Alegeri locale 2012
The 2012 Romanian Local Elections: A Short Story from a Small
Cantemir” Christian University ]
Almost all academics focus on major cities when
it comes to analyze the local elections. The
electoral process taking place in small villages of
Romania does not capture the interest of the
mainstream media. Therefore I intend to bring
forward some interesting aspects of the local
elections taking place in a small township close to
Bucharest – Dragomiresti Vale. I shall analyze the
communication strategies of both candidates running
for the Mayor’s office in Dragomiresti-Vale. My
intention is to prove that negative messages are no
guarantee for winning the elections especially if
they are not skillfully disseminated.
Keywords: local elections; communication
strategy; negative electoral campaign; political
Although1 an important part of Romanian population lives in the rural area, the only time villages appear on TV or the central printed press is when something extraordinary happens: violent confrontations, electoral tourism or fraud accusations. The elections taking place in the big cities are a very fruitful object of investigation but I consider it is equally important to analyze the local elections taking place in the rural environment of our country. In the first section of my article I shall focus on the theoretical hypothesis coming from political psychology stating that people are more likely to favor a negative campaign. The psychological experiment of Bizer and Pety2 offer the general framework for the discussion of the electoral behavior. In the second section of my paper I shall analyze the communication strategy of the two opponent candidates running for the Mayor’s office in Dragomiresti-Vale. As we shall see, the winning candidate based his campaign on positive messages while his opponent focused only on violent and negative electoral messages. If we are to take for granted the fact that all people are more likely to remember and stick to the negative messages the result of the 2012 local elections in Dragomiresti-Vale is rather puzzling. It is my intention to prove that there are other important elements in the communication strategy that can help a politician win the electoral race. The content of the messages, the media vehicles used to disseminate those messages, the proper knowledge of the psychological traits of the potential voters, and last but not least, the money that could make possible such a campaign play an equally important role in winning the elections.
The negative messages, the politician’s best friends
This political party has no future!”, „Mr. X does not care for you!”, „You were lured to vote for a criminal!” are just some of the common remarks of nowadays Romanian politicians. We may think they are using stupid accusations instead of arguments because they are intellectually challenged. This may be true for the most part, but the sad findings of political psychologist prove that these are the messages that „sell”!
In 2005 the international journal, Political Psychology, hosted a general debate on how people perceive negative and violent political campaigns. George Y. Bizer and Richard E. Petty3 presented on this occasion a very interesting fact regarding the electoral process. People are more likely to remember and to stick to the messages against something (a politician, a political program, a law, etc) than to the messages for an idea or a political candidate. The psychological experiments documenting the fact that negativity is stronger were made since 1977 when Samuel Kernell4 gathered data proving that the negative attitude is more likely to result in a vote than the positive one. Samuel Kernell analyzed the presidential American elections. He found out that for the midterm elections taking place from 1946 to 1966 people that were satisfied with the current president were not so faithful to their choice whereas those who had negative attitudes where more likely to vote and stay true to their beliefs. Kernell proved that disapproval is a more powerful attitude than acceptance in terms of vote results. The above mentioned article of Bizer and Pety moved the discussion a little further. As they put it:
„Whereas research has shown that negative information is more impactful on attitudes and that negative attitudes are more impactful on behavior, the current research will take this line of reasoning one step further. It may be that simply framing an attitude in the negative may be sufficient to enhance the resistance of that attitude. Indeed, the current research examines whether simply thinking of an attitude in terms of opposition rather than in terms of support may be sufficient to enhance the resistance of that attitude.”
The third study conducted by Bizer and Pety is rather simple. They gathered a group of volunteers and separated them in two groups. The first group was exposed to positive arguments favoring a virtual candidate, Rick Smith. The second group was presented positive information regarding Smith’s political program, but, along with this information, this group was also exposed to the criticism of another virtual candidate, Chris Bredesen. In the second part of the study both groups where presented information criticizing Smith. The results proved that the first group of volunteers that was initially exposed to positive messages was more likely to change teams and vote for Bredensen. The second group of volunteers that was initially exposed to negative messages regarding Bredensen was not likely to change its initial attitude. Therefore,
“just as negative information is more powerful in creating attitudes, negatively framed attitudes are more powerful in resisting persuasive attempts even when the negatively and positively framed attitudes are based on the same underlying information.”
This is perhaps the type of research that favors negative campaigns. The political communication specialists that advise politicians to launch in vicious attacks of their opponents are taking such findings into consideration. Against all appeals to reason and logic, the political debate is using the efficient psychological data in winning the elections, since for most politicians the victory is the only thing that matters. The potential voters are proven to be rather hypocrite when they complain about the negative messages of electoral campaigns since they are more likely to be influenced and rendered faithful by the negative causes.
