No to AV’s new campaign is beyond parody

“Do what we say, or the baby gets it.”

There are some things in life that seem so far beyond parody – Sarah Palin's continued credibility, for example, or Michael Winner's Twitter feed – that the sceptic in me keeps waiting for the moment when we all get made to look like fools for taking them seriously. But the longer these things keep going, the more we have to face up to the unsettling probability that actually, they're not a mock-up at all. This is what people really think. Not for a laugh, not just to get attention, but because that's just how they are.

And that's what I keep thinking to myself when I see the No to AV campaign's bizarre range of adverts. I keep expecting someone to say: "Doh! Of course that's not a real No to AV advertisement, you big silly! We'd never put out something as crass to make a political point – what do you take us for, a bunch of jerks?" But that doesn't happen. It's a real advert. It's actually earnest, po-faced, this-is-what-we-think campaigning.

If you've not seen it, I'm sorry to have to bring it to your attention, really. It's a picture of a newborn baby, with the shouty slogan "She needs a new cardiac facility NOT an alternative voting system". The implication is, I suppose, that there's a binary choice – either we have a cardiac facility or a new voting system. There's a pair of scales with electoral reform in one pan and the life of a child in the other. In another advert, we're given the choice between bulletproof jackets for our brave boys in Afghanistan, or an alternative voting system.

Hang on a second, though. Does that mean it's an alternative voting system, or bulletproof jackets for soldiers, or a cardiac facility? If so, who gets to choose that bit? (You could argue that we don't, because the voting system is not proportional enough, and that's exactly what the Yes to AV campaign is about; but that's another matter, and I don't really want to get sucked into the vortex on this one.)

The problem with creating either/or choices on subjects that are slightly more complicated than "tea or coffee?" is that the fallaciousness of the argument can be exposed by simply adding another choice. How about electoral reform, or bulletproof jackets, or a cardiac unit, or a free pint of beer for everyone? Does that change anyone's mind?

AV or not AV, that is the question. What I can't understand is why, when there are reasonable and rational answers in the No to AV camp, such as those put forward by my fellow NS blogger David Allen Green the other day, they are eschewed in favour of "Do what we say, or the baby gets it". It's infantile in every sense, and just seems like shock value for the sake of it, the kind of angry argument that assumes voters don't have a clue and see the whole world as a series of either/or choices.

If this is the quality of campaigning we're going to have in the coming days and weeks, it's no wonder that the issue could fail to grasp the public imagination. Come to think of it, I suppose that a distaste for the whole thing is something that would benefit the No campaign – but, having seen what they've come up with thus far, I doubt they're that smart.

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“We don’t BeLiviu”: how Romania is rising against corruption

Night after night, activists gather in Victory Square to demand the resignation of the government.

For much of the year, the large tarmac square in front of the main government building in Bucharest is little more than a glorified roundabout, busy with traffic and surrounded by towering, communist-era blocks on one side and a wedge-shaped park on the other.

But when Romanians gather to protest, as they have done these past weeks in record numbers, it becomes a place of pent-up frustration; against the ruling class, the direction in which the country is heading and the way many politicians continue to use the public purse as a source of cash for their personal use. This was not how it was supposed to be, ten years after the country joined the European Union.

On 31 January Romania’s new government, in power for less than a month, sneaked in a piece of emergency legislation during a late-night session to weaken the punishment for abuse of power, negligence while in office and conflict of interest. In effect, the move decriminalised some forms of corruption, if the financial damage caused amounted to less than roughly £38,000.

Many Romanians and international observers saw it as a brazen attempt to help politicians facing legal problems, prominent among them Liviu Dragnea, the leader of Romania’s largest political party, the Social Democrats, and the president of the Chamber of Deputies (Romania’s House of Commons). Dragnea is facing trial for supposedly getting colleagues added to the public payroll even though they do not work for the state. He is one of many public officials facing a day in court; in fact, he has already faced the courts, earning a 2015 conviction for electoral fraud that barred him from becoming prime minister despite his party’s strong showing in parliamentary elections last December.

The backlash against the ordinance was swift, as night after night tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands, and, once, half a million took to the streets to protest. On 5 February, between 500,000 and 600,000 people protested across Romania, with 300,000 in the government square alone. Demonstrations have also taken place in 50 towns and cities in the country, as well as in the Romanian diaspora.

The government backed down on its immediate plans and repealed the decree, but trust was by then long gone. Protests are now in their third week and, despite snowfall, show little sign of ending.

“This government needs to go. You can’t be elected in December and have hundreds of thousands on the streets in a month,” said Dorial Ilie, a 33-year-old PR worker, one cold evening in the square.

Romanians are fed up with corruption. The country sits 57th in Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index – up from 69th place in 2014, but corruption remains endemic, and Romania is near the bottom of the list when it comes to EU countries.

Despite the efforts of the country’s much-admired National Anti-corruption Directorate (DNA), set up in 2003 and responsible for the successful prosecution of thousands of politicians, civil servants, judges and business leaders, there is a sense that the rich and powerful still operate as if they were above the law. This was certainly not helped by the attempts to change the anti-corruption legislation.

“They had been planning to do this for years,” said Dan Popescu, a 46-year-old priest protesting in the square, echoing the sentiments of many of those around him.

The demonstrations, the largest in the country since the fall of Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989, have been an impressive display of people power in a country that is increasingly using the streets as a communication platform. Large-scale protests in Romania also brought down the last elected government in November 2015, after corruption was blamed for a fire in a Bucharest nightclub that left 64 dead, and before that, mass protests during the 2014 presidential election, this time over mismanagement of diaspora voting, arguably helped tip the balance in favour of the now-incumbent, Klaus Iohannis.

Protesters are hoping for a similar impact this time around, although, having survived a no-confidence vote in parliament on 8 February, the new government shows little willingness to depart.

At the same time, most of those gathering night after night in Victory Square – as the drab square outside the government building is officially known – are still loudly demanding the resignation of the government, but would probably settle for the resignations of Dragnea and the prime minister, Sorin Grindeanu.

After so many nights standing out in the cold, protesters have become very creative. Elaborate banners filled with puns (“We don’t BeLiviu”) have appeared, as have messages written with lasers and projected on to nearby buildings. Some have shone the Batman symbol on to the roof of a nearby museum, a funny (or perhaps desperate) plea for help. The national anthem is often sung. On Sunday, a sea of protesters held up pieces of paper coloured over their phone lights to create a vast Romanian flag.

Despite these touches of humour and inventiveness, there is a steely determination evident and it has only grown since the first night or two.

On 13 February the national parliament approved a referendum related to the fight against corruption, as proposed by the protest-supporting president. But most of those on the streets these past weeks would argue that they have already given their opinion on the matter.

Many Romanians are increasingly frustrated that they have to head out to protest time and again in order to hold their elected officials to account. Few believe that the present political class can change. “They’ll try again, in another way. Maybe in parliament, where they have a majority,” said Ioana David, an administrative worker for a construction company.

Even so, she – like so many others – is likely to continue to go out into Victory Square in the days and perhaps weeks ahead, in order to make sure her voice gets heard.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times