Presidential Elections in Romania (November 2014). A Semio-Functional Analysis

Nicolae-Sorin DRĂGAN
National University of Political Studies and Public Administration, Bucharest


The paper examines the way in which social actors position themselves discursively during final debates for presidential elections, both one toward the other, and toward the content of communication, from the perspective of functional theory of political campaign discourse. All five predictions of functional theory were tested in the two televised debates for presidential elections in Romania: 11 and 12 November in Realitatea TV station, B1 TV respectively. The study shows the similarities with the results obtained in other states, but also reveals the significant differences that change the structure of the functional theory predictions. The paper allow understanding of dialogue as a form of “living” communication and can be considered a plea for the reconfiguration of dialogue in the Romanian public space.

Keywords: presidential debate, functional theory, political communication culture, political semiotics.



Caught in the “semiotic web” (Rovenţa-Frumuşani, 2012: 32) of other people’s discourses, “in a world of others’ words” (Bakhtin, 1984: 143), we try to find our way through the woods of symbols that Baudelaire mentioned since 1857[1]. How can one find one’s natural, logical way in such a world? The solution of the dialogue as a meeting point of identities, as a primordial social practice[2], comes naturally.

Although we have the “voluptuous habit of chattering” (Pleşu, 2015b), the Romanian public space suffers from a lack of a civilisation of dialogue. We have come to have a “mystique of dialogue”[3] instead of a genuine dialogue. Comprehending dialogue as a form of “living” communication is even more necessary, as Constantin Noica preferred that communication be understood, as “Eucharist, because it means communion, it means a participation of each of us to the thoughts and to what the Other has to say” (Pleşu, 2015a). It is only thus that one can show one is looking (responsibly) to the other. Andrei Pleşu (2014) claimed that “in the old Romanian language, when a person became a dignitary, the chronicler said the following: he fell to great esteem. But ‘he fell’. One enters a state of servitude, enters a mechanism that places one in the condition of a servant, above all”. Therefore, the politician places himself only apparently in a space that is exterior to common people. He is “thrown” there by democratic mechanisms. His state of exteriority is a fall to great esteem. His presence there means serving the common good. There is a term in Heidegger’s philosophy that describes this movement. The term is Geworfenheit, to be thrown[4]. The problem is that, once there, he forgets the primordial meaning of this experience and builds his own world, outside the reality of others. Televised debates are the opportunity that politicians can use to return to the interiority where they had been apparently thrown from. It is the moment of the reverse movement. From the outside, the exteriority where they had been sent, inside, to common people. Authentic, living performance can be the solution for politicians to take seriously the experience of exteriority and to return to the naturalness of interiority. One cannot waste such an experience when one wants to give meaning to one’s relationship to others. For politicians such an effort is even more necessary, more relevant.

The televised debate is considered “superior to other communication forms” (Pfau, 2002: 251) and can be regarded as a special form of communication that, on the one hand, reveals the relationship of social actors with the language, and, on the other hand, expresses their capacity of understanding otherness. The televised debates remain essential forms of communication for the functioning of democracy (Coleman, 2000: 1; Beciu, 2009: 139-140) and could be an ideal opportunity for candidates to establish an interpretation of reality, to impose control and symbolic representations of the situation in the political field. Although the mediatic discourse exploits first of all the spectacular dimension of the debate, one should not neglect the generative dimension of this discursive genre. In the metabolism of debate we can see discursive behaviour models that generalise in the verbal interactions in the public space. Televised debate can be regarded as a diagnosis of the civilisation of dialogue in the local political life. Camelia Beciu states that any “electoral debate (or any other mediatic product) is a relevant communicational space for the public culture of society” (2015: 262). From this standpoint, the work is a plea for the reconfiguration of dialogue in dialogic interactions in the Romanian public space (particularly in televised political debates), for the construction of an authentic dialogue, where normality and the deliberative aspect should be considered discursive rules.

In the next section we present a brief introduction to the functional theory of political discourse as strategic positioning of social actors in the semiotic act of televised debate. The third section contains research methodology. In the fourth section we present the results of the research, followed by some discussion in the fifth section. The last part of the paper is dedicated to conclusions.


