If You Think Free Speech is Dying, Take Notes from Romanian Politics

Ioana Andrei


Photo by Cameron Smith on Unsplash

My first ever hashtag was released into the Internet 6 years ago.

Believe you me, I would have postponed it if I could.

But I had to take a stand. My country’s democracy was up in flames and I was present when the sparks were ignited.

My first hashtag was the name of Romania’s then-Prime Minister, Victor Ponta.

In 2014, Ponta was running for President. Simultaneously, his government was responsible for ensuring a fair election for all citizens.

It failed.

The thing about Romania is: we know what autocracy smells like. The second it starts baking, we shut down the oven.

On November 2nd, 2014, my social media post reads:

“Everyone should know that [today], a horrendously unlawful plan was enacted by the Romanian government. Thousands of Romanians living abroad were denied the right to vote for their president, position which, “coincidentally”, our Prime Minister, Victor Ponta, was running for. Outside the Romanian embassy in London, more than 1000 people waited up to 7 hours to vote, only to be denied entry when polls closed at 9 pm.” - Ioana Andrei

I was 21 and it was my first time voting in London. In the aftermath, it was found that thousands of citizens across the world were denied their constitutional right to vote.

One small town is under-resourced? That’s a hiccup. All major embassies around the world are understaffed, operating at 30% capacity, and sending thousands home because “the polls have closed”? That’s a concerted attack on democracy.

That week, I didn’t just post my first hashtag. I had my first protest.

And boy, what a protest it was. The kind where your voice matters, because it collides with thousands of voices alongside you.

It was a protest for democracy, not for a specific party.

We wanted to vote. And we let them know it.

Victor Ponta, the favorite prior to November 2nd, was the commander-in-chief supervising election procedures. His party was conservative. History had shown the majority of Romanian diaspora were liberal.

The conservative party is infamous for “gifting” staples during electoral campaigns, including flour, oil, and sugar to the poorest people in the country. Domestic votes were taken care of.

It was the 3.7 million citizens living abroad (a whopping 18% of the population) that didn’t bode well with Ponta’s aspirations.

Romanian presidential elections have two rounds. First one — everyone competes. Second one — the top two go head-to-head.

Ponta won the first round with his incongruous trick, gaining 40%.

The election fraud in the diaspora provoked such outrage from domestic citizens, debates started flowing on TV and protests erupted in the streets. Foreign press ate up a slice of the drama, while international bodies issued concerns about the mishandling.

In the second round, resources were less than proportionate, but superior to the first. More people got to vote outside the motherland, which was to be expected, considering the global scrutiny on Ponta’s government.

The real surprise was the speed with which Romanians got off their sofas and stampeded to the polls domestically.

With the highest voter turnout since 1990, 64% of eligible voters cast their ballots on November 16th, 2014, an increase of almost 2 million people compared to the first round’s 53% turnout. (One of them was yours truly.)

Pretty cool, huh?

If November 2nd was a coordinated attack by the government on fair elections, November 16th was a coordinated campaign by the people for democracy.

The presidential win of Klaus Iohannis with a 55% lead was a beacon of justice and unity. It set a precedent for the 2015 protests against health and safety negligence and the 2017 riots against political immunity, with increased engagement among young people.

Romania is a former communist country. Part of the Soviet Block, the “Socialist Republic of Romania” had no notion of fair election, free speech, or import for that matter.

Meanwhile, the Social Democratic Party, which Ponta ran for, is said by critics to have been founded by former communist heads who’d sidestepped Ceausescu.

But why not let actions speak louder than speculations?

If you mess with the democratic process, you don’t want what’s best for your nation.

Due to a history smacking of poverty, injustice, and bloodshed, Romanians old and young knew the perils of corruption with impunity. Whoever they’d supported before November 2nd, their judgment was forced to recalibrate.

As a Romanian citizen residing in London, the “stop the steal” campaign in the US is both enraging and ridiculous.

Let me explain.

When an election is stolen, it’s glaringly obvious.

It’s en-masse voter suppression.

It’s leaked calls from corrupt politicians.

There is hard evidence and most people acknowledge its validity, regardless of political preference.

I saw what stolen elections look like by being hindered for 9 hours before having my voting rights denied.

What “stop the steal” proponents saw was a 5-second video taken out of context and immediately debunked.

My grandmother, who was born in a monarchy, lived through 50 years of communism and another 30 years of capitalism, had this to say about privileged free spirits (like me):

“If you lived to see a war, you’d know what struggle really is!” - Grandmother

I’m a pacifist myself, but I echo her sentiment.

If America knew what autocracy felt like, its citizens, companies, and politicians wouldn’t have waited this long to remove Trump’s power and platform.

If America knew that communism relied on corruption, spreading lies, and attacking peaceful protesters, they would label their outgoing President a communist.

I imagine far-right Trump supporters see themselves as the revolutionaries of suppressive authoritarian regimes, lying in wait, spreading information via guerilla radio, and planning the coup that would restore freedom.

But wanting to be a superhero doesn’t make you one.

Free speech is not free if its cost is violence and anarchy.

One more thing.

For those who believe that Twitter’s ban on Trump is the demise of free speech and a ticket into Leninism, consider this.

Free speech has an annoying little brother called free listening. When the little brother doesn’t want to listen to his big sister, he goes “lalalalalalalala”.

If you want to say anything you like, others have a right not to listen. Forcing someone to listen to you when you talk garbage is what communists did.

So fret not. Trump is not and will not be silenced, so long as he chooses to speak. His actions and their consequences, however, determine how large his platform of influence will be when he opens his mouth.

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My topics of focus include gender equality, mental health and social justice | ioana.a.writes@gmail.com


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