Romanian legislative elections in the diaspora: record participation and the emergence of the nationalist vote

By Vladimir Bortun – Published on 14/12/2020


For scholars interested in the impact of migration on politics in the country of origin, this electoral year in Romania has delivered several interesting results. As argued in a previous post here, the local elections in September have highlighted the nexus between return migration and local political elites. This time, the legislative elections held on 6 December displayed interesting developments in the diaspora – which was granted voting rights by the 1991 Constitution – both in terms of participation and voting patterns.


Diaspora’s record turnout

For a start, these elections have seen the lowest turnout in Romania since 1989 – merely 31.8%, an eight-point decline from the previous legislative elections in 2016. It is also significantly lower than the 46% turnout in the local elections held earlier this year in September. This indicates that, while the COVID-19 pandemic must have played a role in this new historical low, it does not fully explain it. At the same time, the diaspora recorded an all-time high in legislative elections, with a total of 265,490 voters. This new record continues a trend that – somewhat in contrast to the decreasing domestic turnout after 2012 – has seen diaspora participation in legislative elections nearly doubling each time since 2008, when the six seats for the diaspora were created (see Asiminei, 2017). This is also the period of intense mass out-migration following Romania’s accession to the EU in 2007, which might very well explain the steady increase in voter participation.

However, this participation is still nearly four times less than the number of Romanians abroad who voted in the second round of 2019 presidential elections. Indeed, while there are no reliable data regarding the number of eligible voters living abroad, the turnout has been rather low, as the 265,490 emigrants who voted now represent less than 5% of the 5.6 million Romanians emigrants today. Thus, the broader trend of low transnational turnout in the case of newer democracies from Eastern Europe, most recently highlighted by Ciornei and Østergaard-Nielsen, is yet again confirmed.

The contrast provided by these Romanian elections, between the lowest overall turnout and the highest diaspora participation in legislative elections since the country’s transition to liberal democracy, is nevertheless striking. One likely significant factor was the extension of the voting period to two days for the Romanians abroad. This change came at the initiative of deputies from the Save Romania Union (USR), a party that has emphasised its orientation towards Romanians abroad ever since its creation in 2016 and which, indeed, proved most popular among them in the 2019 European elections as well as in these elections. 


New voting trend in the diaspora

The Social Democratic Party (PSD) emerged as the rather unexpected winner of these elections, after having been ousted from government at the end of last year. Coming in second was the right-wing National Liberal Party (PNL), currently in government, followed by the centre-right coalition between USR and the Party of Liberty, Unity and Solidarity (PLUS). The other two parties to have met the 5% threshold for parliamentary representation are the Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania (UDMR) and the biggest surprise of the elections, the far-right nationalist party Alliance for the Unity of Romanians (AUR). Thus, Romania sees the far-right gain parliamentary representation for the first time since 2008.

In contrast, while the social democrats won the vote at home, they reached their lowest ever score in the diaspora in any elections. Thus, the diaspora vote has seen a significant increase in the long-standing right-wing trend, but also a diversification of the right-wing vote. On the one hand, as in the 2019 European elections, the liberal, centre-right USR-PLUS alliance came first, followed by PNL. On the other hand, as illustrated in the graph below, almost a quarter of diaspora’s votes went to the far-right AUR, which came first in Italy and second in Spain, the two most important countries of destination for Romanian emigrants.

Source: https://rezultatevot.ro/elections/112/results

Not even included in most opinion polls this year and having gained less than 0.5% in the local elections only held in September, AUR (which also means ‘gold’ in Romanian) was founded in December 2019. Interestingly, the launching event took place among the Romanian diaspora in the UK. The party leader and now senator George Simion made then a clear appeal to Romanians abroad to come home and get involved in the political process:

“The gold of Romania are its people, those within its borders and those who have left in economic exile. The time has come for this gold to surface by itself if the parties that were in power did not want to extract it. Come home to get our country back! Come and take charge! We need you, those who already gained experience in the West. Come and run for public office.”  

