Cristina Bucur – PhD Candidate, Dublin City University
Last Tuesday, Romania’s Chamber of Deputies approved several changes to the electoral law which, if signed by the president, would introduce a first-past-the-post (FPTP) system at national level. The bill was initiated by Victor Ponta (the new prime minister and PSD leader) and Crin Antonescu (the PNL leader and coalition partner of the PSD) and had already been passed by the Senate on May 8, 2012.
Romania adopted a mixed-member proportional system in 2008 under which voters cast ballots in single-member constituencies in order to elect 315 deputies and 137 senators. The country is divided in 42 administrative counties, with a 43rd constituency dedicated to the Romanian citizens living abroad. Each of the 42 counties is divided into several single-member constituencies depending on the number of inhabitants of each constituency. The special constituency for the Romanian citizens living abroad consists of four constituencies for the Chamber of Deputies and two for the Senate. Overall, there are 452 single-member constituencies, 315 for the election of deputies and 137 for the election of senators.
The current mixed electoral system combines a single round of voting in single-member constituencies with a complicated system of seat allocation for parties that surpass an electoral threshold of 5%. Only those candidates who win over 50% of the votes in single-member constituencies are automatically elected. The remaining seats are distributed among the political parties first at the county level (using the Hare quota) and then at the national level (according to the d’Hondt method), provided they pass the threshold. An exception to this rule is made for parties which do not surpass the threshold, but manage to win at least six constituencies in the elections to the Chamber of Deputies or three constituencies in the elections to the Senate. In practice, this complex system of redistribution of seats sometimes resulted in the election of candidates ranked third or even fourth, while candidates ranked second in the same constituencies failed to win a seat.
The new electoral bill introduces two key changes. First of all, the element of proportional allocation of seats is completely removed at both county and national level and so is the electoral threshold. Nothing is supposed to change in the drawing of the 42 counties (plus the special constituency for the Romanian diaspora) and in the rules of their division into single-member constituencies. Thus, voters will cast ballots in the same 452 single-member constituencies across the country and elect the same number of deputies and senators. As a result, this system does seem to resemble the UK-style first-past-the-post, single-member plurality system. However, there is a twist for the representation of minorities. Every ethnic group that exceeds 7% of total population at the county level and that does not win a seat in any of the single-member constituencies in the county in question will still receive a seat for their best-placed candidate in the county. For example, even if none of the candidates of the Hungarian minority manages to win a seat in those counties where they exceed 7% of the population, the one who is best placed among them in that county will win a seat, which will be added to the number of seats that would normally result from the number of single-member constituencies allocated to the respective county. However, the same rule also applies to the Romanian candidates if none of them wins a seat in those counties where the Hungarians hold a majority. A side-effect of this change is that the number of deputies may increase due to the addition of such ‘wild-card’ seats. However, the electoral bill limits this increase to a maximum of 10 new mandates. Although this is seen as a concession made to the Hungarian minority, the Hungarian UDMR abstained from the vote on Tuesday and declared their opposition to the introduction of a majoritarian electoral system.
President Basescu’s PDL party, which is now in opposition after the PDL-UDMR-UNPR government lost a no-confidence vote last April, opposes the change. As a result, they plan to send the bill to the Constitutional Court. In any case, the bill cannot enter into effect until it is signed by President Basescu himself. It might be remembered that Romania is currently experiencing a period of cohabitation. Furthermore, the president also has several options at hand if he wishes to delay the promulgation of the bill. He may choose to exercise his veto and ask the parliament to reconsider it (Art. 77) or he can send it to the Court unless somebody else does that first (Art. 146). However, if the Court does not declare the bill unconstitutional or if the parliament overturns a presidential veto by passing the law again, he will have no other choice than to sign it.
The first elections under the new system are scheduled for November this year.