Functional theory of political campaign discourse 

This article is based on the premise that televised political debates are conflictual, competitive verbal interactions. Obviously, political messages and declarations aim to win the election. Starting from this premise, a functional approach to analyze political debates appears appropriate. Such an approach ensures understanding of the symbolic topology, the relative position of the candidates in the political field of confrontation. We depart from the five axioms formulated by Benoit (2014: 9-19):

  • Vote is a comparative act;
  • Candidates should distinguish themselves from other opponents;
  • Political campaign messages allow candidates to distinguish themselves from others (to assert their identity).
  • Candidates set up desirability (are positioned on a preference scale) by three discursive functions: acclamations (A1), attacks (A2), defenses (A3)
  • Election campaigns discourse targeting two main themes: policies (P) and character (C).

The first axiom implies a certain competence of the citizens, who have to decide on preference of a particular candidate in a comparative way. The following two axioms include candidates’ identity construction; and the last two concern discursive tools available for the candidates to position favorably on the audience preference scale.

In the functional theory of political discourse, candidates are positioned on the preference scale by three discursive functions: acclamation, attacks and defenses. Acclamations are positive statements aiming to promote self-image, and to increase the social desirability of the candidate. Attacks are discursive interventions targeting weaknesses and limitations of the opponent (Benoit, 2011). Attacks are used to reduce a candidate’s social desirability. Defenses are statements which reject the opponent’s attacks and which could influence candidate’s level of preference (Benoit, 2014). The three discursive functions are mutually stimulated and conditioned (Benoit and Wells, 1996: 112). Benoit and Airne noted that “these three functions work together as an informal form of cost-benefit analysis: acclaims increase benefits, attacks increase an opponent’s costs, and defenses reduce a candidate’s alleged costs” (2005: 226). The two authors suggest a strategic approach of discursive exchanges during the televised debate. The three discursive functions – acclamations, attacks and defenses – work together and are complementary instruments in the construction of the candidates’ discursive strategy. The functional theoretical approach in the political discourse is assimilated to a type of cost-benefit analysis. Candidates engage in polemic discursive exchanges “peeking” at the audience, trying to persuade the public to act in their favor (Hinck and Hinck, 2002).



This paper proposes an analysis of televised debates for presidential elections in Romania, in November 2014, from the perspective of functional theory of political campaign discourse. We depart from Benoit (2014) hypothesis regarding functions of the discourse in political campaigns:

H1: Candidates use acclamations more frequently than attacks; and attacks more often than defenses.

H2: Comments on the policy themes will be much more common than those relating to the character of the candidates.

H3. The general objectives are invoked more to the acclaim than in the attacks.

H4. Candidates use values more to acclaim than to attack.

H5. Candidates will attack more and acclaim less on future plans than on general objectives.

All five hypotheses of the functional theory were tested in the two televised debates for the presidential elections in Romania, 2014 (November,11 and 12, at Realitatea TV channel, and B1 TV channel respectively). Candidates who took part in the two debates were Victor Ponta (PSD, Social Democratic Party leader) and the prime minister at that time, and Klaus Iohannis (PNL, National Liberal Party chairman), former mayor of Sibiu at that time, who is of Saxon origin. Note here that Klaus Iohannis is currently the president of Romania. The two debates constituted the corpus for our analysis.

In order to test the hypothesis of the functional theory, we used the content analysis techniques, mainly thematic content analysis. The three discursive functions we discussed above were grouped around two main themes: policies and candidate’s character – suggesting a categorical scheme of content analysis. The first theme, “Policies” consists of three categories, distributed on the base of a temporal criterion: past actions (achievements) (PA), future plans (FP) and general objectives (GO). The second theme, “Character” consists of three categories as well: personal qualities (PQ), leadership skills (LS) and ideals/values (I). Registration units were considered assertions, claims, statements, and arguments of candidates (themes), and each theme was coded for one out of the three discursive functions: acclaims (A1), attacks (A2), defenses (A3). For the first televised debate (Realitatea TV channel, 11 November 2014), there have been 473 assertions concerning the candidates: 259 assertions of the governing party’s candidate (Victor Ponta) and 214 of the opposition candidate (Klaus Iohannis). For the second debate (B1 TV channel, 12 November 2014), there have been 463 assertions, 252 of the governing party’s candidate (Victor Ponta) and 211 of the opposition candidate (Victor Ponta).



