Ponta,’ at least at a symbolic level. At Wembley there were a reported 5,000 disenfranchised on the evening of November 16th, as confirmed to me on the night by the Radio France International correspondent. They were also cheering for Iohannis right after their vote was blocked.
I would have voted for him too, but the fact that I couldn’t puts his wide-eyed administration under the sign of calamity and his was a victory I couldn’t feel part of, not least because I wasn’t on Facebook at the time. It came as a blow to the head… And as all good blunt object blows to the top of the head, it put a greasy metallic taste in my mouth that refused to leave. I left towards midnight trying to wash it away with vodka but it wouldn’t wash. It took five hours of pointless drinking to finally get rid of it and pass out.
Ponta was crushed and the old guard of PSD members turned on each other before the night was over, just as the communists did when their leader got shot on Christmas Day. But not even Ceausescu’s collectivisers in their finest hour could achieve such a grand-scale fuckup with so few resources. With the visceral flair for industrialisation that would make a Soviet central planner quiver with envy, the Romanian government managed to let the vote crumble in the same chaos all over Europe.
Iohannis came out with a ten-point lead, at about 47 percent in the final count. His book, Pas cu Pas (transl. Step by Step), a hastily written effort published in October, tells the tale of a man who was as sure of his becoming president as everyone else was incredulous of it. In one of the stranger bits he recalls a concert by the cheesy, engine-oil-voiced Italian crooner Julio Iglesias in 2007. His office having organised the jolly, Iohannis met him in person and writes in the book: “I’ve sat at the concert and, of course, as with all concerts organised in Sibiu, after it ended we went to a restaurant with the artist and had very interesting conversations. He is an open man; I remember us talking for two or three hours. He’s asked me how it is to be mayor, how do elections happen. He didn’t know anyone, either from Sibiu or Romania. After about an hour he said: “You’ll be the president of Romania! I’ve met hundreds of politicians in my life. I know what a future president looks like.” I haven’t had such profecies since,” he muses. He repeatedly stated his confidence after winning and he seems to never have doubted himself for a minute, although it could be reasonably said that his was a circumstantial victory.
For his part, Ponta all but handed Iohannis the seat by treating the public with contempt and arrogance, openly promoting corruption and attacking independent justice, and completely botching the abroad vote, humiliating a demographic which had been crucial in determining past elections. Despite having hired the consultancy services of Podesta, a high-end Washington lobbying corporation, and of Mitch Stewart, one of Obama’s former campaign managers, Ponta was hopeless. He even took lines right out of House of Cards, asking Iohannis to apologise to his wife on live television, just like Frank Underwood did in season one, episode six. Ponta’s spokesman, Mrs Gabriela Vranceanu Firea, a former television hack, also condemned Iohannis for being childless, saying this made him essentially unfit for public office – the same suggestion made to Claire Underwood in the interview she gave in season two, episode four. Firea forgot that Ion Iliescu, the longest-serving Romanian president after communism and the man who invented the PSD of which she is part, is also childless. This was not lost on voters, however.
Had art repeated itself as farce? Whether these dumb moves were pranks or gross oversights from his two US advisors, we’ll never know. I’ve emailed both for comment but answer came there none. What’s clear is that Ponta is no Underwood: he had on his side the single most powerful political organisation Romania has ever known (save for the Communist Party and the Ottoman Empire), he had the biggest campaign budget, of more than 4.5 million Euros – double Iohannis’ ACL (The Christian-Liberal Alliance) budget of 1.6 million Euros, according to data published by the Electoral Authority, and he had all of the oligarch-beholden television and newspaper organisations supporting him, such as the Intact Group of jailbird Dan Voiculescu, known for his connections to the former Securitate. Victor Ponta still achieved the unthinkable, losing to a greenhorn of state politics.
International press has been fawning and swooning around Iohannis ever since he won. Respectable English-language journalists who people rely on to tell them what’s really going on in the world have been falling over themselves playing down the well-documented mass disenfranschisement, lest they blemish the pristine gloss of a new ethnic minority head of state in the Balkans. Who’d like to taint such a perfect narrative with complicating details?
Not the Grey Lady, to be sure. In an email conversation with me about the elections, Andrew Higgins, New York Times Bureau Chief in Brussels, said: “The “disenfranchment” issue seemed to me awfully exaggerated by Ponta’s foes and the final result would seem to confirm that Ponta’s people did not rig the voting.” He added: “I agree that the overseas polling was clearly a mess but all the hysteria – before the result – seemed way overblown and reflected more the understandable anger of highly articulate anti-Ponta expats than a major challenge to the integrity of the vote.” In other words, move along.
