The Romanian diaspora – a force to be reckoned with

Romanians queue to vote in the country's Permanent Representation to the EU in Brussels [@imungureanu Twitter]

A hundred-meter queue stretches on Boulevard du Régent in Brussels where foreign embassies are located. Occasional shouts – “Let us vote!” – pierce through the usually quiet neighbourhood.

Spirits are boiling at the front door of the Romanian Consulate in Brussels as polling stations are about to close. Hundreds are still waiting in line to have a say in the European elections.

“It’s been seven hours since I’m here and I didn’t get to vote yet. The process is extremely slow,” complains a man in his 60s.

Although rare in Brussels, such scenes have become all too familiar for Romanian expats trying to cast their ballots across Europe. Many already attempted – and failed – to vote in the 2014 European election as well as in the 2016 presidential election.

Now, they are laying the blame on an intentionally poor organisation, suggesting bureaucratic hurdles are deliberately being placed across their way.

Romanians are the second biggest EU community in Brussels, amounting to tens of thousands of people. Romanian authorities reserved six polling stations for them.

“It seems like they don’t want us to vote. They are afraid of the diaspora vote because we know they’re thieves,” says a young man who was nevertheless determined to stay until the end.

“Even if we don’t get to vote tonight, what we want is at least to send a clear message to our government that we are here to fight for our country”.

Romania’s ruling Social Democratic Party has come under heavy criticism from EU institutions and civil society for undermining the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law.

When they succeeded to cast their vote, the diaspora delivered a slap in the face to the Social Democrats currently in power. The socialist party obtained only 4% of votes outside Romania in the European election.

The boos and jeers heard in Brussels were echoed in other cities around Europe. Hundred-meter queues were also spotted in London, Munich, and Madrid to name a few.

“This is not how I expect to spend my Sunday. There are over 3,000 people in London waiting to exercise their right to vote in the EU elections 2019,” said a frustrated voter in London, in a Tweet addressed to the Romanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Videos of crowds shouting “Down with the thieves!” and “Let us vote!” made rounds on the Internet. In Stuttgart, the police had to intervene to calm down irritated voters when the access to the polling station seemed to be stalled at some point.

“When they will close the doors at 9 p.m., a lot of people who couldn’t vote will be left outside. This is not democratic,” said a Dutch mayor who was spotted talking to Romanian expats queuing up.

The opposition sided with the diaspora as well, and for good reason. The two leading pro-European parties each attracted over 30% of votes from Romanian expats at the European elections.

Hours before the polling closed, the National Liberal Party and USR-Plus Party requested additional ballot boxes and longer working hours for officials at the polling stations, a demand that was immediately rejected by the Romanian authorities.

“All the ballot stations are functional and operate normally,” replied the Romanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, pointing out that the number of polling stations was doubled in comparison to the last EU election held five years ago.

The 2019 election registered a record turnout of almost 50% for the European elections in Romania. But for many voters, the elections are not just a civic duty. They are a protest vote.

“We’re here for the EU elections, but also for the referendum to stop the government from granting amnesty and pardon in corruption cases. They want to stay in power no matter what, but we want a lasting change,” says Ioana in Brussels, adding she was ready to stay in line for five more hours if needed to reach the ballot box.

The anti-corruption referendum in Romania was called by Romanian President Klaus Iohannis, an ex-leader of the opposition National Liberal Party, on the same day as the European elections.

Iohannis called the referendum over the government’s controversial justice reforms, which he and other critics say will hand impunity to politicians convicted of graft offences.

On Sunday, around 80% of voters rejected Dragnea’s amnesty proposal in the referendum. Despite the many hurdles they faced, the Romanian diaspora contributed to the referendum’s overwhelming result, with 3% of the total number of votes.

As such, they proved they were a force to be reckoned with.

[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

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