With the European Parliament elections nearing, scheduled to take place this Sunday in Romania, a critical reflection on the local political sphere seems necessary. It will not however concentrate (at least not solely) on discrediting the Romanian politicians, even though it is seems to be the easiest way to discuss politics in Romania. Instead, it will focus also on the approach of the electorate towards politics. The ongoing election period in Romania is a perfect moment to focus on the level of civic education of the Romanian society. The conclusions are depressing – Romanian citizens are politically immature.
There are many wrong things about the European elections that you can easily notice in Romania. Firstly, the single constituency list that can be - correctly - considered undemocratic and unfair.
Secondly, it is the fact that the presidential candidates this year are using the European elections campaign to promote themselves by adding their name and image to almost every possible poster. We can see faces of Prime Minister Victor Ponta, of National Liberal Party leader Crin Antonescu and even of incumbent president Traian Basescu - who can't even run anymore, but at least he can promote his new party- stuck all over Bucharest even though they have barely anything to do with the EP elections.
Thirdly, and most importantly, the level of the political discourse in Romania is shockingly low. Both on leaflets and on the TV screens, Romanian politicians involve themselves in meaningless and low-level fights that touch upon the private life and political hiccups of their opponents rather than substantive debate. Because nothing sells better than the president’s alleged affair or the PM’s educational setbacks.
Politics, neither on a local nor on a supra-national level has ever been clean and decent. In Eastern European countries, the political culture is younger and therefore it still has to develop. Both the politicians and the electorate themselves need to mature and understand that democracy is an earned right and thus shall be respected.
The higher the education of the society, the bigger interest it shows in national politics and hence is able to make a more informed vote. The Eastern European political parties still believe that the electorate is – roughly said – stupid. That is why it tries to convince voters by making promises that they won’t even be able to fulfill as they are outside the EP’s scope of work or competences. But for the majority of voters, who are not interested in what is happening in Brussels and hence incapable of holding these politicians accountable to their promises, this does not matter.
In Eastern Europe we can moreover observe a very dangerous trend that has been already present in the previous elections. Voters decide to vote for known names, such as famous sportsmen or celebrities, rather than qualified experts.
For example, in the Polish elections for the European Parliament, there is a handful of Olympic winners, actresses and celebrities who have no experience or substantive background to sit in any type of political organization.
In Romania we witnessed this trend at its best when Elena Basescu and George Becali were chosen to represent Romania in the European Parliament in 2009. Both of them proved to be utterly clueless and uninterested in European politics, with Mr. Becali being more absent rather than present in the Plenary Sessions and Ms. Basescu sometimes requesting speaking time and talking about a completely different issue than one being disused at the given moment.
In this Parliamentary elections, gymnast Corina Unguranu and actor Mircea Diaconu are hoping to get their 5-year term in the EP, hence continuing this trend of sending completely random and unprepared people to represent Romania on the European scene.
With this image in mind, it is worthy to take a look at the German delegations to the European Parliament. In 2009, German MEPs took 99 seats in the European Parliament being the most represented state in the EP. German MEPs have also been appointed most frequently as chairs and vice-chairs in the majority of Parliamentary Committees as well as Delegations. Contrary to what majority might think, it wasn’t caused by their numerous representations but by their substantive knowledge and expertise in the field of European law and policy making.
The German society is prepared far better for European elections than any of Easter European states and this should be a lesson for Eastern Europe. Germans don’t vote for the most popular name or for the one with the most robust campaign but instead, for the one with best substantive knowledge and ability to represent Germany well in the EP. Most German MEPs have a thorough experience in European affairs, having previously served in other European institutions and organizations. They have both the education and the years of much needed experience of working in the European structures.
Candidates elected do and always will reflect directly on the people who chose them. It is crucial to underline this in order for people to understand that politicians are, at the end of the day, elected by the society. And the more random people will be send to Brussels, the worse perception will Romania gain abroad. And that will only affirm the stigma that Romanians are already struggling with.
The EU is not perfect, as none political system could ever be. But the EU offers its citizens a range of possibilities – starting with border-free travel, immense free market, offers legal remedies and legal protection as well as is responsible for introducing numerous citizen-friendly regulations (such as, most recently, lowering the roaming charges across all the EU member states). The approximation of laws of 28 sovereign countries would be impossible without such an institution. It may have been 10 years for most Eastern European countries and 7 years in the EU for Romania but the fact that we got used to and got comfortable with all the benefits EU offers is not an excuse good enough to neglect the importance of the Union.
The predictions for the participation of the Romanian citizens in the European Parliament elections are hopeless – less than a third of Romanians entitled to vote are planning to cast a ballot this Sunday. This proves it will take generations for Romania to develop a high level political culture as well as political participation.
What can these elections already teach us? That the level of political culture, both from the candidates and the voters, is extremely low. The lack of interest in the outcome of the elections as well as lack of willingness to participate in the elections prove the low level of civic education among the Romanians. It is even more upsetting given the opportunities that the Romanian people gained by joining the EU in 2007 – after years of anticipating and preparing for this historical moment.
Many countries, with Ukraine being the most recent example, aim to join the European Union as the ultimate gate to welfare, stability and democracy. People wrongfully believe that once the country joined the EU, all the hard work is done and it’s time to enjoy the benefits. This is utterly wrong – the hardest part of being an EU member state is working on constant development and seizing opportunities that the EU gives us.
That is why Romania needs qualified and well-educated people in Brussels – so that first of all, they can work for the Romanian people and secondly, while doing it, spread the image that Romania deserves. And we, the voters, have the easiest part in achieving this goal - all we have to do is make an informed decision and vote this Sunday for the best available candidate.
By Zuzanna Kurek, guest writer