THE BLOG
11/25/2014 09:26 am ET Updated Jan 25, 2015

Roma and Local Politics

"All politics is local," said legendary politician Tip O'Neill. But if O'Neill hadn't risen to the nationally prominent position of speaker of the House of Representatives, no one would remember this quotation, which comes from the time when he lost his only election -- to the Cambridge City Council in the 1930s.

Local elections in East-Central Europe, for instance, get very little notice outside the region. They don't attract a great deal of attention inside the region either. In Romania, for instance, turnout for local elections generally falls considerably below 50 percent -- and that's the case for most of the countries in the region. Except for some hotly contested mayoral seats, local elections don't generate a huge amount of interest.

And yet, these elections are the lifeblood of the democracy. They engage residents in issues that directly affect their lives. They serve as a training ground for politicians. And, in multiethnic countries, they both indicate the status of minorities and represent an opportunity to amplify previously.

The National Democratic Institute (NDI) has been providing training and resources for local Roma politicians in Romania. In May 2013, I travelled to the outskirts of Bucharest to meet with Alice Pop Ratyis, who took a break from a training to talk with me.

There are somewhere between one and two million Roma in Romania. Ratys estimates that there are around 300 Roma in elected office at a local level. But it's difficult to calculate how underrepresented Roma are at the local level.

"They are much more dispersed than the Hungarians," Ratyis explains. "The Hungarians mostly live in Transylvania, and the Roma live all over the country. There are communities that are 80% Roma, there are communities where they are 50% or 20% or just 10%. Previously, they did not necessarily see the importance of having local representatives in the local council. There was always someone from the Roma party, because they were always competing, but they didn't see the importance of having one more or two more or 10 more in the local council. Now I see that everybody's oriented toward trying to maintain the local political representation of the Roma. We've been doing this now for almost 10 years."

The number of Roma on local councils is not the only indicator of success. And how long the local councilors have served may also not correlate with efficacy. Ratyis told me about one local Roma councilor who "was so great in discussing and negotiating that she's done more in her eight months of being a local councilor than others have accomplished in 20 years."

The main problem with local politics in Romania is not that it's local, but that's it's politics. "Many people are sick and tired of politics," Ratyis told me. "And it doesn't matter if you are running on a Roma Party ticket, a Roma organization ticket, or a mainstream ticket. They just say that if you are a politician, you become one of "them" and they just don't trust you anymore."

Even the Roma elected officials themselves sometimes discount the efficacy of politics. "Yesterday we had a discussion with the group here," Ratyis continues, "and I asked them, "Okay, what did you accomplish as local officers in your first mandate?"

"Oh, we've done nothing..."

"I don't believe that you've done nothing." Then it turned out that they've really done many things like assessing the community and repairing the roads. And I said, "You see, you initiated it and it happened. So don't tell me that you didn't do anything in your first mandate.""

We talked about her early years growing up in Transylvania, the challenges and satisfactions of working for an NGO in Romania, and what advice she has for outside organizations that want to make a difference in the country.

The Interview

The Roma population in Romania is 10-12%?

Officially, though we don't have the official data from the census, there are about 600,000. Unofficially, international organizations working on Roma issues and even the Romanian government estimate the population as somewhere between one and two million. If it's one million, it's 5%. If it's two million, it's 10%.

And if it's 10%, what should their local representation be according to the percentage of the population?

I don't know because they're dispersed. They are much more dispersed than the Hungarians. The Hungarians mostly live in Transylvania, and the Roma live all over the country. There are communities that are 80% Roma, there are communities where they are 50% or 20% or just 10%. Previously, they did not necessarily see the importance of having local representatives in the local council. There was always someone from the Roma party, because they were always competing, but they didn't see the importance of having one more or two more or 10 more in the local council. Now I see that everybody's oriented toward trying to maintain the local political representation of the Roma. We've been doing this now for almost 10 years.

When you say "everybody," you mean outside actors?

Outside actors, donors, big organizations: I've heard from many stakeholders - although we don't like this word "stakeholders" since it's too technical -- from the region saying that we have to enforce and increase Roma political participation at the local level. It's good that they've come to the same conclusion we came to in 2004-2005. We are very proud that we were the first ones.

About figures for Roma representation: it very much depends on the will and on the environment. Many people are sick and tired of politics. And it doesn't matter if you are running on a Roma Party ticket, a Roma organization ticket, or a mainstream ticket. They just say that if you are a politician, you become one of "them" and they just don't trust you anymore. This Roma organization was facing a similar problem. Where they were working as an NGO on various projects in their communities, in only one place did they get a local councilor elected. In the other places where they were brand new, they got elected. So, it's mostly about how sick and tired people are and whether they turn out to vote. It's also about valid votes. This is also a problem in the Roma communities: many of the votes got invalidated because people voted for more than one party or person.

The invalid votes were because of the voters' mistakes?

We don't know. We were not there. But most of the feedback we got from our partners was that it was a lack of civic and voter education. The double vote, or the two stamps on the same ballot, came from the idea that, "Okay, I will vote for them because they are my Roma, but I will also work with this other party because I promised them in the campaign." And they did not know that having two stamps on one ballot invalidates the ballot. Another problem was when they supported the mayor's candidate, who was from one political party, they thought that they had to vote for the same party for the local council. We have a saying: "The number of the votes is not what counts, it's the people who come to vote."

Are there organizations that monitor the elections at a local level?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.