A Mayor for the Bucharest of Us

Chris Terry, Former Research Officer

Posted on the 7th June 2016

Bucharest, Romania’s largest city and capital, has had a rocky four years since the 2012 local elections.

The city is governed by a city-wide mayor and general council, and divided into six pizza-slice shaped sectors each with their own mayor and council. Of the seven mayors elected in 2012, six are subsequently either in prison or under investigation for corruption. The city was also battered by tragedy when a fire at the Colectiv nightclubkilled 64 people, and injured a further 147. This tragedy exposed how municipal corruption undermines Romania’s troubled health and safety regime. Both the sector mayor and the country’s government subsequently resigned, leaving Romania to be ruled by a nonpartisan technocratic government led by a former European Commissioner.

Yesterday saw Romania go to the polls for local elections, giving Bucharest a chance to move on from such events, and to get the engine running for parliamentary elections scheduled for November and the likely return to party government.

There was a certain fly in the ointment, however. Since the last mayoral elections the system has been changed for electing mayors – to First Past the Post. Prior to this election, mayors in Romania were elected using a two round system, but the ruling party changed this in what was widely viewed as a move made to help their candidates. Whilst the two round system was flawed when compared to the Alternative Vote as it is still susceptible to tactical voting (and asking people to turn up to the ballot box twice when turnout is already low generally makes turnout lower), it did mean that mayors were guaranteed to have won more than half the votes in an election. Under First Past the Post this is of course not the case – candidates can win on a small minority of the vote.

The frontrunner for city-wide mayor was Gabriela Firea, the polarising candidate of Romania’s Social Democratic Party, the PSD. The party is widely viewed as the successor of the middle-ranking communists and secret police who overthrew the dictator Ceausescu in 1989. During the election Firea’s campaign was accused of misusing public funds to promote its candidate and was also warned by the National Council for Combating Discrimination for controversial comments about childless families. Firea though was popular with Bucharest’s older, more working class citizens and amongst those who work in the public sector.

Firea’s principle opponent came to be Nicusor Dan. Dan is a civic campaigner who runs campaigns against municipal corruption and to save green spaces and historic buildings. He formed a new local party to back his campaign, the Union to Save Bucharest.

Dan’s campaign principally took votes from Romania’s second-largest party, the centre-right National Liberal Party, the PNL. Polls during the campaign repeatedly showed Dan and a series of four different PNL candidates tussling for second place. Due to the First Past the Post system Dan and the PNL each argued that the other should withdraw in their favour to create the best chance of beating Firea.

Final results are not yet in, but with the count almost finished the results show Firea on 43.5%, Dan on 29.9% the PNL’s Predoiu on 11.3% and the similarly centre-right Robert Turcescu of the People’s Movement on 6.4%. It seems very much the case, therefore, that the anti-Firea vote divided between three candidates.

While it is not certain that Firea would have lost in a two round, or Alternative Vote electoral system, the point is that a majority of Bucharest denizens should have had the chance to pronounce on her suitability to be mayor. Firea will now start off hobbled, with a proportionally-elected general council doubting her mandate. Perhaps recognising these issues, Firea declared herself a mayor for all Bucharest and offered Dan the Deputy Mayoralty after the results came in – Dan immediately refused her offer.

Of the six sector mayors of Bucharest only one (Sector 3) won more than half of votes. None of the other mayors won even 40% of the vote.

In the highly middle class Sector 1 it appears that the PSD’s candidate only just beat the Union to Save Bucharest’s one, winning 31.1% of the vote to 28.8% for the candidate of Dan’s party. This is arguably little mandate for municipal governance.

Bucharest’s local elections could and should have been an opportunity to bring the city together. But instead of being able to elect mayors with majority mandates who can unite the city behind them, the short-sighted change to First Past the Post has done the opposite. Instead it is likely that the city will be polarised and governance marred by accusations of illegitimacy.

As in the UK, FPTP has artificially increased divides. Voters deserve a system that brings them together, rather than one that drives them apart and puts the mandate of leaders into doubt.

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