The first hypothesis is partially confirmed (we have more attacks than defense, acclamations occupying intermediate position). In the first televised debate, the frequencies for each type of discursive function were: A2 (45.9%) > A1 (34.5%) > A3 (19.6%). The descending order in the distribution of frequencies was maintained in the second debate as well: A2 (45.8%) > A1 (36.7%) > A3 (17.5%). Only in the case of the opposition candidate, Klaus Iohannis, during the second debate, the relationship between the three discursive functions is consistent with the first hypothesis: A1 (46.4%) > A2 (44.6%) > A3 (9%). Klaus Iohannis used particularly offensive enunciations (attacks) on issues related to corruption in the presidential elections and diaspora vote. Victor Ponta used offensive enunciations much more on the Policies theme than on the Character theme.

Table 1. Frequency distribution for each discursive function, in the first debate

(11 November 2014, Realitatea TV)

  Acclaims (A1) Attacks (A2) Defenses (A3) Total
Victor Ponta 89 (34.4%) 101 (39%) 69 (26.6%) 259
Klaus Iohannis 74 (34.6%) 116 (54.2%) 24 (11.2%) 214
First debate (D1)
– Nov. 11, 2014 –
163 (34.5%) 217 (45.9%) 93 (19.6%) 473

χ2 = 20.09, p < .01


Table 2. Frequency distribution for each discursive function, in the second debate

(12 November 2014, B1 TV).

  Acclaims (A1) Attacks (A2) Defenses (A3) Total
Victor Ponta 72 (28.6%) 118 (46.8%) 62 (24.6%) 252
Klaus Iohannis 98 (46.4%) 94 (44.6%) 19 (9%) 211
Second debate (D2)
– Nov. 12, 2014 –
170 (36.7%) 212 (45.8%) 81 (17.5%) 463

χ2 = 13.59, p < .01


The chi-square test calculated for the three types of discursive functions shows significant differences in the way the two candidates used those functions in the two debates: χ2 = 20.09, p < .01, in first debate; respectively χ2  = 13.59, p < .01, in the second debate.

Regarding the second hypothesis, the results show that, particularly in the first debate, candidates focused rather on discussion about policy actions than on issues of candidate’s character (H2 was confirmed). It was found that during the second debate politicians had talked more about policy (75% of the enunciations) in comparison with the first debate (60% of the enunciations). Also, in the second debate they had talked less about character (25% of the enunciations) in comparison with the first debate (40% of the enunciations).


Table 3. Enunciations in the first debate (11 November 2014, RealitateaTV).

  Policy (P) Character (C) Total
Victor Ponta 170 (65.7%) 89 (34.3%) 259
Klaus Iohannis 113 (52.8%) 101 (47.2%) 214
First debate (D1)
– Nov. 11, 2014 –
283 (59.9%) 190 (40.1%) 473

χ2 = 8.03, p < .01


Table 4. Enunciations in the second debate (12 November 2014, B1TV).

  Policy (P) Character (C) Total
Victor Ponta 197 (78.5%) 54 (21.5%) 251
Klaus Iohannis 150 (71%) 62 (29%) 212
Second debate (D2)
– Nov. 12, 2014 –
347 (75%) 116 (25%) 463

χ2 = .12, p (=.72) > .05 (non-significant)


The chi-square test was significant, when we tested the differences between the way candidates used “Policy” versus “Opponent Character” enunciations in the first debate (χ2  = 8.03, p = .005 < .01) and non-significant (χ2 = .12, p =.72 > .05), for the second debate.

Table 5 and Table 6 present results from the testing of the third hypothesis. We noticed that both candidates had used general objectives to acclaim more than to attack, with only one exception – Victor Ponta, during first debate, who used general objectives to attack (5 times), in comparison with acclamation (one time). Therefore we confirmed the third hypothesis.

The fourth hypothesis was confirmed as well by our data. Both candidates used values more for acclamation than for attacks, during both debates. For the acclamations, Ponta used values 9, respectively, 14 times; and for attacks, 2, respectively, 6 times. Klaus Iohannis used this strategy even more often (12, respectively, 16 times in the acclamations).


Table 5. The structure of main topics by discursive functions, in the first debate

(11 November 2014, Realitatea TV).

