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The Journal of Democracy and Electoral Studies targets the publication on a regular basis of original articles with respect to democracy and electoral issues. Moreover, in addition to the Journal, JDES publishes on a daily basis  opinion analysis on current controversial issues in the public sphere. See section Opinion Analysis
 
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Journal of Democracy and Electoral Studies

targets the publication on a regular basis of original articles with respect to democracy and electoral issues.

Ballot abstenteeism and participation to protests: A new way of political participation in romania after 2012.

 

Viviana ANGHEL, Magdalena ALBULESCU

 

Abstract
 
Despite the progress registered by the Romanian political culture, the democratic balance remains fragile due to the low participation of citizens to the associative life and political decision, and in the same time, one can’t yet rely on the fact that political actors position themselves impersonally towards the formal institutional practice. Romanian democracy frequently encounters challenges coming from the political actors – who tend to adjust the functioning mode of the consecrated democratic institutions and to treat rather personally the institutional processes. Nevertheless, during the past years, the Romanian democracy consumes itself on redefining the mode in which individuals exercise their citizen quality through political participation.
Consider  all the above, in the last two years, in Romania, we witnessed an icrease of the citizens’ political participation in the form of protests and ballot absenteeism, in the detriment of other forms of political participation. The protests, as social happenings, are already turning into social practice, although quite late in time, 24 years after the anticommunist Romanian revolution. In addition, the absenteeism is promoted with the occasion of electoral processes both by political and nongovernmental actors and by opinion leaders. Is Romania subscribing to a new European trend in what ballot absenteeism is concerned, while participating to protests? Are these the newest and the most notable elements in the grid of a consolidated democracy? Under what circumstances is the ballot absenteeism corroborated with the participation to protests contributing to the quality of democracy? Are there also other forms of political participation which could determine politicians to accept that the only legitimate preferences within the democratic institutional system are the citizens’ and that consequently the governing should be tailored to their interests? The present paper analyses, in a first stage, the nature of political participation, its forms and instruments as well as the efficiency of their relation. Secondly, it aims at presenting a more substantial model for political participation, which could contribute to the change of perception in reference to the success of democracy. 
Keywords:  political participation, democracy, political culture, protest, participation to the ballot
 
Models of Political Participation
 
In what the theoretical models of political participation are concerned, there are many classifications. The classical models pertain to Almond and Verba and Putnam (2000). The forms of political participation cover a wide range of activities extended to individuals, from ballot participation to political activism (involvement in local community politics, participation in electoral campaigns, offering donations to candidates or parties). On the basis of the bibliography we consulted, we understand the term “political participation” as a broader concept, which we separate in 10 measurable indicators and we propose some new ones – protests participation, local initiatives and petitions, involvement in public decisions.
 

Variables

Dimension

Significance

Free and Fair Elections

Political Participation

The authority of those elected is based on the electors’ will

Presence to the ballots organized during the last year

Political Participation

The degree in which the vote, fundamental institution for representative democracy is internalized in social practices regarding politics

Involvement in political parties

Political Participation

The degree in which citizens get involved in local politics

Number of candidates participating in the last local elections

Political Participation

Competitiveness of the political process 

Gender Equality

Political Participation

Women in leading positions in local public administration.

The degree in which traditionalist anti-feminism could be traced down in local communities, expressed under the guise of exclusion of women from decisional processes at the level of public administrations.

Participation in protests

Political Participation

Rejection of the decisions taken by authorities

Number of reelected local representatives

Political Participation

Alternation in power

Number of petitions addressed by citizens  to local representatives

Political Participation

Involvement of citizens in the decision making processes and policies through personal initiatives and policies

Local initiatives and petitions

Political Participation

Proposals coming fom citizens for local initiatives and projects, including proposals for public policies or drawing attention of authorities on local communities’ problems

Involvement in public decisions

 

Hearing of local council meetings, registering on the agenda to take the floor, sustained claims in reference to local communitarian issues

