10th November 2019
By Marie-Louise Hartung Nielsen
From the 5th to the 12th of November I visited Romania with Silba to observe the first round of the presidential election. Our election observation team consisted of 29 observers, including four coordinators. Upon my arrival, I had little knowledge of the country, which made me even more excited to learn about both the history and culture of Romania. In the following days we explored the country and got by with a little help from local organizations that held informative presentations for us. Among other things, I learned that Romania, as the only country in the Eastern bloc, experienced civil war-like conditions with the fall of communism in 1989 where more than 1000 people died – a historic tragedy, still remembered by the country’s citizens.
On the first day, we met with the Media Monitoring Agency Active Watch, which is a human rights organization that stands for free communication for public interests. The organization is active in promoting media education and freedom of expression. A representative from the organization told us about the reality of living in communism with heavy censorship and no freedom of movement, which was the case up until 1989. According to Active Watch, there has been social and political unrest the last couple of years, influenced by a biased media landscape. The same day we met with a French journalist, who described the ingrained corruption, which is another reality in Romania. According to him, corruption is not just in the culture but another type of deeply integrated system.
On the second day, we were divided into groups, where my group had to present a short introduction to the candidates, which included the current president Klaus Iohannes from the National Liberal Party, who according to opinion polls was leading with 45,3 percent of the votes. This day we also heard a presentation from a journalist from the Balkan Investigation Reporting Network, who gave a journalistic perspective on all of the above. He described the election as boring and uninteresting because according to him it would not lead to any radical change, which meant that nothing was really at stake in this current election. He elaborated on this topic, by questioning whether the Romanian people need change or if stability is a good thing. The journalist concluded that one should rather see this election as combining both, stating that “we are witnessing an improvement that is happening slowly”. He spoke of corruption as well, describing it as very complex on both a high and daily level. Closing off the day’s presentations was the organization Funky Citizen, whose main goal is to educate and influence citizens into reaching a more participatory, responsible and transparent democracy in Romania.
With all this background information that I had attained through the first days of the program, I felt prepared, although a bit nervous, on Sunday morning on election day. Silba’s observers were divided into 14 groups, who observed the voting at the polling stations across Bucharest, contributing to the final report on the legitimacy and transparency of the election. I and my partner got an afternoon shift, which meant that we had to observe polling stations starting from 11 am. We were assigned to sector 1, which according to our sources was characterized by busy polling stations. In the morning, we met up with our assigned interpreter at 9 for some brunch before the start of the day. And as I was to find out, it would be a long but interesting day. We visited polling stations for the whole day until around 11 pm when the counting procedure was finished.
We got to observe seven polling stations in total. Our sector was characterized by long distances between each polling station, where we spend a lot of travel time. We then made sure, that we were at each polling station for at least 45 minutes. Moreover, we made sure that we behaved like a fly on the wall at every polling station – especially with help from our interpreter who made sure to pick up on every conversation that would take place. I felt every small part of the electoral process in every meeting with either a police officer or an election official.
A thing that struck me was the number and variations of encounters we had with the police. At one polling station, an officer wouldn’t talk to us or answer any of our questions. At another station the police were very helpful and friendly, shaking our hands and giving us high fives, while at a third polling station a police chief scolded us in front of his eight colleagues. Also, we could not help but notice, that there was often a lack of information by the chairman in ways of managing us as international observers. At some stations, the president of the polling station insisted on writing a declaration describing our presence and personal information which the other officials had to sign. At one of our latest stops, the responsible official was refreshingly polite and friendly – which was something I had missed seeing during the day. Overall, I found my whole experience with the electoral process interesting, providing me with a first-hand insight into the transparency of the electoral process.
In addition to observing the election, we also dedicated a lot of time to visit the city of Bucharest during our stay. For instance, we used one whole day with a friendly guide who took us on a walking tour through the city. Just like I enjoyed the warm weather, I enjoyed the company from the group as we did a lot of social activities, for example visiting museums, eating dinner together every night and exploring the city together. I found Bucharest as an interesting mix of a new and old where the past and present meet. It is a city full of contrasts. We saw both concrete constructions witnessing the hard times under communism and we saw the old part of the city represented in beautiful buildings and facades.
Not only, do I urge you to visit Bucharest which I really enjoyed, but I also urge you to join an EOM as it is a unique way to learn about another country, both in ways of its current political situation and its culture.