Romanians are not happy with their government. Twenty-five years since the fall of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his communist regime in protests over the right to vote, thousands of Romanian citizens took to the streets this weekend to chant, "Down with communism."
Demonstrators were calling for the resignation of presidential candidate Prime Minister Victor Ponta, and marching in solidarity with Romania's expat community, as many Romanians living all over the world – from Liverpool to Chicago – have been unable to vote in this month's presidential elections.
On the 2nd of November, thousands of expats stood in line for over six hours at Romanian embassies and consulates all over Europe, waiting for their chance to vote. For most, that chance never came, amid allegations that the Romanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs had tampered with overseas polling stations, moving them to regions with much smaller numbers of Romanian expat residents.
In many cases, those who did trek out to their nearest polling station found that there weren't enough voting booths, voting stamps or forms for everyone in attendance. In the end, only 161,000 of the roughly 4 million people who make up the Romanian diaspora managed to have a say in their country's future.
There are around 100,000 Romanians living in the UK, all of whom had to share nine voting stations. Two of these polling locations were in London, where close to 5,600 people managed to mark a ballot paper. Unfortunately, there were over 1,000 more who never got the opportunity, with . After hours of waiting in the cold they began chanting, "We want to vote!" "Down with communism!" and "Freedom!" In response, the consulate called the police, who brought in a helicopter.
Monica, a PhD student in mechanical engineering, said, "They shut the door in our faces ten minutes before the polling legally ended. A group of men tried to push the doors. Everyone was shocked. We expected this from a country like Ukraine, but we've been in the EU for seven years. The saddest thing is the message this sends to expats: 'Your country doesn't need you or your vote.'"
In Germany, which is home to roughly 205,000 Romanians, there were polling stations in five cities. At the consulate in Munich, over 75,000 people had to share five booths. This didn't go down very well with those who'd travelled hundreds of miles from other cities to vote, before being forced to wait in line for hours and hunt around the local area for toilets.
"We had to hold people's places in line while they searched around for a bathroom. Whoever decided to mock us like this is a pervert," said Mădălina Roșca, a director living in Munich.
Mădălina was one of the lucky ones, making it inside to vote while others outside were left to shout, "Fuck you, Ponta!" in frustration. However, she claims the process wasn't exactly straightforward. "The consulate staff were stressing me out – first they said I couldn't go in with my purse, then they said my pen wasn't good enough, then they accused me of not filling the forms out right and had me do them again," she said.
Nobody at the consulate gave the protesters any explanation for the chaos. Instead, they got the police to move everyone off the "Romanian territory", meaning they all had to take one step off the pavement and into the road. Many joked that they were being thrown out of their country for a second time, as most had felt they'd had no option but to leave for Germany because of the lack of jobs in Romania.
In a short film that Mădălina made about the election, a young man says, "We'd like to go back to our country – why should we live abroad? Ask other people, too, why are we here? Because back home we are starving."
The same kind of problems ensued in France, Austria, Belgium and the US. In Italy, where there are around 820,000 Romanian immigrants, local mayors offered space and logistic aid to help the Romanian Foreign Affairs Ministry open more booths, but they refused.
According to Ponta, the chaos came as a result of the Romanian government trying to block election fraud among the country's diaspora. However, expat Romanians are saying the opposite.
Andrea, a lecturer at a university in London, told me, "They manipulated everything out in the open so that things would go as slow as possible. Everybody knew that the diaspora votes for anti-establishment, and that the ruling party won't get any votes from them. Most people queuing in London chanted, 'Down with Ponta.' I felt what I think everybody there felt: these elections were sabotaged."
The Prime Minister pledged that in the second round of votes – which will be held this Sunday, the 16th of November – all Romanians will be allowed to vote. He even promised to fire his Foreign Affairs Minister if that didn't happen. Unfortunately, Titus Corlățean – the now former-Foreign Affairs Minister – threw a spanner in that plan by resigning yesterday.
"I can't break the law," he told a news briefing. "The Foreign Ministry fully keeps its stance that there's no legal basis to up the number of polling stations abroad."
Now, the best hope Romania's expats have is an appeal by the League of Romanian Students Studying Abroad. The organisation has launched a petition, which has already picked up over 6,000 signatures, asking the president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, to "intervene with the Romanian government and make them respect a people's fundamental right to a free election".
Whether or not that plea provokes any kind of meaningful response remains to be seen.
More stories from Romania: