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Hanging Out in Romania's Most Illiterate Village on Voting Day

The people of Dobreni have no idea who they're voting for.
2014 november 28, 8:05am

_This post was originally published on _​VICE Romania

What with all those Romanians around th​e world having spent the last few weeks protesting against the fact they weren't allowed to vote during their presidential elections, you'd think the voting situation in the country couldn't get much worse.

Nope: Romania has the largest population of illiterate people in Europe, which also means the largest number of illiterate voters. Over a quarter of a million Romanians who are officially illiterate have the right to vote. There are so many of them that they can basically make or break an election. In the 2009 presidential elections, for example, the difference between the two candidates was just 70,000 votes.

This time around, I wanted to find out how the people who don't know who they're voting for choose between parties. So I travelled to Dobreni, which – according to the National Statistics Institute – is the place with the largest number of illiterate people in Romania.​

"I just vote for one guy or the other, whoever he may be. What do I need to read? I think about it when I'm there, I put the stamp on of the sign and I'm done," says Nicu as he comes out of the booth.

The voting station in Dobreni is packed – things are not very different to what was going on in voting stations around Europe a couple of weeks ago – and the queues seem endless. Some guy starts yelling "Dias! Pora!" because he thinks it's made out of two words.

Inside, the ballot box becomes something of a religious pilgrimage sight. People cross themselves before letting the vote drop in it. In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen. A vote.

Tens, even hundreds of people vote. Many of the votes open mid-flight to show that the stamp was on the three roses, which are a symbol of the PSD – PM Victor Ponta's party. So here is a clue for the illiterate – they see the roses and they vote. They vote for Ponta. Or so they think. Unfortunately, fate seems to be against the illiterate, because the rival party – the ACL – also has a rose on its logo.

"I put my vote on the ro-se!" yells Gheorghe. Gheorghe can't write, and he can't talk much either. He's also at least partially deaf. "Ro-se," he says, while looking at the other villagers because he can't understand what I'm asking him. He puts his ID card on his nose to show me the stickers on the back, which show that he voted. He holds them in front of his heart, like they were military decorations stuck on his chest.

Those stickers, which most of us ignore, are treated like a magic treasure in this village. They seem so valuable, that one of them tried to vote a second time so he gets more of them on his ID card.
​ ​His name is Alexandru Toma and he was just kindly thrown out of the voting station, because the people on the voting commission remembered that he already voted once that morning. He says that he didn't want another vote – just another sticker. The one he had in the morning melted, after he dropped the card in a puddle.

Alexandru has difficulty telling me who the candidates were. His illiterate neighbour from across the street sums it up nicely: "How should we know the difference between Mopey and Dopey?" Finally, he manages to remember the name of the Prime Minister: "Ponta is our candidate!" I asked him what the name of the other candidate was:

​"The other guy!" he exclaimed. He then jumped in the middle of the street and stopped a car to ask the driver, "Hey boss, what's the name of the other guy running against Ponta?"

"Iohannis," replied the driver in shock. "Iohannis!" repeated Alexander victoriously and smiled. "What's Iohannis' first name?" I ask. He sighs.

After counting all the votes in Dobreni, Victor Ponta won by a landslide, with 70 percent of the vote crushing "whoever that other one is". The turnout was also great – 60 percent. But you can't say that only the illiterate people voted here.

Titel is the village plumber; he is considered part of the intellectual elite of the village. "I read two trainloads of books!" he says.

Titel is appreciated for his intelligence around Dobreni so I ask him why so many people voted from his village: "We voted because it's the moral thing to do. If you tell me you didn't go to vote but you went out to protest, I will slap you over the neck with my leg."

Dobreni voted for Ponta but ended up with "the other guy". From today to the next elections, for the elected and the non-elected, for Mopey and Dopey, Romania's 230,000 illiterate people will disappear.

The cool part of democracy is that in the voting booth we are all equal, whether we grow up on a horse-drawn carriage or in a library.  In the Romanian Constitution, which is as thin as a cookbook and as large as a country, we are all allowed to vote no matter our religion, sex, education or shoe size. The only obligation is that we are consenting adults. But how much consent can a person who doesn't even know who's running for the election give?

The Committee for Human Rights says that governments have to take clear measures in order to ensure that "illiterate voters have all the necessary information on which to make their choice". Some countries listened: in Tunisia, where 20 percent of the population is illiterate, they hold free civic education courses, in which people are told who the candidates are and what is a leftist or a rightist party to those without schooling. And these illiterate people receive a special ballot with clear symbols: a briefcase, a rooster or an eggplant.

​ ​ Toma Pătraşcu, the president of the Secular Humanist Association in Romania, says that education is vital in a healthy society: "This is not a beauty contest between candidates. You don't vote for someone for having a beard and not for the other for being bald. In theory, an important part of the reason you vote should be related to the policy that candidate proposes or supports. You have to put that in context, to understand why that candidate made a certain decision.

"A man who is not used to thinking for himself can easily believe any information, so the politicians don't even have to make an effort to convince them to vote for a certain candidate. Populism works well with uneducated people who don't know what an MP or a president does and what he has to do, and who believe all campaign promises might become reality."

That mechanism works in reverse too: the less you understand on your own, the easier I can make you understand my vision as a politician. "Manipulating a man depends on his defences. Theoretically there are many ways with which you could build up an 'immune system'. School is one of them. Of course, someone who never went to school and comes from a poor environment is more exposed to the machinations of a politician," notes Pătraşcu.  ​

So the people who are supposed to help us get rid of illiteracy are the main beneficiaries of this phenomenon. Go figure.

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