For the first time, social media communication overtook conventional campaign machines and televised propaganda, making the winner the most digitally liked political leader in Europe, with 1.3m Facebook fans as opposed to David Cameron’s 400K and Angela Merkel’s 900K. Iohannis is the most popular European head of state on Facebook – but not the most popular politician, a fact many reporters omitted. The distinction is notable firstly for the sake of accuracy and secondly because another atypical politician, who also rose fast with the help of social media is more popular: Beppe Grillo, the Italian ex-comedian who made global headlines in 2013 when he gained 25 percent of the Italian Parliament with his audacious vaffanculo/ Five Star Movement, has 1.7 million Facebook likes and is an anti-establishment proponent of digitally-enabled direct democracy.
Meanwhile, it’s worth putting it on the record that two days into his presidency, the first official act of our German ethnic minority golden boy president may well have been his first sizeable gaffe. If the local Centre for Combating Antisemitism is anything to go by, Iohannis seems to have alienated the country’s Jewish community by awarding an important decoration (The Star of Romania, grade of Knight, which comes with a money stipend) to a fascist and neo-Nazi sympathizer, Octav Bjoza, who was one among many political prisoners in communism. A statement by the Centre for Combating Antisemitism makes clear that while condemning communism is every politician’s duty, the Jewish take a dim view of pinning a national honour on someone who shamelessly associates with the extreme-right Legionary Movement and advocates their principles.
There has historically been no room for the innocent in Romanian politics. Iohannis’ party, the National Liberal Party (PNL) has a purple record on corruption and white collar crime, tempering significantly any expectations of a new day in Romanian politics should it replace Ponta’s government at any time. Lest we forget that apart from proposing a candidate for the job of Prime Minister, to serve at the pleasure of Parliament, the president of Romania hardly enjoys much executive power. And it isn’t likely that Iohannis will look outside regular party politics for a prime minister for the simple reason that Parliament wouldn’t approve anyone else but one of their own.
Which brings us to the true underdog of this election: Monica Macovei, a former minister of justice, who ex-president Basescu supported for a while but backstabbed at the last minute by throwing his political weight behind the hapless Elena Udrea, leaving Macovei in the cold. Macovei ran anyway as an independent, on a radical platform of lustration and vicious fighting against graft and corruption. She had virtually no budget or campaign organisation and still faired honourably, riding on her reputation of integrity. She was the big loser of the diaspora debacle, as many of her grassroots supporters live abroad. I’m not alone in going to the first round specially to vote for her. She got 4.4 percent of votes in the overall, but 15 percent of the votes registered abroad went to her, official tallies show. An impressive feat for a candidate who’s by her lonesome whichever way you measure it. Iohannis was always the fallback for many young people, the realpolitik choice after Macovei inevitably fell under the axe. She would be the only imaginable prime minister with any credibility and knowledge to bring about meaningful change. But when I asked her in London outside the polling station if she’d take the PM seat, she lashed: “Certainly not. I won’t accept any position,” adding with melancholy: “Why, would you like me to?”
Felix Tătaru, Klaus Iohannis’ campaign manager and an award-winning Romanian adman gave an interview to the Evenimentul Zilei (transl. Day’s Event) newspaper in which he let on that the diaspora vote effectively made Iohannis president. Emphasis mine: “As I was leaving the party [offices] with Adriana Săftoiu [spokesman], I told her: „Now we’re in God’s hands.” and she answered „You got it…”. We didn’t even realise at the time how right we were. All that followed by Sunday night was nothing short of miraculous,” he said, clarifying further down: “If it weren’t for the diaspora vote, it would have probably been a different thing. The situation created only needed a spark to ignite. The diaspora was that spark and fire burst in the country.” He then talks about Ponta’s “tactical” mistake: “ignoring what’s going on on the internet in the context of another preventable mistake: the organisation of the election.” About the weight Facebook bore on the process, he said: “Social networks are a channel which now proved more influential than the TV. We had the Romania of television watchers and the Internet Romania. At one moment we wondered which one had more influence on the other. Which one is capable of dominating real life with its message? The summary of the story is easy: Romanians were having a fundamental right restricted. On the internet however, the emotion of this story could be felt: plain humans were generating content which impressed by authenticity.” What he omits to say but is easily discovered from reading some of the user-generated material is that however stirring, the material written on Facebook by would-be voters was often fraught by innacuracies and exaggeration. Occasionally there are lies too, possibly stemming from heat-of-the-moment frustration.
After Narendra Modi took a corruption-weary India and Obama took a war-weary US, both using social media as the main communications tool, Romania follows the trend, with a typically dark Balkanic twist of arbitrary disenfranchisement.
With such a brazen rights violation contributing to Iohannis’ image as a mild-mannered, fair and quiet type, the differences between the two candidates could not have been starker. The tragedy of the matter is that the game was rigged from the beginning: we managed to keep Ponta off the President’s chair only to have him stay as Prime Minister, a role of much bigger administrative power. With no law making him quit public office before running for President only a fool would have given up voluntarily on the supreme privilege of being able to use a national budget for political campaigning, which Ponta did generously. And as we can see from his ever-smirking face still governing Romania right now, Ponta’s many sins unfortunately don’t count foolishness among them.
Every time a national election or referendum occurs in Romania, the Permanent Electoral Authority sets up a Central Electoral Bureau (BEC), which is tasked with making it happen. It’s the ultimate responsibility of BEC to organise polling stations, aka electoral bureaux, right down to the number of cabins, the bureau members assigned to aid the vote and the number of rubber stamps allowed to each station, as it sees fit so that the constitutional right to vote is upheld.
Here’s Romania’s constitution on the right to vote [my translation]: “Article 36 (1) – Citizens have the right to vote starting with age eighteen turned before or on election day. (2) – The insane and mentally alienated put under restriction do not have the right to vote, and neither do those condemned by definitive judicial decision to the inderdicion of electoral rights.”
In regards to the one absolute cornerstone of democracy that is the right to vote, the Romanian Penal Code, which deals with crimes and applicable punishments, says [my translation]: “Article 385: Preventing the exercise of the right to vote: (1) The hindrance by any means of the free exercise to elect or to be elected is punishable by prison from six months to three years. (2) Attacking by any means the location of a polling station is punishable by two to seven years in prison and the restriction of some rights.”
Now, seeing as most estimates agree that a total of about 9,000 – 10,000 Romanians were prevented from voting in London alone, this amounts to potentially just as many electoral crimes commited in the fair city. There is currently an ongoing criminal investigation on the abroad vote in Romania, conducted by the Anti-corruption Directorate, but no London bureau members I spoke to had been contacted by investigators at the time of writing.
For the Romanian Presidential election of 2014 there were three electoral bureaux in London. Station 150 or London 1, in the Romanian Cultural Institute (ICR) at 1 Belgrave Square, station 151 or London 2 in the country’s consulate at 344 Kensington High Street and London 3 or Station 152 in Brent Civic Centre, a building that sits on Engineers Way, next to the Wembley Stadium in North West London. There were numerous irregularities in all polling stations in London.
By examining the way things happened inside the stations from exclusive accounts given by members who were present and from minutes and reports I obtained, as well as by correlating the actions of central Bucharest institutions with the events on the ground and the views of diplomatic sources, we can home in on how the pattern of negligence and ignorance wreaked havoc on the vote.
Mihai Ilies, 26, studies at the University of West London and is the VP of the Romanian National Liberal Party’s UK office. He was the ACL alliance electoral bureau member at the consulate in both rounds; he says: “In the first round the PPDD member was missing but he did come to the meeting the night before. PSD was in control of three parties – UDMR, PPDD, and their own.” (PPDD is short for People’s Party Dan Diaconescu, the party of a television owner turned politician – a novelty for Romania, seeing as more often politicians become television owners).
Mihai says the runoff vote was on the brink of an even bigger disaster: “The station committee was complete in the second round only because we put pressure on members, especially those from PSD. I said I’d ask for them to be fined for breaking their commitments. I also spoke to Ziarul Romanesc [a Romanian-language newspaper in London] who ran an article about it.”
“On the Friday before the second round all stations in London stood at three-four members, as far as I know. Many who were supposed to be there simply said they wouldn’t turn up, but then came around after we insisted.”
A document posted on the BEC website confirms the widespread concerns about widespread truancy affecting citizens’ ability to vote, with no less than 17 complaints lodged from the UK a day before the runoff. A majority of these came from London’s Belgrave Square station.
Why UDMR (The Hungarians of Romania Democratic Union), as a party that never had a horse in the race, would send envoys at every polling station in London remained a mystery until it emerged that many of the bureau members under the UDMR banner were in fact PSD activists. The same goes for PPDD. PPDD members that did turn up at the actual vote were all PSD UK members in disguise.