The main objective of my article is to show that although it by no means represents a crucial discovery in terms of electoral behavior this type of study should not make us think that negative messages represent the sure key to winning all elections.
Local elections in Dragomireşti-Vale
The township of Dragomireşti-Vale encompasess several small villages. It has 5000 inhabitants and it is placed near the Northen part of Bucharest. The candidates for the Mayor’s office were Gheorghe Socol from PDL, a former engineer also wan the precedent elections and was the current mayor of the village, and Florin Iordache – the candidate of USL (the oxymoronic social-liberal alliance). Gheorghe Socol was the mayor of this small village for almost twelve years. He was running for a forth mandate as mayor. On the other hand, Florin Iordache is a retired police officer. As the Romanian law offers the possibility of an early retirement for police officers, he certainly found the energy and time to pursue such an ambitious goal as running for the Mayor’s office. Since Dragomiresti-Vale is such a small village, someone would expect a very dull electoral campaign. But what actually happened could make us claim otherwise. As a political analyst I was frustrated with the fact that I am lacking the artistic abilities necessary to describe the hilarious aspects of the electoral confrontation. I am confining my efforts to the dull task of stating the facts.
Gheorghe Socol – this CEO of local administration
There are a few important aspects regarding the communication strategy of this candidate. First of all, the most relevant characteristic of his campaign was the focus on the positive messages. He never insisted on the flaws of his opponent! Nor in his promotion materials, his interviews or his public speech did Mr. Socol refer in any way to his opponents. His communication strategy was professional and this can be proven by the following arguments:
First of all he used several promotion materials. He had influenced the publication of a local newspaper, Jurnalul de Ilfov, which was distributed freely. He also disseminated electoral information with the aid of posters, brochures, and branded items (pens, hats, T-shirts, balloons, etc).
Moreover, he planned his campaign carefully taking into consideration the time factor. At the beginning of the campaign he used the so-called „objective” newspaper Jurnalul de Ilfov to promote his political program. In this publication important local informal leaders holding „symbolic capital” in our village declared their support and admiration for the Mayor. The teachers form the local high school gave interviews that emphasizing the role of the Mayor in renovating the old building of that high school. The head of the kindergarten appeared in a special issue of the local newspaper. She was presented along with the Mayor as being responsible for the construction of a newer and larger kindergarten. As the elections were getting closer, Gheorghe Socol used the inauguration festivity of the first park in our village to distribute electoral branded items (T-shirts, hats and balloons) and give a public speech for presenting his political program.
The content of the electoral information was positive: he focused only on the past (realized) objectives and on the future objective. He never mentioned anything about his opponents.
The information was very carefully organized in a readable and accessible way so that anyone could understand what he was saying. He also had a slogan: „Gheorghe Socol – the man of the facts” (Gheorghe Socol – un om al faptelor!) that guided his entire electoral communication campaign. The brochures were very well adjusted to the expectations of his potential voters.
The information that he presented was very consistent. He had a guiding idea – that of presenting himself as a good manager – and he developed it in all the electoral materials and public speeches.
He adapted his messages to the potential voters. As the election-day was getting closer an old Romanian automobile, Dacia, was cruising the streets of Dragomiresti. A popular Romanian song, the so-called manea, was being broadcast from this automobile. It had very clever lyrics: Hey Mayor, Mayor/Hard worker and good manager/ Nobody knows what he is doing/ But everybody in our village likes him. (Hei primar, primar, primar,/ Si harnic şi gospodar/ Nu ştie nimeni cum face/ Da toată comuna-l place!) Given the high popularity of this type of music in Romanian rural environment to chose such a song was indeed a clever communication strategy.
Such a well-organized campaign could raise some questions on how he got the money to finance it, but this is beside the point of this article. What matters is that we witnessed a professional communication campaign in a very small village.
