Obstacles to the Participation of Roma in Elections in Romania

Cristi Mihalache1

As in most of the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, participation of Roma in elections in Romania, be it as individual voters or organised in political formations seeking representation, is seriously obstructed by numerous factors. Regardless of the affirmative action measures2 taken in conformity with the Governmental Strategy for Roma,3 recent elections in Romania indicate weak results both in terms of participation of Romani voters and performance of the Romani political formations.4

This article focuses on the factors which condition the low electoral activity of Roma. The first reason for the weak participation of Roma in elections and public life is poor education. The large majority of Roma live in very poor conditions. Thus, they either cannot afford to send their children to school, or worse, they have to use them in various economic activities.5 Those Romani children who are in school are often condemned to inferior education in segregated school facilities. As a result, several generations of Roma received poor or no education at all, a factor which is a serious obstacle to developing political awareness.

In general, the level of understanding of Roma of the political and electoral processes is low. Roma usually do not have, or have very little, information about political parties, the way they operate, their political platforms, etc. Sometimes they have some loose ideas about some Romani political organisation, but usually it is not clear for them what goals, programmes or ideology the respective organisation is furthering.

The majority population in Romania, especially the rural population, experiences the same problems, but at a different level from Roma. Roma are less likely to have political culture than the majority, but the discrepancies are attenuated in rural areas.

Another factor affecting the exercise of the right to vote and other political rights by Roma, is traditionalism. In some Romani communities the influence of the traditional leaders is very strong, and it is likely that the political views of the other members of the community reflect the opinion and the views of the traditional leader.6 Furthermore, in such traditional Romani communities or families, women are often neither considered nor treated as equal to men. Thus, it may happen that a woman's desire to vote be seen as jeopardising the authority of the head of the family. In other instances, Romani women are compelled to vote for the same party/candidate as their spouse, a trend which, however, is not specific for the Romani communities only but is also present at the level of general Romanian society.

Another interesting distinction can be made between urban and rural participation. In this case, the trend among Romani voters is more or less similar to the one among their non-Romani counterparts. In a smaller community, people know each other better, and they are less likely to vote (or to abstain from voting) on solely protest grounds,7 and are thus more likely to participate in elections, especially local elections, than people from urban areas.8 Roma in this sense are typical Romanians; they are more likely to exercise their right to vote if they live in the countryside.

In rural areas, candidates frequently buy potential voters by organising feasts or giving them food and/or drink. People in the countryside, and Roma are not an exception, are very receptive to this kind of "electoral campaign" due to higher levels of poverty and economic hardship in general.

A range of problems preventing Roma from the exercise of political rights is related to the issue of a lack of personal identity documents. Roma more than other Romanian citizens are affected by this problem.9 According to the Romanian law on elections and its amendments, a person who is entitled to vote according to the law10 can exercise this right only by showing a valid identity card (ID). Some Roma have been prevented from exercising the right to vote because of partially destroyed or expired IDs. Non-Roma have faced similar obstacles and have been treated similarly in this situation, i.e. denied the right to vote, but this problem is particularly widespread among Roma. Thus, a significant number of Roma cannot exercise very important rights, which are conferred upon Romanian citizens. The Romanian legislation on identity documents11 is inflexible, requiring a permanent residence in all instances when citizens are applying for IDs.12 The Romanian legislation regulating the procedure of issuing IDs stipulates the situations when the identity card ("Buletin de identitate") can be issued or modified, and also the documents necessary for issuing the ID: among others, most importantly, the birth certificate and the document proving the housing status of the applicant, i.e. either an ownership certificate or a valid rental contract. In a case of a minor reaching 14, the applicant has to submit the identity documents of his/her parents. Thus, Roma are most of the time in the situation that they simply are not able to fulfil the requirements for obtaining the ID, since their housing status is unclear, most of the time they do not own or rent a housing facility and often live in informal settlements. Moreover, a Romani minor reaching the age of 14 is supposed to submit the documentation to obtain an ID.13 However, such a person would not be able to procure an ID, since her parents do not possess valid IDs. Those Roma who do not have an ID practically do not exist as citizens, and therefore cannot exercise their right to vote, along with a range of other rights. Although the Government Strategy provides for the remedying of this situation, there have been only isolated projects in some communities, with very limited reach, designed by NGOs and implemented in partnership with the police departments,14 with funding provided by various donors. But there is no coherent, concrete national plan to overcome this problem, and ultimately to provide those Roma encountering it with IDs.

During the last general elections in November 2000, some Romani non-governmental organisations monitored the participation of Roma in the elections. A few Romani representatives have also been able to undertake election monitoring as part of a larger NGO-led monitoring project.15 These micro-level monitoring projects have to some extent enabled oversight, and have revealed substantial and procedural flaws barring Roma from fully participating in public life and, more specifically, in elections.