 
1.  Indicators for evaluation of the degree of political participation  
 
 
Variables Dimension Significance 
 
Free and Fair Elections Political Participation The authority of those elected is based on the electors’ will 
Presence to the ballots organized during the last year Political Participation The degree in which the vote, fundamental institution for representative democracy is internalized in social practices regarding politics 
Involvement in political parties Political Participation The degree in which citizens get involved in local politics 
Number of candidates participating in the last local elections Political Participation Competitiveness of the political process  
Gender Equality Political Participation Women in leading positions in local public administration.
The degree in which traditionalist anti-feminism could be traced down in local communities, expressed under the guise of exclusion of women from decisional processes at the level of public administrations. 
Participation in protests Political Participation Rejection of the decisions taken by authorities
Number of reelected local representatives Political Participation Alternation in power
Number of petitions addressed by citizens  to local representatives Political Participation Involvement of citizens in the decision making processes and policies through personal initiatives and policies 
Local initiatives and petitions Political Participation Proposals coming fom citizens for local initiatives and projects, including proposals for public policies or drawing attention of authorities on local communities’ problems 
Involvement in public decisions Hearing of local council meetings, registering on the agenda to take the floor, sustained claims in reference to local communitarian issues 
 
The ballot is the main form of citizens’ political participation. In the same time, it isn’t an indicator for the refinement of the political participation of a community or society. In other words, the citizens’ presence to the ballot is essential but insufficient for the exigency of the advanced democratic political culture. The vote is considered ‘an instrument of political participation and a means of expression of opinions” [1]. The decision to vote is an act of intention and has an individual intentional fundament.
The vote of one person influences the elections with a probability of 1 divided by the total number of votes – therefore a minute probability. Seen as an individual act, it doesn’t influence the elections decision. The vote of a person who doesn’t know the candidates is as important as the vote of an informed individual. Moreover, the rational attitude of an individual would be not to go to the ballot, which consequently leads to absenteeism. 
One of the problems the democracy in Romania faces – therefore ascribing itself to an Eastern European trend – is the decreased legitimacy of the results of the elections due to chronic absenteeism within certain population categories and to promoting a new type of political participation: political participation through protest.
Political behavior can be determined by intrinsic motivations, such as the fact that the voter recognizes his own features in the traits of the candidate or extrinsic which could come as a reward, for example, obtaining a certain position. A similar example would be in the case of offering incentives to children to participation to a game when they would have gladly participated anyway. In this case, over-motivation occurs, where we have two reasons to participate, although one would have been enough. The already motivated activity becomes rewarded. This situation arises in politics as well when a party makes certain political promises which afterwards fails to keep and therefore can lose his electorate. An instrumental issue within an electoral system is that the electors to consider the ballot as being significant for them or consider it as an obligation, within a normative framework. The ballot could be an approval or a sanction towards a candidate or a party. The act of voting is not seen as a long term objective. It has significance for an individual only in the cases in which he doesn’t have a rational attitude, considers the ballot in a normative frame and within this framework of reference  makes subjective connections between the political actor and his problems.
 
Ballot Absenteeism in Romania. The Ballot as “Group Experience” 
 
Lazarsfeld maintains that “the ballot is, essentially, a group experience”[2]. The social group is composed of a number of individuals among which there are periodical interactions, through a communication process. The social group shares values and norms proper to the respective group, has specific purposes and objectives and, in this context, we can talk about the influence of some external factors, the persuasion of the majority.
Leighley and Nagler(2000) support that the ballot participation rate is determined by the standard of living. In the last years, in Romania, there is a certain category of citizens who declare that they don’t go to vote because they “don’t have reasons” to go to. Therefore, it is most probable that the optimists to go to the ballot since they “have reasons” to, while the pessimists will stay home. 
In reference to the communication relation and group experience that the ballot represents so as per Lazarfeld, there are not many reasons to go to the ballot for the electorate that doesn’t belong to the core group of a party or of some personality. 
Among the main explicative factors which we systematized after monitoring the messages and debate themes in the last electoral campaign that took place in Romania (for the European parliament elections) are the lack of constructive topics and of subjects related to public policies and programs [3]. The electoral campaign is not being built on a supply of information but on political speeches and conflicts. There is a strong split among a category of the electorate which doesn’t vote and the group experience that theoretically the elections are promising. The elected officials not only forget their electors between two ballots, but their campaigns don’t incentivize them to participate in the ballot. For example, in the electoral campaign for the European parliament, the European themes were either insufficiently present or not presented at all, not even their most important topics, such as the work place or fiscal policies. 
The debates organized in Brussels in the European parliament campaign were not aired in Romania with the sole exception of the national TV station that broadcasted live the last two debates between the candidates to the leading positions of the communitarian institutions. Besides the public television, no other media outlet extracted from the messages presented by the candidates important issue for analysis. 
Moreover, the national candidates didn’t face one on one debates. Most of the banners presented party presidents who didn’t run for the elections, mostly potential candidates for president in the country. Real candidates were not seen nor heard by the public. The electoral slogans either sent messages unrelated to the European parliament elections or were so general that didn’t convey practically anything. There were messages which could be classified as populist messages: parties that defend Romania from unknown enemies or situations, that claim the pride of being Romanian, as if being in the European parliament had nothing to do with political families at European level, but with the determination to mysteriously succeed in bringing (undefined) Europe in the house of every Romanian, and somehow suggesting that the elections for the EP are a competition among states.
A social investigation performed the day before the last elections for the European parliament [4] the people that went to the ballot or confirmed that will definitely vote declare themselves more optimistic and satisfied with the direction in which Romania is heading and the way in which they live. Thirty seven percent of the respondents who said that they voted or would definitely vote consider that things are taking a good turn in Romania. Only sixteen percent of the absentees or that declared that would not come to the vote declared the same opinion. Furthermore, in a percentage of thirty-six percent, voters have declared that they are “quite satisfied” with their way of living, as opposed to the twenty-seven percent of the non-voters. The voters are interested in politics in a proportion of 39 percent, while only 15 percent of non-voters declared the same. Nevertheless, 8.5 percent of those who didn’t vote declared that are interested in the elections for the European parliament. Among voters, the percentage was quite small: only 55%. The results suggest that the people who vote are not necessarily one hundred percent the ones that protest if we have in mind our explicative model, which favors the individual conviction that through participation one can change political processes. On the other hand, if people are happy, they have no reason to protest. For the lack of direct studies, in our qualitative opinion – to analyze the correlation vote-absenteeism-satisfaction with life-satisfaction with the direction in which the country head to country-participation to protests – we have to admit that this category might be mixed.
On the other hand, we know data about the absentees: they are young, 35-36 or younger but also from the 40+ category from the middle class or that are aiming towards the middle class. About those we know that have participated in protests during the last year. Most of them did not go to the vote last May, fact that shows that the European integration is not a sufficiently stimulating incentive. The explicative factors reside in the internal politics (low trust in the political parties, low political membership, unattractive low political participation offer coming from the parties, correlated with lack of trust in selecting the elites that renew the political class and the administration, overlapping up to confusion of the parties with the state and the its seizure by the parties, the inexistence of a predictable scenario for their professional interests within the country, the perception of a high risk of exclusion and marginalization through minute chances of penetration and promotion offered by the public administration, labor market and economy. Among these, there are also persons with activist potential, from NGO environments or their affiliates. Some of them succeeded in proposing an alternative model of political participation: the protest.
The non-option which is now manifested as absence to the ballot keeps reshaping itself more and more through the participation to street social movements as opposed to vote. Therefore, while participation to the ballot maintains itself within margins which are never surpassed (one exception: the referendum for the impeachment of the president in 2012, but this should be subjected to another study) the participation to protests and the frequency of this type of social happenings increases. The last two ballots organized in Romania benefited from a higher presence to the vote than in previous electoral moments. This shows, on the one hand that the ballot participation rate stabilized to a level, and on the other hand that part of the absentees found the alternative. This way, from the stage where the absentees were never right since they didn’t choose among options, we reached now another model, less conventional, of the political participation. Ballot participation or other electoral activities are not the only political participation activities (Dalton 2002, Putnam2000, Verba et all 1995, Verba, Schlozman and Brady 1995). Protests and social happenings become part of the standard political process, therefore becoming institutionalized and an indicator for a consolidated democracy. This is recognized in the specialized works as the movement society argument (Tarrow 1998, Meyer and Tarrow 1998). Within this explanatory framework, protests participation has a political procedure character per se and is no irrational act, contrary to the classical explanations from the social sciences (Le Bon, Gabriel Tarde). Taking into consideration all the above, one can note that the Romanian electoral system does not favor the ties with the voters, so as the participation to the ballot to be perceived as a group experience. 
 