There are several controversial aspects about his campaign, but they are not related to particular aspects of his communication strategy. The electoral strategy of Mr. Socol is merely revealing some of the most controversial aspects in each of nowadays neo-liberal campaigns. First of all there is this common idea that the mayor is not a politician. He is not interested in politics: his only task if that of being the manager of the village. This is obviously a neo-liberal perspective on the public functions: the local communities should not be governed by public officials, but managed efficiently. Therefore our community should function as some sort of local corporation. Terms like efficiency, cost-effective objectives and strategies, profitable results and so on invade the public discourse characterizing a „good Mayor”. In recent years it became a common belief that the mayor should be a good manager (bun gospodar)5. He should not make politics, but accomplish useful objectives. This type of perspective is very controversial. For example the current mayor is emphasizing his role in building kindergartens and parks as if it is not his duty to do so. He is installing huge posters on each public building stating that he was the one responsible for the renovation or construction of that building. He is in fact treating his community as being a profitable corporation that has a very skillful manager: the Mayor. The people of the community should of course be very grateful for the way he is conducting the „business”. They are completely excluded from the general debate on how the resources should be used. The Mayor is in fact their boss and this power relation cannot be challenged. The only conclusion that we can draw is that when installing huge posters on publicly founded buildings the Mayor is forgetting something very important: the public officials should be the servants of their electors, not their managers.
These are general aspects related to almost any type of electoral campaign. What is controversial and specific to Mr. Socol campaign is the complete ignorance of the social problems of our community. There are a lot of old people who worked in agriculture and they have a very precarious financial status. There were some money allocated for extending the graveyard, but surely there are a lot of less cynical solutions for their problem. A center providing free physiotherapy programs for the elderly is, by no means, be a more humane and feasible solution. There is also the religious problem. The Mayor is bragging about extending and renovating some of the orthodox churches in our village. The public funds used to accomplish such an objective were taken also from the non-believers or other religion’s members. Most Romanian politicians treat this problem as some sort of leftist conspiracy aimed to shatter the very foundation of our glorious orthodox majority and our Mayor is no exception to that rule.
The „golden rule” of Romanian democracy: no elections without fraud accusations!
But what about the electoral campaign of the other candidate? He based his campaign entirely on negative messages. Moreover, being an ex-police officer he was able to initiate an investigation regarding „electoral tourism”. This is a common practice consisting in people close to the mayor or his opponent moving in a certain village for a determined period of time in order to vote for their favorite candidate. Their votes are often bought by this politician. The investigation taking place in our village was not entirely causeless since the police officers told me that they found even twenty persons living at the same address. The way the investigation was conducted was almost hilarious. The 30th of June 2012 a police car came in front of my house. The police officers told me that they are conducting an investigation regarding the electoral tourism. Since I recently declared I lived in this village, I had to declare I have not done so in order to vote for some candidate. I found this solicitation ridiculous. Since me and my husband were the only ones living at that address I found it stupid to declare that I did not move in order to vote. There were 40 degrees Celsius outside but, as most of the police investigations in Romania, this one implied giving statements on the trunk of the police car. Believe it or not, I declared that I did not build a house in the village of Dragomiresti in order to vote for someone. I am proud to say that I did not build my house for „electoral purposes”! There are of course a lot of controversial aspects related to this type of investigation. Let aside the improper way of taking statements, how can anyone forbid me to build a house in a village in order to vote for someone? Maybe I have this unique pleasure of voting a blue-eyed mayor and I am willing to sacrifice a lot of energy and money in order to do so? Is this illegal? And if it is, how can anyone determine what were my true intentions? Should I be taken to a psychoanalyst or hypnosis specialist in order to determine that fact? The investigation is still going on and no charges were yet formulated.
The candidate USL coalition, Florin Iordan, used all the negative instruments of electoral competition that he could find. First of all he send his campaign staff to through electoral „materials” in our yards in the same time the police was taking statements. The materials were presented as being taken documents form the Mayor’s office and they presented the money allocated for different objectives. The „materials” were not signed. The whole action had the appearance of shameful secrets revealed to us by an unknown source. The political analysts and media theorists have tried for decades to offer the correct definition for propaganda. Even if they do not agree on all the aspects that should define this concept, there is a general aspect that almost everybody accepts as being characteristic for propagandistic actions: hiding the true source of the message. This is exactly what the opponents of Gheorghe Socol did. Moreover, having campaign stuff members through such „materials” in people’s yards at the same time the police was taking statements was indeed a sad example of how low the electoral race can actually go.
But this was not the only controversial aspect of Mr. Iordan communication strategy. His electoral brochures were filled with countless accusations and only one feasible objective (making it possible for everyone to obtain the connection to the water system for free). From Mr. Iordan’s electoral brochure you could very little about what he is going to do, but very much about the negative things the current Mayor did. His whole idea was that we must stop the robbery taking place in our village. Moreover Mr. Iordan used a network of close friends that tried to convince us revealing shameful things about Gheorghe Socol. Giving the fact that we are such a small community it was possible for those people to visit us and to tell us all kind of things about the current Mayor. I found out that he has two houses and each of them is „bigger than mine”! He supposedly owns a hotel in Sovata and he is only the friendly interface of some gangsters who actually rule the village. I did not quite understands why is he so obedient to the gangsters if he is so rich and powerful, but as psychological experiments prove, logic is not always the key element in political communication.