Cosmin Vitcu is a PSD member living in London, but he was, by turns, the UDMR and PPDD member at the Consulate station on both polling days. He is 30 and works for the Royal Mail. Referring to himself in the third person (a time-honoured PSD custom), he explains: “PSD already had assigned representatives for these elections. The other parties, weakly represented abroad, haven’t got offices and active members, serious people who can be tasked with such a mission. Such is the case with those who came in the first round from PPDD hearing they’ll be remunerated with £100 (upon learning the real sum he ran away). But, staying on topic: considering I’m a person of good faith, with experience in polling stations at home and abroad and with experience as a short-term observer for OSCE/ ODIHR, I was solicited to do an exercise of civic spirit and help the good functioning of the station I was named in. Otherwise, even through the perspective of party member Cosmin Vilcu it didn’t seem I was doing something wrong as long as I followed electoral law; thus I avoided certain discussion that PSD would wish to boycott the voting action.”
The name of PPDD envoy who didn’t turn un on election day but came to the previous meeting is Iloman Costel Robert, as shown by the station report and confirmed by witnesses. He could not be reached for comment.
At Wembley, irregularities were worse. Bercea Adrian, a PSD England member, represented UDMR in the first round. At the same station, Silviu Iudean, another PSD member represented PPDD in the first round and PSD in the second, but sources both in the Embassy and at the station have revealed he has refused to perform his duties, effectively blocking the vote. He seems to be semi-illiterate and lacking the ability of handwriting, normally an essential prerogative of becoming a bureau member. Says Mihai Ilies: “I know that Silviu Iudean, the PSD envoy at Wembley in the first round, represented UDMR in the second tour. He isn’t comfortable writing by hand and is semi-illiterate, which was why I know he refused to do his duty.”
Mircea Muntean, 27, was the ACL envoy at the Wembley station. He lives in London and does gardening. He told me that in the first round Iudean avoided handwriting by distributing ballots and stamps the whole day, but even then he “was very much absent from the station because he took an awful many cigarette breaks. All other members only took toilet breaks because of how busy it was.” “We felt he was mocking us and the voters with his behaviour.” In the second round Iudean again tried to escape writing by claiming “he’s only been to school for two years,” Mircea says. “We then wanted to replace him with someone from the backup list, but I don’t know why this didn’t happen although there were two people from that list waiting outside.” He says that under severe pressure from his colleagues, Iudean tried his best to write and eventually did a reluctant 400 votes in the second round, while also taking breaks very often. Mircea, for instance, processed 850. Iudean also skipped the final voting count after polls closed on November 16th.
How PSD could assign such responsibilities to someone by all accounts incapable of fulfilling them cannot be said for sure. Despite vigorous attempts at contact, neither calls or emails were returned from the party’s UK office or its multiple executives. Many of the email addresses listed on its website are invalid. Silviu Iudean did not answer written requests for comment.
At the Belgrave Square station, Gabriel Furtuna, chief of PSD Harrow, represented UDMR in the first round. His PSD colleague, Emil Marian Vaduva, was the PSD member in the first round but switched to PPDD in the second. In the first round, two other members who attended the strategy meeting the previous night in London did not turn up for the actual vote the next day, on Nov 16th. There were the delegates from PPDD and PER (Romanian Ecolologist Party).
Dumintru Laurentiu, a London-based investment consultant of 26 and a member of the Europeans Party which is registered in the UK has represented the Romanian UDMR party at the Belgrave Square polling station in the second round. He says he did it out of a sense of civic duty. He is not a member of UDMR and it is illegal for a foreign party to have polling station members in a Romanian election even if they are Romanian citizens, as Laurentiu is. He says: “I was a reserve, first I was proposed to represednt the PPDD but they’ve found someone else. I was contacted two days before.” He admits that he couldn’t have represented his own party because “legally it wouldn’t have been okay.” He also admits that PSD Englad representatives have contacted his party leader, Tommy Tomescu, for help.
Iolanda Costide leads the Romanian-British Liberal Union. She is an architect and a liberal activist, having fled Romania in 1974 and settled in London as political refugee soon after. She was an ACL member of the Belgrave Square polling section in London. We met in a museum cafe in Islington and she said: “You don’t have to be too clever to realise that after what had happened in the first round it was necessary to at least double the number of stations in the second.