Profile of the Protesters
 
An explicit scheme for the participation to the protests reveals the correlation between the individual characteristics and collective action. Not any category of individuals participate to such a collective action, therefore we could count on the theory of differential recruitment (Jenkins 1983; Zurcher and Snow 1981; McAdam1986). 
As per this theory, there are three distinguishable types of theoretical explanations for the mechanisms of participation of individuals to protests: biographical availability (McAdam 1986), political engagement (Verba, Scholzman și Brady 1995) and structural availability (McAdam 1986). 
Biographical availability is defined as “the absence of personal constraints which could raise the costs and risks associated with the participation to the protest”[5]. These are the status on the labor market (usually the existence of a long term work contract), marital status, respectively the roles and responsibilities demanded by the family. 
The age correlated with a series of specific factors is a predictor for protest participation. It is less likely that the young people have a long term or full time contractual relation with an employer – therefore is is more likely that they participate in protests. Youngsters, as well, are less likely to be married so they would likely not have family related engagements. It is more difficult when only one spouse engages into protest participation, since he/she would enter into a role conflict. Participation to protests is a group experience and demands resources allotment – including time, paraphrasing Lazarfeld in his explanation related to the ballot participation. This is where the propensity that participation to protests pertains to students stems from. 
Political engagement is a factor which stimulates participation to protests. It is measurable towards the individual through indicators such as interest in politics and information in connection to politics (Verba, Schlozman and Brady 1995). Moreover, politically uninformed citizens are less prone to manifest interest in protest movements. Putnam (2000) speaks about political knowledge and interest as the prerequisites of the political participation under the shape of effective joining to protests. Political engagement is measured in the political sciences by using relevant indicators such as: relative interest for local and national politics, the time allotted to political mass media and the news, participation in political debates and general knowledge of the political phenomenon. There is also the factor of perceived political efficacy (Paulsen 1991, Ennis and Schreur 1987) by the individual who chooses to participate in the protest based on the perception that he has a certain influence in the generation of change.  
Structural availability (McAdam 1986) is the most important explicative category for the substance of activism in protests and refers to the existence of interpersonal networks that facilitate recruitment for activism. Membership to organizations favors relations among members of the organization and between the organization and its environment. It is less probable that people to participate in protest if they are not asked to do it [6], therefore organizational membership usually facilitates participation to protests (McAdams 1986; McAdams and Paulsen1993; Verba, Scholzman and Brady 1995), mostly when someone from the inside participates. In addition, it is most likely that the members of the same organization to share the same values and therefore to be able to be mobilized if the object of the protests reaches a shared institutional value. 
 
Study Case. A Compared Analysis of the Political Participation 
Situation in Eight Major Romanian Cities 
 