There were some important communication flaws in Mr. Iordan strategy. The texts of the electoral brochures were very poorly organized. In fact they were not organized at all. The phrases were extremely long, the arguments very difficult to follow and there were no subtitles or headers. The fonts had the same size throughout the whole text, and it had no general idea.
Moreover, he distributed three kinds of electoral materials. First of all he distributed materials regarding the USL alliance and not his political program. He once took a stroll on the streets of our village accompanied by a large group of people wearing yellow T-shirts. He used a newer version of our national automobile, Dacia, and the songs of Dida Dragan who is not very much admired by the people living in the rural environment. Furthermore, her songs had general themes such as „hope”, „freedom of the spirit” and so on, things that were not at all appealing to the potential voters.
The second type of brochures distributed by Mr. Iordache proved the he completely ignores a very important rule of political competition: bad publicity is still publicity. He used almost all the space of those electoral instruments to make serious accusations against the current mayor. This made us learn a great deal about Mr. Socol and very little about Mr. Iordan.
The third type of brochures the Mr Iordan distributed contained negative messages. They had on the same page the picture of the current Mayor and the pictures of some controversial PDL leaders (Emil Boc, Elena Udrea). It was a desperate attempt to make people identify the hated „central” politicians with the local Mayor.
When he spoke to us he declared that he is the long-time adversary of the current Mayor and he was not able to defeat him since he had no „central support”. But, since Mr. Ponta, the USL representative, is currently running the Romanian government, things are certainly different.
If we are to resume what Mr. Iordan declared in the local campaign is this: the current mayor is corrupt. He is now able to defeat him because he has „central support”. We are not able to tell what he is going to do, but he will certainly be honest when doing it.
But if we are to be honest till the end, about what kind of „central support” are we talking about? Why is it necessary for the party representative to gain important political influence in order for the local politicians to gain financial support? These are of course rhetorical questions.
So in the end we have two potential mayors. One is treating the Mayor’s office like a management function, and the community as a profitable corporation. The other one is set to stop the alleged robbery in our village.
The current mayor, Mr. Socol wan the elections of 2012. Contrary to the political psychology findings, the negative messages are not always the key in winning the elections. As this case proved there are other important elements in the political communication strategy and they play a very important role in electoral competition. First of all the political communication strategy should take into consideration the time factor. The sociological profile of their potential voters, (their age, their financial status, their occupational field, even their music preferences) is equally important. Organizing the information in the electoral materials is crucial if you want your messages to get to the public. Paying attention to the positive aspects and using skillfully the negative information also proves to be vital to a winning strategy. I analyzed a case where all these aspects were ignored and a huge amount of negative information was presented. In the end, it did not serve the politician at all.
BIZER, George Y.; PETTY, Richard E. , „How We Conceptualize Our Attitudes Matters:The Effects of Valence Framing on the Resistance of Political Attitudes”, Political Psychology vol. 26, 2005, no. 4.
CARRARO, Luciana; Castelli , Luigi ,“The Implicit and Explicit Effects of Negative Political Campaigns: Is the Source Really Blamed?”, Political Psychology,vol. 31, 2010 , no. 4.P
DAWSON, Roger, Secrets of power persuasion, Englewood Cliffs, 1992, NY: Prentice Hall.
KERNELL, S, „Presidential popularity and negative voting”, American Political Science Review,vol.71, 1977, no.3.
PANDELAERE, Mario; Dewitte, Siegfried, „Is it a question? Not for long. The statement bias”, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, vol. 42 , 2006, no. 4.
George Y. Bizer and Richard E. Petty, „How We Conceptualize Our Attitudes Matters:The Effects of Valence Framing on the Resistance of Political Attitudes” Political Psychology
26 (2005): 4.
George Y. Bizer and Richard E. Petty, „How We Conceptualize Our Attitudes Matters:The Effects of Valence Framing on the Resistance of Political Attitudes”, 4.
Kernell, S., „Presidential popularity and negative voting”. American Political Science Review,
This idea of the mayor-manager makes ideological options almost irrelevant. People vote for the one that seems more grounded and has more feasible projects. Moreover, the central politicians do not offer equal amounts of money for all the local communities. It is common knowledge that the political options of the elected mayors are crucial in getting money for their communities. As a result they often change the political parties. An interesting fact that should be sociologically investigated is that the people continue to vote for them.
– Lector univ.dr., Universitatea Creştină Dimitrie Cantemir.