I wanted to become an actress
About elections, food and cats with one of the soul partners of Code for Romania.
„Oh, then we’ll definitely go to TukTuk then” Maria Krause tells me thoughtfully when I propose to be the first Code 4 partner in this section „but not tomorrow, because I have five cats to vaccinate”. It’s Saturday night, we’re in the Expirat club and the Fiecare Vot coalition, with which Code4 is in partnership, celebrates its observers.
Maria, an ODIHR expert (OSCE’s Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights) and a founding member of Fiecare Vot is on duty and explains a complicated scheme that she believes presidential candidates could use to the detriment state.
Two days later I meet Maria at the above-mentioned restaurant, on a street adjacent to Dorobanți. It is quite cold outside but we still choose to sit on the terrace, “to enjoy the sun as much as we can, because we will miss it”.
I ask Maria why she brought me here, as we order the food. She tells me it’s her favorite restaurant - it has good food and the right ingredients, it’s authentic Thai food. It’s a terrace that manages to match the vibe of the street, but also be a special place.
„The thing is, I really like the food in Southeast Asia. I still cook it at home. And it's nice, after you have eaten the food as made by local cooks there, to find it reproduced correctly in your city.”
I can’t disagree. The food is good and the ambience is pleasant, from the Buddha statue with a flower offering to the real bamboo fence with chilli peppers spread between the stems.
I ask Maria to tell me about her life. „Where should I start, from kindergarten?” she asks me. Maria is the kind of woman full of jokes and funny stories who speaks (hard to believe but true) even more than me so that should be interesting.
„It is important to start from kindergarten because there I had the first conflict that made me doubt the communist regime.” says Maria with a very funny seriousness.
Precocious at kindergarten, already knowing how to read, Maria was told by a teacher a communist fairy tale about an 18-year-old illegitimate woman sentenced to death who writes a revolutionary letter to the child she will never have. A letter which, the educator adds, you must all learn. “Learned” meant more here, “internalized the class struggle” and less “learned by heart” but little Maria didn’t know that.
When she arrives home, Maria realizes that she is in trouble. She has to “learn” the letter but has nowhere to find it. After the conversation with the parents the dilemma deepens because her amused father tells her that if she does not learn it is possible that she will have problems with the educator but if she learns it will surely have problems with him. You may be able to escape educators, but your own parents?
Maria didn’t know yet but her grandfather had been a political prisoner and her parents were being watched by the state Securitate for unhealthy backgrounds and friendships.
"Every school was better tolerated by me than the previous one," says Maria, who was at school when the communist regime fell.
She was going to the Lazăr high school and joined the revolution with her colleagues in the University square.
"I met almost all my colleagues at Coposu's funeral, we still do at protests."
After high school Maria had big plans:
"I wanted to become an actress, but I don't think I made a mistake I didn't. On the one hand because I have a glaring flaw in diction and no one who trills the Rs so bad can become an actor. And secondly, because I like what I do a lot now.”
Maria had a hard time at Acting so she temporarily turned to Foreign Languages.
„I said I should not sit idly so I went to a college where I knew what I was doing. I followed the English-German courses. I was hoping that I would not flunk English, as I was speaking German at home.”
In the first year of college Maria took her first job in communication in the presidential administration.
„We were just students, with about two or three adult bosses. I was reading petitions and trying to help different people.”
Then, Maria’s life changed forever when she took a job as an assistant and translator at the OSCE / ODIHR mission observing the presidential elections in 2000.
„I was the assistant to the head of mission, in the elections of 2000, those with Iliescu and Vadim. OHDIR missions are short-term, not permanent, so after the elections, everyone left, except one who supposedly wanted to see Bucharest. He invited me to dinner and in the meantime we got married and we have 11 cats.”
I smile while Maria tells me about Stefan, her husband and the 11 cats that share the house and the yard. The number of family members recently doubled after a new cat appeared and gave birth in the yard. In this courtyard, Maria assures me she has about 200 varieties of plants, of which 50 are aromatic and medicinal.
„It's already a collection, I was told that if you already have 50 kinds of spices, it's not a passion but a collection.”.