  Policy Character
A1 A2 A3 A1 A2 A3 A1 A2 A3 A1 A2 A3 A1 A2 A3 A1 A2 A3
Victor Ponta 34 50 40 1 5 1 27 8 4 8 18 18 10 18 2 9 2 4
Klaus Iohannis 3 59 16 3 1 1 17 11 2 9 18 2 30 22 3 12 5 0
TOTAL (category) 202 12 69 73 85 32
TOTAL (topics) 283 190


Table 6. The structure of main topics by discursive functions, in the second debate

(12 November 2014, B1 TV).


  Policy Character
A1 A2 A3 A1 A2 A3 A1 A2 A3 A1 A2 A3 A1 A2 A3 A1 A2 A3
Victor Ponta 36 56 27 11 6 5 13 14 6 12 24 4 14 8 2 14 6 2
Klaus Iohannis 14 48 10 12 6 0 30 15 1 13 13 2 16 8 1 16 3 0
TOTAL (category) 191 40 79        68 49 41
TOTAL (topics) 310 158


The fifth hypothesis was partially confirmed. In both televised debates, both candidates attacked more on future plans than on general objectives, but acclaimed more on future plans than on general objectives: 27, respectively 17 times in comparison with once, respectively, 3 times during first debate – for Victor Ponta; and, in the case of Klaus Iohannis, 13, respectively, 30 times in comparison with 11, respectively, 12 times during the second debate.



The results allow us to compare the two candidates’ distribution of enunciations on general topics and discursive functions, for each of the two debates, in a comparative way.

The data show that the candidate who was already in power Victor Ponta (prime-minister at that time) used the defense strategy more often than the opposition candidate Klaus Iohannis, in both debates: 26.6% versus 11.2% of the enunciations in the first debate; the difference increased during the second debate: 24.6% versus 9% of the enunciations. The data presented in the Table 1 show that during the first debate, opposition candidate Klaus Iohannis attacked more (54.2% of the enunciations) than the candidate in power Victor Ponta (39% enunciations). Table 2 shows how the situation has changed during the second debate, when Victor Ponta attacked more (46.8%) than Klaus Iohannis (44.6%). Related to the first discursive function – acclamation – we observe that during the first debate, candidates have used acclamation in relatively equal proportions (34.5%), while during the second debate opposition candidate Klaus Iohannis has used acclamation more (46.4%) than Victor Ponta (28.6%).

Benoit indicated three reasons for which candidates could limit their use of defensive enunciations (defenses) and be more offensive (Benoit, 2007). The first reason is that defensive enunciations keep a candidate “outside” the message due to the fact that attacks are mostly drawn to address the weaknesses of the interaction partner. Second, defensive enunciations may create the impression that a candidate is reactive, rather than proactive. Third, defensive enunciations have the potential to inform or remind voters of possible weaknesses of each candidate. From this point of view, the candidate in power at that time, Victor Ponta, was worse placed than his opponent, Klaus Iohannis. The defensive enunciations of Victor Ponta focused on his past actions (40) and on his personal character (18) in the first debate; decreasing in frequency during the second debate (27) on past actions. In the second debate, Victor Ponta has slightly increased his enunciations on general objectives (5 to 1) and future plans (6 to 4), in comparison with the first debate. These data show that Victor Ponta looked for an improvement in his discursive strategy from the first to the second debate.

It should note Iohannis’ ability to attack on prominent issues, in the forefront of media agenda, but also on the public agenda, respectively on the elections issues regarding the diaspora (these attacks paid off). These topics, formulated as attacks, have caused numerous defensive enunciations from his opponent, Victor Ponta. During the first debate, opposition candidate attacked mostly on past actions, on leadership skills and on the personal character of the candidate who was in power. During the second debate, Klaus Iohannis has slightly decreased the attacks on past actions and increased the number of attacks on the opponent’s future plans. Ponta’s attacks focused on the opposition candidate’s past actions, on his personal character and his leadership skills, during the first debate; whereas during the second debate, his attacks intensified on the personal character dimension, on the past actions and the drab personality of the opponent.

In a recent study (Drăgan, 2015), we tried to explain the relatively high percent of defenses in Romanian televised debates (approximately 18% of the total enunciations) in comparison with the data gathered in other countries (5-10% of the total enunciations). This should be consider together with the relatively high number of discursive interventions which can be labeled as “attack type” (46%), in comparison with an average of 35% – such discursive interventions in other countries (Benoit, 2014). The difference could be explained when we take into account the qualitative content of the two discursive functions (defense and attack), and the role of political culture in the mechanism of Television debate. Camelia-Mihaela Cmeciu and Monica Pătruţ obtained a similar distribution of discursive interventions in the analysis of the debate on 14 November 2009 (2010: 34): A2 (42.4%) > A1 (25%) > A3 (32.6%). The data obtained in our study confirm the results obtained in previous studies (Cmeciu and Pătruţ, 2010) and could suggest a political communication culture focused more on attack rather than on defense strategy. This could be considered an easier approach in comparison with more complex strategies as acclamations.