Some isolated incidents of verbal or physical abuse or intimidation by unauthorised persons occurred, but they were rather incidental than generalised. There have been also instances of illiterate Roma prevented from voting through a representative, as provided by the electoral law. Some voting sections have been closed before the time stipulated in the legal provisions, allegedly at the command of a Romani political organisation.16

The next round of elections in Romania will take place in 2004.There will be, in 2004, local elections, general parliamentary elections and elections for the presidency. In the run-up to the coming elections, no visible measures are being undertaken to ensure that Roma will effectively realise the right to vote.

Endnotes:

  1. Cristi Mihalache is an Advocacy Officer at the ERRC. He is an MA candidate in human rights, Legal Studies Department, Central European University, Budapest.
  2. As a result of both the provisions of the Governmental Strategy for the Improvement of Roma Situation and of political arrangements between the governing party (the Social Democrat Party) and the main Roma political organisation (see endnote 4 for the explanation of the term), the Social Democrat Roma Party, Romani representatives have been appointed as advisers in the office of the Government (Prefectură) in every county (“judeţ”) but their decision-making power is very low, and they are provided with very small, if any, budgets for developing their activity and implementing projects that Roma communities could benefit from. At the level of the government, a National Office for Roma was established during the term of the previous government. The office is run by a Roma under-state secretary, but his power is diminished by frequent structural changes, under-staffing, low decision-making power and small annual budget. At the same time, advisers on Romani issues may be appointed at the level of the municipality, but the Local Council has discretionary power for the appointment. It can appoint advisors only where “there is sufficient demand from the local Roma community” and the budget of the municipality allows it. Another form of representation of Roma in the state administration is the appointment at the level of the local school county office of one person in charge with the schooling of Roma children, but it is often the case that this person is not Romani. 
  3. The Governmental Strategy for the Improvement of Roma Situation (hereinafter “the Strategy”), adopted by Governmental Decision 430/ 2001, available in English at http://www.rroma.ro/download/new_strategy.pdf, last visited August 15, 2003.
  4. In Romania, one cannot speak about Romani political parties per se. The NGOs established on ethnic criteria can join with political parties in elections. Thus, these organisations can submit lists of candidates in elections to parliament, as well as for county and local councils. Non-governmental organisations can also support candidates for mayor and run electoral campaigns, i.e. they can perform all of the activities of political parties running in elections. I will refer hereinafter to Romani organisations forming partnerships with political parties for the purposes of electioneering as “Roma political organisations”.
  5. For example looking for materials for re-sale (paper, iron, etc.), often by going through local dumpsites looking for discarded valuables, different house-keeping activities, etc.
  6. The traditional leader of a Roma community is “bulibaşa”; the modern type of leader is the head of a local NGO or branch of a Roma political association. Sometimes the former becomes the latter.
  7. In recent years, voters in Romania have frequently manifested dissatisfaction with government by abstaining from voting altogether.
  8. People from rural areas in Romania sometimes regard the election process as a major event, an occasion when they can meet each other, wear nice clothes and express their right to vote, so that the others can notice that, like in a folk celebration.
  9. In a recent report on housing rights and non-discrimination in Romania, the U.N. Special Rapporteur of the Commission on Human Rights on Adequate Housing as a Component of the Right to an Adequate Standard of Living, Mr. Miloon Kothari, noted in the chapter “Housing and Living Conditions of Roma”:  “From the field visits by the special rapporteur and testimonies received, it is evident that the lack of identity cards and documentation represents one of the most serious problems affecting the enjoyment of the right to an adequate standard of living, including adequate housing, as well as civil and political rights.”
  10. A person who is 18 years old is entitled to vote. Sometimes people with criminal records are banned from exercising their political rights, mainly the right to vote, for a certain number of years, as a part of their sentences.
  11. The Law No. 105/ 1996 and Governmental Decision No. 112/1997.
  12. A parent can obtain a birth certificate for his/her child only by showing his/her own ID. Lacking a permanent residence, a Romani person would also lack an ID, thus s/he would not be able to obtain a birth certificate for their children. Accordingly, the children could not benefit from state child allowance, and until recently could not be enrolled in schools, and the chain continues.
  13. In Romania, the ID is not only a right, but an obligation.
  14. Authorities responsible for issuing identity documents.
  15. PRO Democratia organisation, the primary goal of which is the strengthening of democracy through civic participation. Its main field of expertise is elections and related areas. For further details, see: http://www.apd.ro/index.php?lang=en.
  16. For further details, see ODIHR Project Roma and Elections, Compiled by Ilona Klimova, University of Cambridge, August 2001, available at: http://www.osce.org/odihr/cprsi/doc/prj_el1.pdf (last visited August 5, 2003.

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