“I haven’t been contacted by the investigators but I hope I will. Measures were taken here to organise a second station in the ICR building and two others in schools in London – one in Brent and one around Dagenham. Many Romanian children go to these schools. We had them ready, the logistics were guaranteed. The approval wasn’t given by BEC before Saturday at midnight so we couldn’t use them. I don’t know if approval was explicitly denied or the request left unanswered. I have no problem at all to be a witness in the criminal investigation. I’m sure that MAE (ministry of external affairs) did everything it could. BEC were never clear, they only gave press releases instead of real decisions and they made excuses. They mixed up the laws in order to hide what was evident.
“When the two envoys failed to appear at the station on Sunday we asked BEC to allow their emergency replacement with Embassy personnel – they said no. We also requested the extension of the voting schedule by sending a written demand signed by all the members. We were again refused. They were giving a literal interpretation of the law to the point of absurdity.”
She indicates the blatant conflict of interest Ponta was in, as both the head of Government and a Presidential candidate, and is sceptical about the ongoing investigation into the organisation of the vote: “We have an original democracy in Romania. He should have normally resigned.
“I was in two OSCE (Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe) committees of investigation for the Mineriade . There are cases which never reached a conclusion. I fear now will be similar. I have doubts that this inquiry will ever conclude.”
Iolanda confirmed she personally knows Mr Iudean is semi-illiterate and that he has refused to do his duty at Wembley because of this. Se says she doesn’t remember the names of the two unmotivated truants.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs was in open disagreement with the Electoral Bureau over responsibility for the mismanagement of the vote, both constantly blaming each other for the various failures. Yet that PSD had at least two members each time in each London station, or that this happened while apolitical embassy personnel were refused from filling the empty seats, was never brought to light. Neither was Iudean’s refusal to work and his party’s refusal to replace him. Ponta is still our Prime Minister while the investigation stagantes and the two ministers from his cabinet who quit ostentatiously rose more questions than they answered.
Simple arithmetic gives an idea of the consequences of non-attendance: in the first round at the Cultural Institute station 1598 votes were registered, helped by a commission of five members – 319 votes per member. Therefore 638 people couldn’t vote because two party envoys who were supposed to be there and aid the process decided at the last minute not to make an appearance. It is a matter of public record that approximately 600 people were left ouside the selfsame station unable to vote when this happened.
One look at the number of votes cast in London is enough to realise that had the three extra stations been opened nobody would have been prevented from voting and the waiting time would have been significantly lowered.
It’s widely accepted that it is illegal for one party to have more than one representative in any polling station but in spite of my requests, BEC offered no clarification about the legality of the situation seen in London. The Permanent Electoral Authority (AEP) of Romania told me it doesn’t have authority over BEC, and that BEC is a temporary organisation – set up “for the electoral period.” So not only is BEC unaccountable, it vanishes into thin air as soon as the final results are in – which explains why none of the email addresses on its website work now. The AEP diorector, Ana Maria Patru, said that “the breaking by electoral bureau members of their obligation to take part in the activity of these bureaux is a contravention,” adding that “ascertaining the contraventions and applying the sanctions are done by the president of the electoral bureau when the contraventions are perpetrated by its members.” For the record, she also said that “members of electoral bureaux are exercising a function which implies state authority.”
Abroad, all the bureau presidents were employees of the Romanian Ministry of External Affairs and as noted above none seems to have ‘ascertained’ any irregularity at the hand of bureau members. In London, these presidents were Dorina Orzac at Belgrave Square, Andreea Berechet at the Consulate and Radulescu Ciprian Mircea at Wembley. The Romanian Embassy has yet to answer a request to comment on the issue.
Moreover, a document BEC has given me in a previous request and signed by Judge Iulian Panait appears to suggest there was no absenteeism in London, by saying that there were seven stamps in use at every station although one member can’t use more than one ‘voted’ stamp at one time. Reports show that in round one none of the stations had the full seven members present, making it impossible to have seven stamps in use at the same time. The only report that names an absent member was from the Consulate. BEC has not attempted to explain this stark inconsistency in its official documents.
If the disenfranchised had voted, in all probability Ponta, the plagiarist, the sadistic child, the insinuator, the democracy-hater, the compulsive liar, the communist-hearted, Iliescu’s and Ceausescu’s heir in spirit, would have been your President for a long time now. Then again, with Iohannis as president few feel inclined to look closely at what brought him here.
Such as it is, this is the early 21st Century no land’s man moral dilemma.
NB: an abridged version of this text has been published by Open Democracy. Read it here: https://www.opendemocracy.net/can-europe-make-it/matei-rosca/romania-how-not-to-do-election