Voting is talked about as a civic duty, a political right and in some cases a privilege. Universal voting can be seen as the fundamentals of the modern democratic system and the basis on which decisions are considered to be a representation of the elusive “will of the people”. In its universal form, it is among the political rights that establish modern democracy and depending on the region; it is a right that one can choose to exercise or not, depending on whether this is or not compulsory. To me voting has a profound significance and abstaining from voting is not something I am personally comfortable with, which is why choosing to stay home during the 2018 Romanian referendum was a hard choice, but I stood by it.
I can go into many political arguments of why voting matters, but that is not the topic of this piece. What I want to talk about is what are the reasons for which someone who feels morally compelled to vote, chose in this particular context not to exercise their right. Why does voting matter to me as an individual? To me, voting matters because, historically, woman suffrage was not easily achieved.
While there is little to no education in Romanian schools about the women who advocated for their political rights, these women do exist and have paved the way for women suffrage in Romania. The history of both the military and the communist dictatorships of Romania is another reason why to me voting matters. The right to vote had been rendered to a mere facade during communist times, with no real freedom of expression. In these conditions, as one of the first generations growing up in post-communist Romania, voting is important because now it means something and it can bring about change. The reasoning behind why voting matters to me is not complicated, but it is enough to motivate me to try and make an informed decision when I have to.
Fast forward to a couple more years down the line and there is a referendum in Romania on deciding the definition of family in the Constitution from “union between spouses” to “union between man and woman”. This came as the result of a citizen initiative for constitutional reform in a campaign carried out by the conservative group, Coalition for Family, which raised 3 million signatures in favour of a referendum. The citizen initiative was validated and the parliament agreed to a referendum. For those against the measure, this was disheartening news.
The referendum was supported by the Church and the Social Democrat, the current rolling party. According to law, the referendum is validated with 30% of the electoral votes and 25% in favour of one of the decisions. An absurdly low threshold, that came as a result of a change in the law in 2014 that took the percentage down from 50%, whose aim was to lower the chances of a voters boycott. It did not go according to plan.
You cannot be faulted if your first instinct when you do not support such a change is to mobilise forces in such a way that that more people vote against the proposed amendment. This was my first thought. However, in a country in which voter turnout is historically low, and the issue proposed by the referendum is a non-issue for most people, this is incredibly difficult to achieve. Add to it the fact that the conservative coalition gathered (allegedly) 3 million signatures in favour and that 30% represents around 5.5 million voters; voting might just not be the answer. Indeed, the easiest way to defeat the referendum was to let it fail. And it happened. A campaign organised by the opposition party, USR, encouraged voters that were intending to vote against to stay at home. Romanian social media was filled with messages encouraging a boycott of the referendum, under the tags #boicot (boycott) and #stauacasa (stay home), all of course depending on your echo-chamber.
Could a campaign encouraging voting turn the tide in favour of those against the measure? A vote on a measure starting with a support base of 3 million voters, a referendum backed by the Church and the ruling party, conducted throughout two non-working days and with little oversight over voter fraud, it looked tricky. On paper, the referendum had all the winning ingredients. I spent the 6th and 7th of October, obsessing over the latest news about the voting turnout, hoping desperately that the 30% threshold will not be reached and Romania didn’t disappoint me. On the first day, the turnout was 5.72%. When the second day came, the total turnout was 21%. With that, it came to an end. It is not clear how many were influenced by the campaign to boycott the referendum, how many were driven by ideological support for LGBT and women rights or how many just saw the referendum as a non-issue. In the end, just two things matter, the referendum failed, and it cannot be validated and that major players in the political scene are losing their grasp on voters.
The next two years will be a big challenge for Romania with both presidential and parliamentary elections taking place. Voter turnout for presidential elections was at 64% and around 40% for parliamentary elections. The relatively high turnout for presidential elections needs to be maintained. A candidacy from the incumbent, President Klaus Iohannis, for a second term is inevitable. Meanwhile, the low turnout for parliamentary elections is the biggest challenge, as there is a sense of mistrust in political parties, but widespread discontent. The Social Democrats have been engaging in measures that have consistently weakened the fight against corruption and the independence of the judiciary, undermining democracy. Protests against the Social Democrats and their allies have been consistent, to which the government responded violently in August 2018 drawing criticisms from the EU and beyond.
Time will tell how these events unfold, but recent years show a spark of hope for Romania. A young democracy, Romania is just starting to get used to talking about politics differently, transitioning from a defeatist narrative to pro-active debate on political ideologies and policies. The October referendum of 2018, showed that there are people politically engaged, as demonstrated by those engaging with the boycott campaign and that there are people willing to start talking about progressive policies. It is certain that change is slow, but I am part of a generation that is committed to seeing it happen.