The orientation towards the diaspora figures prominently in the party programme, according to which “the new Romanian diaspora in the European Union is still confronted, 13 years after accession, with institutional and individual discrimination, not only in the country of residence but also in terms of rights and support given by the Romanian state”. Hence, AUR calls for a coherent strategy for the “over 10 million Romanians living abroad”, including here both the recent waves of out-migration and the historical communities of Romanians in neighbouring countries. Perhaps to rationalise its opposition to immigration, the party claims that Romanians abroad are not immigrants but EU citizens acting on the basis of the rights granted by that status. Thus, while warning against the EU ever becoming “a federal super-state”, AUR is not as Eurosceptic as most far-right parties today. On the contrary, it sees EU membership as “the main component of Romania’s foreign policy” and supports Moldova’s accession process.

AUR’s relatively significant electoral success among the diaspora comes to partly counterbalance the previous voting trend for liberal parties, the latter’s repeated success in these elections notwithstanding. More generally, this new trend somewhat amends the narrative that has developed in recent years regarding the democratising and liberalising impact of the Romanian diaspora, particularly in the wake of the 2019 European elections. Indeed, the case of AUR seems to feed into the recent line of argument regarding diasporas’ potential for illiberal remittances, particularly relevant in the case of Central and Eastern European countries. For example, Waterbury points out that Hungary’s ruling right-wing populist party FIDESZ won more than 95% of the diaspora vote in the last two elections by employing an “extra-territorial notion of Hungarian nationhood”, which has seen its government grant citizenship to the members of historic Hungarian communities from surrounding countries.  

At the same time, the new nationalist voting trend does not cancel out the still dominant trend among the Romanian diaspora of voting for liberal parties. The USR-PLUS coalition still came first, as it did in the 2019 European elections before the creation of AUR, and will take half of the six parliamentary seats representing the diaspora, as opposed to only one for AUR. Finally, it is worth pointing out that the roughly 62,000 votes gained by AUR represent a bit over 1.1% of the 5.6 million Romanians emigrants today. Nevertheless, the emergence of this voting trend is worthy of further exploration, fitting into a growing research interest in the relationship between diaspora political views and democratic backsliding (see, for example, the ongoing DIASPOlitic project).


Broader questions

As pointed out above, the diaspora vote has visibly diverged from the domestic vote. While the domestic electorate’s first preference was for PSD, the left-wing party that also won the 2016 elections, the diaspora has overwhelmingly voted for the right of the political spectrum. In other words, while a significant share of Romanians inside the country favoured a return to a PSD-led government, the diaspora continued to vote for political change. These results prompt important questions, which so far have received only scarce attention in the literature (e.g. Ahmadov & Sasse, 2014; Østergaard-Nielsen & Ciornei, 2019; Turcu & Urbatsch, 2019). Under which circumstances do the domestic and the diaspora vote align? What factors lead the diaspora to vote for change? How does the settlement context factor into the vote choices of those citizens residing abroad?

Arguably, these questions are best analysed from a longitudinal, cross-country perspective. For instance, the DIASPOlitic project is currently working on a dataset covering all EU-diaspora community results in national elections in Central and Eastern European countries between 2004 and 2018. Also, the MIGRADEMO project is in the final stage of completing a global dataset on emigrant voting patterns covering more than 30 countries of origin and 100 national elections across Europe, Latin America, Africa, and Asia. Such efforts will allow for further analysis of the kind of diverging voting patterns between resident citizens and the diaspora that we have now witnessed in these legislative elections in Romania.



Last updated: 14/12/20

Cite this publication:
Bortun, V. (2020). “Romanian legislative elections in the diaspora: record participation and the emergence of the nationalist vote”. MIGRADEMO Blog posts. Available at: https://migrademo.eu/romanian-legislative-elections-in-the-diaspora-record-participation-and-the-emergence-of-the-nationalist-vote/