Local elections in Romania reveal interesting nexus between return migration and local politics

By Vladimir Bortun – Published on 07/10/2020


The recent local elections in Romania, held on 27 September 2020, have revealed an interesting dynamics for scholars focusing on the nexus between return migration and political elites. The elections took place in all 41 counties and had a 46% turnout, slightly lower than previous local elections but still higher than the average for the legislative ones. In terms of the popular vote, the winner was the current party in government, the National Liberal Party (PNL), confirming the continuing loss of support for its main rival and the largest party in parliament, the Social Democratic Party (PSD), ousted from government last year. Nevertheless, PSD has won three more county councils than PNL, anticipating a tight race in December’s legislative elections.

In this year’s local elections, return migrants have stood as candidates for both mayor and council positions. The alliance of two relatively new centre-right parties, Save Romania Union (USR) and the Party of Liberty, Unity and Solidarity (PLUS) – which came third nationally by focusing on anti-corruption and the need for political renewal – ran a recruitment programme to encourage Romanian migrants to return home and stand in these local elections. Also, in the country’s capital Bucharest, a return migrant with background in the civil society, Nicusor Dan, won against the incumbent mayor. All this suggests that the current academic literature on return migration (including return from studies abroad) and political elites – which, despite some notable exceptions, is generally limited to heads of state – might benefit from paying more attention to local politics.

Seeking candidates among the diaspora

Local elections in Romania are traditionally important, at least in terms of turnout, which tends to be significantly higher than in national legislative elections. Usually both elections take place the same year. At the beginning of this year, the aforementioned USR-PLUS alliance launched the programme “The diaspora runs for office”, aimed at Romanians abroad who wanted to return home in order to stand in the local elections on their ticket. The programme included an online hub with information on all the steps required to run in local elections, as well as face-to-face training delivered by a team of 17 experts from both Romania and the diaspora – an example of what could be called intra-diaspora diffusion. The coordinator of the programme was PLUS member Gabriela Mirescu, who is one of the co-organisers of the 2018 diaspora-led protest against corruption and thus illustrates the fine line between civil society and party politics.

At the end of 2019 she sent an appeal to PLUS members in the diaspora to come home and stand in local elections. She received 400 answers, out of which 50 people joined the programme, with 25 of them ending up in the electoral race in 16 different counties. According to Mirescu, before joining the campaign, some of them were circular migrants, while others had permanently settled abroad, with their families due to join them back in Romania at a later date in case they were elected. Thus, the “Diaspora runs for office” programme is an interesting case of political involvement leading to return migration rather than return migration leading to political involvement. 

A look into the programme’s Facebook page reveals a balanced mix in terms of countries of destination, with 7 returning from Germany, 5 from Italy and also 5 from the UK (while the others came from other OECD countries). On the other hand, there is an apparent bias in terms of the candidates’ gender and social background – mostly men, mostly with higher education and in ‘white-collar’ jobs. At the time of writing, the coordinators of the programme were still centralising their data, but it appears that only one of these 25 candidates has won a county councillor seat. This may suggest that returnees’ path to political power is – despite Romanians’ low level of trust in current political institutions – nevertheless challenging in the absence of local political capital.

One interesting example is that of Mihaela Stan, a university lecturer who, after spending ten years in “the London academic bubble”, decided to return to Romania due to an “identity crisis”. In 2013 she happened to visit the village of Murgeanca, in southern Romania, where she had never been before but, after several visits, decided to buy a piece of land. She moved there while still teaching for a few months a year at the University College London. Before running for mayor this year, in 2018 she co-founded an NGO to help local children commute to highscools in nearby towns, as the village is disconnected from any means of public transport. Despite these efforts and plans to help locals access EU funds, she lost the mayoral race and also came short of five votes to become a councillor. Some of the locals were hostile towards her during the campaign and even complained that “this foreigner wants to take over the village”. Nevertheless, Stan – whom the locals have now ironically nicknamed “the mayoress” – feels that Murgeanca is her home.

Returnee wins Bucharest

A more successful case of returnee candidacy happened in Bucharest, the country’s capital where much of the country’s economic and political power lies. The mayoral election was a two-dog race between the incumbent Gabriela Firea, from PSD, and Nicusor Dan, supported by several centre-right parties. After the final count of the votes, Dan clearly won with 42.7% of the votes, followed by Firea with 37.9%, whose party lost all but one of the six district town halls.

Dan returned to Romania at the end of the 1990s after six years of study in Paris. In the years that followed, he became an activist fighting mostly against shady real estate developments in Bucharest, leading an NGO called Save Bucharest Association. His activism focused on preserving heritage buildings, which – according to him – are part of the “symbolic depository of this collective identity” that made him want to return to Bucharest rather than stay abroad.

Stencil of Dan in Bucharest during the 2012 electoral campaign with the slogan “The first positive vote”
Source: Wikimedia Commons

He went on to run for mayor twice, each time unsuccessfully though. First, he ran in 2012, as an independent candidate, and then again in 2016, as the candidate of the newly created political formation Save Bucharest Union. The latter developed that same year in the Save Romania Union (USR), which came third in the 2016 legislative elections on a platform centred around anti-corruption and the renewal of the political elite. Interestingly, while gaining 9% of the votes nationally, USR came first among an increasingly mobilized diaspora, with almost 29% of the votes cast abroad. The strong orientation of USR towards the diaspora has already been documented in various media. Indeed, according to preliminary findings of the MIGRADEMO project, 21 of its 39 MPs have some sort of migration experience.

In 2017, however, Dan left the party he had co-founded after an internal vote to oppose the national referendum that took place the following year on the question of modifying the Constitution to prevent any potential legalisation of same-sex marriage (this referendum failed due to low turnout). He motivated his decision on the grounds that the party should not take a public position on such an ideologically charged issue and instead allow its members to vote according to their conscience.

This time in 2020, Dan stood as an independent candidate backed by the National Liberal Party (PNL, currently in government) and the USR-PLUS alliance, on an agenda that focused on making Bucharest ‘greener’, tackling corruption in public administration and absorbing more EU funds to boost economic growth. The USR-PLUS alliance has also claimed victories in two of Bucharest’s six districts, both of which account for high return migration rates. The winner in the 3rd District is Radu Mihaiu, an IT entrepreneur who spent almost two years in the UK as an EMBA student. The narrow winner in the 1st District, MEP Clotilde Armand, is a French national who moved to Romania in 1999 together with her Romanian husband, whom she met while studying at the same US university. Thus, it is not necessarily Romanian return migrants who may get involved in local politics, but also their foreign-born partners whom they met during their migration experience.

The nexus between return migration and local politics

The cases outlined here show that the nexus between migration and local politics in the country of origin may be more complex than it might seem at first glance, warranting more thorough research. Such research should also look into processes of political socialization that occur – or not – both abroad and upon return and how they relate to the political opportunities and constraints for return migrants. At the same time, most of the aforementioned cases also illustrate the synergy that can develop between the civil society and political elites – two distinct but deeply interconnected fields of activity for return migrants.

All this is of course not limited to the case of Romania. For example, during the period 2001-2004, no less than 35% of all mayors in the Mexican state of Michoacán had migration experience to the US. There is, in conclusion, enough anecdotic evidence from several countries to encourage scholars paying more attention to the impact of return migration on political processes and elites at the local level.

Last updated: 29/03/2021

Cite this publication:
Bortun, V. (2020). “Local elections in Romania reveal interesting nexus between return migration and local politics”. MIGRADEMO Blog posts. Available at: https://migrademo.eu/local-elections-in-romania-reveal-interesting-nexus-between-return-migration-and-local-politics/

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