Speaking about spices, the food arrives - a steaming soup and duck bao for me and tom yam with prawns and pandan chicken for Maria. The food is excellent, aromatic and spicy and really only with the classic ingredients. Maria tells me about her favorite food. Starting with the Thai cuisine, she goes through the Italian, the Georgian, the Japanese, and last but not least, the “cuisine from the Shan state from Myanmar”.
Maria stayed for a long time in Myanmar, where her husband was the head of the mission.
„It's the best place in the world I think for street photography, something always happens, from the appearance of Buddhist monks listening to music on the phone to whatever else. Everything is alive and colorful.”
Maria’s career as an electoral expert started in less colorful places.
„I had a 1 year job as a translator at a business firm but I preferred to be a freelancer translator. It was very good for me and, at the next ODIHR mission, in 2004, I was a local assistant again but I said, now that I have some experience, I will send my CV to Warsaw as well.”
Maria became a STO (Short term observer), meaning an observer present only on election day in the polling station. In 2005 she had the first mission in Kyrgyzstan, which she remembers with pleasure while explaining to me about the national hero Kyrgyz. A long-term mission followed in Kazakhstan, in a sparsely populated area where police and security were permanently monitoring her. Then she went on missions in Macedonia, Serbia and then Maria became Observer Coordinator.
„I did eight observation missions with ODIHR and then went on missions outside the OSCE states with [Carter Center] (https://www.cartercenter.org/). That's how I went to Guyana, Nepal or Mozambique.”
About the election observation in general Maria seems a bit nostalgic.
„It was a shame that I realized so late that this is what I want to do, with the elections, because that's what my parents did as well, they were observers in the elections with the Civic Alliance after '89. They also observed election, and as I was not allowed to sit in the polling center, I was supplying hot coffee and made sandwiches.”
Speaking of observation in Romania, Maria tells me how the story of Fiecare Vot began. Meeting Septimius Pârvu and discussing observation Maria proposed to adopt, with modifications, the ODIHR methodology instead of the local one, developed by Pro Democrația in 1992. They did the first test in 2014 at the European Parliament elections with 22 observers, more than needed, to see how it goes.
„At that time we could go in the field, now it's over.”
The NGOs joined pretty quickly. Pro Democrația took the new methodology and chose to use it.
„At about the same time, when the NGOs joined, I met Bogdan at a bar. He asked me what we could do for voters. I said, wouldn’t it be better to ask what we can do for observers?”.
This is how the idea for Monitorizare Vot appeared, the Code for Romania application, used for the first time in 2016, which revolutionized the way in which observation is made in Romania.
„I had hundreds of observers and it usually took quite a lot before we could draw conclusions from their reports because by the time you received, analyzed them and drew conclusions, the election process was over.”.
„There are some technical solutions, we have digital pens at ODIHR, tablets at Carter Center and so on. But we have neither the money nor the ability to send equipment in the field. So we use what observers already have - phones. In those 2016 elections I remember the phones ringing, all observers writing me to NEVER go back to paper.”
Meanwhile Monitorizare Vot has had 5 deployments in Romania and abroad. The data is received in real time from observers, direct conclusions can be drawn, one can react instantly to red flags or observe statistical aberrations that indicate fraud.
In short, the once one-month work, now digitized, is done almost instantly and with the client’s material. I ask Maria what her aim is from the collaboration with Code for Romania. She tells me that what she wants is to use the application to its full potential, for reporting. And they started.
When Fiecare Vot was in the Parliament, at the famous electoral fraud investigation commission they were able to prove with application data that the polling centers were organized worse in the diaspora. They were also able to identify sections “with a history of problems” in order to send more experienced observers there and prevent fraud.
In the future Maria wants another application, one that will mobilize the citizens to vote, with a simplified form that will allow the non-accredited public to report incidents or irregularities and to educate people on the rights that they have.
„For example, have you ever looked at whether your polling station has an access ramp? Probably not, because it doesn't affect you. But that station is probably in a school, what do kids with a wheelchair do all year? Or the pensioners who come to vote, the mothers with prams?”
I tell Maria that a similar concept is already under incubation. We both leave well fed and happy.