On November 10th, the Romanian citizens voted in the first round of the Presidential elections. No fewer than 14 candidates had been on the lists, which was one of the decisive factors in determining the results. Although many analysts expected the incumbent President and PNL candidate, Klaus Iohannis, to be on the first place – as he did – not many expected that on the 2nd place would be the former Prime Minister of Romania and PSD candidate, Viorica Dăncilă. Instead, many would have expected the USR – PLUS candidate, Dan Barna, to be the candidate that would go to the second round of elections, which will take place at the end of November 2019.
The present report aims to explain this perhaps surprising turn of events, by highlighting 5 major factors that contributed to pushing Viorica Dăncilă to the 2nd round of elections instead of Dan Barna: vote-splitting on the right (accompanied by a lack of alternative to the left alternative presented by PSD), the mediatic scandal in which Dan Barna was involved, paucity of electoral debates, strong organizational structure of PSD in the territory and the anti-PSD obsession of the right-wing candidates.
Splitting the vote of the right-wing candidates
As briefly mentioned in the introductory paragraph, the number of candidates to these Presidential elections was quite high – 14. Furthermore, most of the candidates were either to the right of the political spectrum, or single-issue candidates. The left of the spectrum was left largely empty, with the exception of PSD. A clarification is necessary. Although PSD took many measures which were contrary to most common acceptions of left policies, positioned itself with the Orthodox Church at last year’s referendum for the family and adopted a nationalistic stance contrary to the left doctrine, there was also no other genuine left candidate participating in the elections. Thus, it was easy for the PSD campaign staff to position Viorica Dăncilă as the unique candidate of the left, something that both Iohannis and Barna were keen to encourage by promoting a discourse according to which the 2nd round would be the first time 2 centre-right parties would be confronting. This only helped PSD, as many individuals who like social-democratic policies voted for PSD, although in reality, PSD is far from a genuine left party. It must be mentioned that, even with a sort of right-wing unification, Dăncilă would have gone to the 2nd round. Only by ”stealing” some social subjects and positioning more on the left would Barna have gotten more votes from traditionally left-leaning voters. It is important to mention that the candidate on the 4th place, Mircea Diaconu, was not perceived by the population as a left-wing candidate.
Mediatic scandal involving Dan Barna
In the middle of the campaign, Dan Barna was the target of an investigation conducted by RISE Project, which highlighted the failures of numerous projects funded with European money in which Dan Barna’s company was consultant. Dan Barna’s reaction can be classified as a poor one, as he made an analogy with Romania’s best known football player, Gheorghe Hagi, claiming that being concerned with his failures as a consultant is similar to “being upset at Hagi for not scoring every time he shoots”. The morality of Barna’s actions is not necessarily relevant here – what matters is that some voters had probably been dissuaded from endorsing USR – PLUS pursuant to this mediatic scandal. It is also possible that Dan Barna himself could not have been the most powerful candidate of the USR-PLUS Alliance from the very beginning – many people were expecting Dacian Cioloș to be the joint candidate, for instance. Thus, not only did Barna not have much popular credit, to begin with, but he lost at least 1% of the votes after the scandal.
Paucity of electoral debates
Klaus Iohannis was criticized for not participating in any electoral debates (although this was a practice that was also common in previous elections, where the Iohannis vs. Ponta election 5 years ago took place prior to the 2nd round for instance). The hypothesis that I intend to launch is that this strengthened his position, further contributing to the decline of votes received by Dan Barna. The only candidates who participated at the electoral debate organized by EuropaFM were Dan Barna, Kelemen Hunor and Theodor Paleologu. The increased percentage of votes received by Theodor Paleologu can be explained by the fact that almost 800,000 individuals watched the debate. On the other hand, Dan Barna’s performance was not an impressive one and probably failed to attract the votes of many undecided voters. Klaus Iohannis is not a very charismatic politician or a very good public speaker. Had he been involved in the presidential elections, he would have been confronted with situations in which his responses might not have been up to par with the other candidates’, which would have led to a loss of votes. His standing apart from electoral debates was a strategic decision that I believe contributed to maintaining his advantage as the incumbent candidate.
Strong organizational structure of PSD and PNL
As the former governing party, which held the long-term Parliament majority together with its government coalition partner ALDE, and as one of the oldest and most popular parties in Romania, PSD benefits from a strong organizational structure, with good connections in the territory. Such an organizational structure would be difficult, if not impossible, to be had by newer parties, such as USR and PLUS.
The validity of this hypothesis can be checked by looking at the discrepancy of the results between the division of the votes in the country and abroad. In the country, where PSD has a strong organizational foothold, USR-PLUS and, implicitly, Dan Barna, were unable to cajole many of the undecided voters. Instead, abroad, where PSD is poorly received by Romanians studying or working abroad, Dan Barna got the 2nd place.
PNL had the added advantage of strong organization in the territory and an online campaign which targeted the urban divide. Furthermore, approximately 53% percent of the diaspora vote went to Klaus Iohannis, which consolidated his position as the preferred candidate of a plurality of Romanian citizens.
“Anti-PSD obsessions” of the right-wing candidates
In this electoral campaign, many of the messages launched by the parties or the candidates had to do with the fact that PSD has to go, that the PSD candidate must not reach the 2nd round of the elections, or that this is the first time in the history of Romanian elections when a left-wing party will not be represented in the 2nd round of the Presidential elections. Regular, non-partisan citizens were probably tired of such messages, while PSD supporters probably motivated themselves and others to go to the polls especially as a counterreaction to this strong anti-PSD discourse prevalent in the campaigns conducted both by Barna and by Iohannis. A similar message was promoted by right-wing candidates in 2014 at the parliamentary elections and PSD also benefited from it.
It is the intersection of these 5 factors and their cumulative effects that explain the results of the Presidential elections in Romania. The exact weight of each of these factors is hard to specify at this moment. As for the fact that Klaus Iohannis was the candidate with the most received votes – one cannot ignore the powerful effect that the incumbent candidate has on the voters. Behavioral economics tried to explain the advantage held by incumbent parties or candidates through status quo bias – the fact that people are also drawn to the existent situation, given the fact that they outweigh the costs and underweight the potential benefits. Thus, unless the incumbent candidate does something extremely bad for the population, he or she will probably always have an advantage in comparison to the other candidates, who have to “prove themselves”.
Adelin Costin Dumitru, Issue Monitoring