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Lessons of the constitutional referendum held on September 5, 2010. Post-referendum analysis

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Nicolae Panfil / September 30, 2010
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The results of the constitutional referendum held on September 5, 2010, namely the massive absenteeism of citizens to the ballot boxes which caused the failure of the referendum, brought back a topical question: who is responsible for civic/electoral education of citizens? Political class, i.e. parties and other political entities? Authorities: Government, Central Electoral Commission? Mass media outlets? Nongovernmental organizations?

For me personally, but also for colleagues in the Coalition for Free and Fair Elections, this question can only have one answer — civic/electoral education is the responsibility of the whole society of the Republic of Moldova. Undoubtedly, each of the stakeholders mentioned in the first paragraph of this article has its share of responsibility and involvement in the actions of awareness raising and civic education of voters.

Yet, what happened in electoral campaign for constitutional referendum of September 5? Why did so many people complain they were not informed about the purpose and expected result of this referendum? Why the political class neglected the citizens, inviting them to a referendum without understanding what is at stake? What did the authorities responsible for organizing the campaign, including for the civic/electoral education, to inform voters about the referendum? What was the role of media in the electoral campaign and to what extent people have received answers to their questions about the referendum through the mass media? Where the NGOs have been active in civic/electoral education and what they have done in the electoral campaign? What have citizens done or not to express their right to vote? These are several basic questions to which we are obliged to find answers so that the civil society would be able to ensure an active participation of citizens in electoral processes.

Immediately after the constitutional referendum of September 5, 2010, the Association of Sociologists and Demographists of Moldova has made a case study on non-participation of Moldovan citizens in this poll. The study entitled “Errors in polls or manipulation of public opinion”[1] was presented at a recent scientific-practical conference. Thus, sociologists have identified 19 reasons for non-participation of citizens in the referendum, the reasons that originate from the area of influence of the political class, the state authorities responsible for organizing the elections, from the area of media or civil society.

What the political parties have not done

At least six out of those 19 reasons of absenteeism, mentioned in the study, can be categorized as political by nature or those that can be directly controlled by the political class:

Proceeding from these answers, the political class should understand the importance that selection of campaigning issues should match with the citizen’s agenda. Political parties should use more efficiently their potential of persuasion, and the most persuasive are the real facts and concrete actions. As for the confidence that voters have lost regarding the political class and party leaders, we must remember that trust is not given to anyone for free, it must be earned and proven by facts, it also applies to parties that are/were the ruling ones, as well as to those in opposition and extra-parliamentary ones that should find issues and actions that would highlight their value. Another conclusion is that political parties must be much more active and get involved in the regions with various awareness raising campaigns regarding the importance for all voters to participate in the electoral processes, and this information should be submitted in a language that is accessible to the ordinary voter. Political leaders must be honest with voters, refraining from manipulating or pushing them, because sooner or later these practices turn against politicians (a great part of voters already stated that they already lost the confidence in all political class of Moldova).

What the authorities have not done

Answering the question “If you did not attend the constitutional referendum of September 5, 2010, indicate the reasons that prevented you from going to vote?”, many voters directly or indirectly pointed out to the state bodies:

State bodies such as the Central Electoral Commission (CEC), Broadcasting Coordination Council and even the Government as a whole have the responsibility to ensure a well organized, free, fair and democratic electoral process, which would exclude any suspicions about possible rigging elections. In this context, it is very important for CEC to make order in the electoral lists, which are mysteriously inflating for elections to elections. CEC also has to carry out more extensive civic education campaigns during electoral campaigns, but only in those periods.

In the same context, it should be mentioned that the central electoral authority has created confusion with registration and acceptance in the referendum campaign those parties that have actually decided to boycott the poll, calling on people to refrain from participating the a democratic exercise such as the referendum. Subsequently, this decision of CEC has created difficulties for nongovernmental organizations in formulating the message of civic education, and some media outlets who have understood to urge citizens to use their voting rights have been even sanctioned by Broadcasting Coordination Council (BCC) because have aired during the campaign civic education spots urging citizens to participate in elections.

