Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Romanians May Stay Away From Pro-Europe Vote

Government has done all it can to sell EU-friendly constitutional change, but may still lose referendum to voter apathy.
By Marian Chiriac

Voter apathy and a boycott by nationalist parties could jeopardise a constitutional referendum which is vital to Romanian accession to the European Union.


Romanians will go to the polls on October 18 and 19 to approve - or reject - changes to the current constitution to make it compatible with EU legislation, a prerequisite if the country is to join the union.


The revised constitution is a significant step towards EU accession. Some of the changes affect international relations - making it legal for Romanians to be elected to the European parliament, and allowing EU nationals to buy land in Romania. Others will have a purely domestic impact, for example increasing the presidential term in office from four to five years, ending compulsory military service, and allowing people to seek compensation if the state violates their statutory human rights.


The government has gone all out to win public support for a yes vote, mustering top footballers and pop singers to take part in a lavish campaign. They have even got policemen to stop motorists - not for speeding, but to ask how much they know about the referendum, and then hand them a leaflet telling them what it means.


Prime Minister Adrian Nastase said recently that support for the changes would be "a vote to modernise Romanian society, bolster democracy and respect human rights".


Somewhere between 80 to 90 per cent of Romanians are thought to support the idea of EU accession, so one would have thought there would be little problem in pushing through the changes needed to make it happen.


But Romania's chronic economic and social problems, together with disappointment and apathy over the left-of-centre government's reforms, have left many people feeling alienated from the whole constitutional debate.


Almost one third of the population lives under the poverty line. Romanians may be keen to join the rest of Europe, but the reforms that successive governments have instituted over the past decade to get the country in shape for accession have made life even harder for much of the population. The tight fiscal discipline demanded by the EU, entailing cuts in subsidies to loss-making state enterprises, has hit jobs and curbed welfare benefits.


All this has left the public so angry and disillusioned with the government that according to recent opinion polls, as many as half the electorate could stay away from the weekend ballot. A turnout of 50 per cent is needed if the referendum is to count as valid.


"Polls show that discontent is on the rise again," said a recent report from the think-tank Romanian Academic Society. "The number of people who believe that the government is incapable of managing the country is moving towards an absolute majority. It is very likely that they will refuse to turn out to vote for the constitution."


Reflecting this mood, one pensioner told IWPR, "I am not very concerned about the constitution. In my opinion, Romania needs politicians who are willing to improve the dire living conditions here."


In apparent recognition that the constitutional amendments could fall at the last hurdle, the government issued an urgent ruling on October 9 that the referendum should take place over two days instead of one.


The "Yes to Europe" campaign itself threatens to backfire on the government, with complaints about the money spent on it - estimated to exceed one million euro - at a time when everyone else is feeling the squeeze. There is also concern that the government is promoting a yes vote rather than simply encouraging free choice.


"In a vote in which citizens have the right to vote yes or no, it is an abuse for the government to use public money to promote only a yes vote," said historian Serban Radulescu-Zoner. "It is one thing to bring European issues to the people, but it's quite another to be persuading them to accept it."


The campaign has also been marred by allegations of irregularities in the way the government awarded contracts to run promotional events. Local newspapers reported there were no public tenders, something that is required by law. In response, an official, who asked not to be named, told IWPR that the government had acted properly, in line with rules that allow it to avoid soliciting competitive bids in certain circumstances.


Romanian nationalists are expected to stay away from the referendum en masse, in response to a boycott call issued last week by the opposition Greater Romania Party, PRM.


The ultra-nationalist PRM, which won 21 per cent of the vote in the last general election in 2000, and has been scoring higher and higher in opinion polls conducted in 2003, is the only one not to give the revised constitution its backing. It is vehemently opposed to constitutional changes granting minorities the right to use their own languages in court and in public institutions - a change which would benefit the substantial ethnic Hungarian community - and allowing foreigners to buy land in Romania.


"This [boycott] is the only way to stop a legislative hybrid that was requested by certain foreign pressure groups, which mainly wanted to make Hungarian an official language in Romania, and sell Romanian lands to foreigners," said PRM leader Corneliu Vadim Tudor.


In the end, though, local observers say that the issue that threatens to upset the government's referendum hopes is not xenophobia, but faltering public confidence in mainstream politicians and the political process they serve.


"The vote will be an important test of the current political class's capacity to understand the real needs of the people," political analyst Cristian Pirvulescu told IWPR. "It is also about their ability to persuade people to have a proper debate about Europe.


"If Romanians boycott the referendum, it will be a clear sign that people are losing faith in democratic politicians."


Marian Chiriac is an independent journalist based in Bucharest.