As research limitation, we mention here constraints related to: fidelity of the coding procedure, adequate interventions of candidates to the moderator style, and report of the contextual developments during the time the research was conducted.



The present study has as a starting point in Benoit’s functional theory, trying to reveal semiotic dynamics of the three discursive functions – acclamations, attacks, defenses – during Television political debates. Tensions of the discursive exchanges attack-defense invite the public, beyond the cognitive processes, to participate in the construction of the decision on their preference for a particular candidate. The particular mode in which social players use the three discursive functions in the debate can be used by voters to decide which of the candidates is preferred. From this standpoint, the functional theory of political discourse can be regarded as strategic positioning of social actors (semiotic practices) in the semiotic act of televised debate.

Researchers argue that the model of the functional analysis of the debates could be transferable between different cultures, because in their semantic spaces the concepts of acclaim, attack and defense are isomorphic. The three types of discursive interventions may be slightly operationalized and defined in multiple languages and cultures. However, the present study, but other studies conducted in Europe, such as the study of Isotalus (2011) in connection with the debates in Finland, do not fully confirm the assumptions of functional theory. Some cultural particularities – definition by cultural context of the rules of political dialogue, particularities relating  to type  of acclamations, attacks or defenses in different cultures, role of the moderator, quality of the questions submitted to candidates and so on – may determine cultural variability of the results (Holtz-Bacha and Kaid, 2011).

Still, our study shows similarities with the results obtained in other countries, and highlights on potential differences, which challenge the functional theory assumptions.

The functional analysis of political discourse can be regarded as an instrument that helps us diagnose the discursive behavior of social actors during televised debates, the civilisation of dialogue in the local political life.



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[1] “L’homme y passe à travers des forêts de symboles / Qui l’observent avec des regards familiers.” (Man walks through woods of symbols / Which gaze at him with familiar eyes.) – Baudelaire, Correspondances

[2] “Meaning without communication is not possible. In this way, we might say, that dialogue precedes language and gives birth to it. And this also lies at the heart of the notion of semiosphere”, Juri Lotman, 2005, “On the semiosphere”, Sign Systems Studies, 33.1, p.218-219.

[3] “It is politically correct to say: ‘Everything is solved by dialogue’; ‘Dialogue is holy. Any problem, any crisis can be solved by talking. Dialogue.’; ‘Everything is dialogue, tolerance, opening, dialogue etc.’ This mythology of dialogue, which has its good reasons, should not be idolised, though. Dialogue is not possible in whatever conditions, and we, in Romania, today, should know it too well. Dialogue needs a certain type of situation to be born lawfully and to be carried out coherently. One cannot have a dialogue with a wall; one cannot have a dialogue with something closed. Dialogue means, on the contrary, availability, opening. Closing is external to the idea of dialogue”, Andrei Pleşu, Conference given on 27 October 2010, in the Aula of the “Alexandru Ioan Cuza” University of Iaşi.

[4] “Heidegger says that what is typical for the situation of man in the world is that he gets thrown into the world. How does our life start? With an expulsion outside. Outside the comfortable, nutritional, protective mother’s womb. Man’s first experience with the world and life is waking up outside. And he has to do something about this situation. He didn’t ask for it, says Heidegger, it is a situation where you find yourself, you don’t know why, no one has asked you, you don’t know where to, but that’s it, you’re suddenly outside. Being in the world means being outside. […] The world is outside. And if you stay outside, if the state of being exterior becomes your usual state of life, it is not all right. Pursuit begins with the effort of finding an inner landmark, of installing yourself in this outside with an identity because the world, which is exterior, tends to reduce you to its exteriority, says Heidegger. The world renders you anonymous. It takes away your portrait. It makes you melt inside it. And then you have to do something.” (Andrei Pleşu, Conference in the Aula of the “Alexandru Ioan Cuza” University of Iaşi)