At the same time, the bodies such as BCC should ensure a more efficient and permanent control over the compliance with the journalistic ethics by all broadcasters, applying similar sanctions when the law is violated. However, if the BCC reaction in cases of breach of the Broadcasting Code is missing or disproportionate or unjustified, the TV-audience and radio-listeners would be deprived of their right to correct information and to pluralism of opinion in the radio/TV programs.

What the media have not done

Some (8.4%) of participants in the survey accomplished by the Association of Sociologists Demographists said they were not sufficiently well informed about the referendum, and this also refers to how the media outlets have worked. In part this is explained by the fact that the information conveyed by the media concentrated in Chişinău is not accessible to all citizens, and similarly in many villages people have had access just to one opinion given the limited number of radio/TV stations. During this referendum some media outlets have been politically engaged, issuing lies and social phobias that determined some people to refrain from voting. Ultimately, the answers like “I didn’t attend the referendum because I feared that the validation of the referendum would postpone the early elections” or “I was afraid that referendum results will be falsified” and “However my vote will not decide anything” are precisely the messages issued by politically biased media, and the BCC did not respond promptly to cases of deception and breach of the principle of pluralism in presentation of opinions. Also, some broadcasters with national coverage have not accomplished electoral debates, although the electoral legislation obliges them to do so etc., they have been not sanctioned. In its turn, BCC also didn’t observe exactly the electoral legislation regarding the presentation of BCC reports on monitoring over broadcasts.

However, lately the media in Moldova has showed that it can impose issues on the public agenda and even on the agenda of politicians. It would be very good if the media would focus on real problems of citizens, especially when politicians are unable or unwilling to do so.

What non governmental organizations have not done

The constitutional referendum of September 5 gave NGOs a hard lesson to be learned well if we do not want to repeat absenteeism in election to come. Members of the Coalition for Free and Fair Elections have carried out several activities of civic and electoral education, but this effort was insufficient since the other social stakeholders (political parties first of all) did not understand to get more involved. The short period of time when civic education activities were conducted, the lack of financial resources for these activities caused their low efficiency. Civic education of citizens should be continuous, not just on the eve of electoral campaigns, and this means that nongovernmental organizations should hold a continuous dialogue with social partners and donors that could support such projects. Another lesson learned in this referendum is that NGOs, civil society as a whole should not be intimidated by the parties interested that people wouldn’t think freely when going to vote. Similarly, we should not tolerate the violation of the right to balanced and accurate information in electoral campaigns.

What the voters have not done

Proceeding from the results of the study mentioned above, we note and another category of reasons for non-participation of citizens entitled to vote at the constitutional referendum. These also include the following:

Analyzing the results of the study, the sociologists remind about the phenomenon of social desirability, which means that the respondent seeks to answer the questionnaire in a way that would please the one who asks. We may therefore assume that some persons who were asked to say why they did not go to referendum felt some discomfort and turned to explanations like those above. Regardless of this, some people’s trend to avoid participation in electoral processes is very worrying. Other stakeholders involved in civic/electoral education should take this into account when planning public informative and awareness raising campaigns regarding the importance of motivating every voter to exercise the right to vote. And this will happen only if one takes into account the problems and expectations of voters. Such an approach would make us confident that it is possible to reach to civic reason and conscience of every citizen with voting right in our country. However, motivation of the citizens to participate in elections should also come from within every person, so that it would be no longer possible to use arguments and excuses like someone was not in locality on election day (there were solutions to these problems — voting certificate, declaration on voting in the place of stay, things that we had to learn, to seek solutions if we would really want to vote), the confusion induced by surveys (even if there were surveys saying that referendum’s turnout will be even 85% voters, however one cannot let the neighbour vote for you), etc.

Finally, I reiterate the idea that started this article — civic/electoral education represents a responsibility of the entire society, of all stakeholders involved in electoral campaigns and it depends on us all whether we are going to have free, fair, conscious and democratic parliamentary elections in November 2010.

  1. The study was carried out between 09.09.10–20.09.2010 on a sample of 1591 persons aged over 18 years, with an error margin of 2.6%.
The consequences of failed referendum For many are called, but few are chosen…