Within this section, we will present the sectoral results of a study entitled The Local Democracy Barometer in Romania [7], in what the dimension of political participation is concerned. The general aim of the Barometer was evaluating the quality of democracy in 24 locales in Romania and identifying the specific democratic deficits in each locale, during 2012-2013. 
The results show that “assuring the formal dimension of democracy is an illusory as long as the significance of political participation do not include other forms of political participation” [8] , more consistent and with more solid results. We included the dimension of political participation in the indicators at page 2. On the basis of data collected in each locale, a score was obtained and an average made, then introduced in the final ranking. 
The study noted an increase in the participation of citizens to public life under the guise of participation to protests in 2012 and 2013. In the same time, the results show that where the level of participation to protests or civic initiatives is high, the ballot participation if high as well. Moreover, in this case, the boycott through absenteeism is not confirmed. Although Bucharest, Timisoara, Cluj Napoca are the best situated cities in what the political participation is concerned (the average for all the above mentioned indicators), the democratic balance is still fragile on the background of other relevant indicators for political participation -  where deficits are recorded (irregularities in reference to the correctness of the elections). The global score for Bucharest is 48, coming third after Timisoara and Cluj. The other places in the classification are held by Giurgiu (40), First District of Bucharest (38) and Piatra Neamţ (35). The worst results obtained Braşov, Brăila, Craiova. The results of the Barometer suggest that the lack of quality methods of political participation: petitions, motions, civil initiatives are only a few in the cities we monitored and applied the Barometer. 
The global average per indicator in the case of the capital is compensated by the number of petitions addressed by citizens to the local public administration, the number of protests and participations to the latter ones, the number of women part of the decisional process (a good example is District 2), and the score of the municipality of Giurgiu is balanced only by the considerable political competition for City Hall, in comparison with the national average for the the number of candidates for the Town Hall (high in Giurgiu, but in the Second District as well).
 
Conclusions
 
The results of the study, correlated with the theoretical explanations show that for bringing qualitative change in democracy, political participation must be integrated under all its forms indicated by the methodologically unfolded dimension. Ballot and protests participation is insufficient for the democratic consolidation or, if we accept only these two indicators, we don’t cross over the barrier towards constructive methods of political participation. This claims that after the citizen votes he should not forget that he can participate in consultations with the authorities, and local council meetings. After he protests against a decision of the authorities, he can propose petitions and support initiatives. The citizens must pass to the next level and to get involved in public debates, to discuss the opportunity of public projects in rapport with their own rights and interests. The precarious results obtained in the case of filed petitions and initiatives (including partnerships with local authorities, proposals of local or central public policies) show that the continuous involvement of the citizens in these activities constitutes the guarantee that the democratic institutional processes will gain a routine and democracy will be the only game acceptable. From this point of view, one result in worrisome: local actions are rather organized at the initiative of authorities than of the citizens (or of the organized civil societies, independent from the local authorities). We must keep into account the fact that for democracy, political participation means more information, more involvement in politics and in the processes of public policies elaboration than collective action far from the authorities. Therefore: participation to protests and ballot separated by the effective implication in public decisional processes do not refine political participation. Through protests and ballot participation, citizens can situate themselves critically towards the state and its actions in respect to their legitimate rights, liberties and interests, but where the citizens reject the projects of the authorities, they have to come up with alternatives.
 
References
[1] Chagnollaud, Dominique, Dicţionar al vieţii politice şi sociale, Bucureşti, Editura All (1999)
[2] Lazarsfeld, Paul F. , Berelson, Bernard  Gaudet - Mecanismul votului. Cum se decid alegatorii într-o campanie prezidenţială, Editura Comunicare.ro, Bucureşti, p. 137 (2007)
[3] Asociaţiei Pro Democraţia - Raport de monitorizare a campaniei electorale, p. 18-20 (mai 2014)
[4] Institutul Roman pentru Evaluare şi Strategie-Sondaj de opinie: http://www.ires.com.ro/ (May2014)
[5] McAdam, Dou - Recruitment to High-Risk Activism: The Case of Freedom Summer, American Journal of Sociology, 92, p. 70 (1986)
[6] Alan Sxchussman & Sarah A. Soule - Process and Protests: Accounting for IndividualProtest Participation, Social Forces, Vol, 84, p. 1086 (2005)
[7] Coord. Anghel, Viviana - The Local Democracy Barometer, Desktop Publishing, Bucharest, p. 14-18 (2013)
[8] Ibidem, p. 8. 
 
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The Journal of Democracy and Electoral Studies publishes and promotes premium analysis and debates on empirical issues of democracy research and electoral issues, such as electoral campaigns, electoral systems and political parties, deficits of representative democracy, and current threats on democracies in Europe, citizenship, political representation, public policies and civil control on institutions and other important issues of both local or European concern.

 
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