Romania has avoided a Ponta presidency, but ‘the stranger’ is about to feel the heat

Klaus Iohannis is to be the next president of Romania. EPA

When I was in Romania last month, the atmosphere was extremely sombre. Romanians were about to elect a successor to Traian Basescu, a two-term president in a country where the role comes with important executive powers such as major responsibility for foreign and security matters. Basescu had aligned the country firmly towards the West, but by forcing through tough austerity measures in 2010, he succeeded in becoming a pariah for many Romanians.

The former communists, who are now called the Social Democratic Party (SPD), have been running the government for two years. The man of the hour has been prime minister Victor Ponta, an opponent of Basescu, who took control of the PSD in 2010 when aged only 38. His alliance won a huge parliamentary majority in December 2012. Hundreds of deputies swept into parliament people often with minimal interest in assuming governmental responsibilities.

Uninhibited in language, and often taking delight in delivering low blows, Ponta is an admirer of Che Guevara. In a climate where investigative reporting is not easy and the media culture is distinctly trashy, Ponta sparked a constitutional crisis within weeks of becoming prime minister by simply tossing aside the rules for impeaching the president in a bid to get rid of President Basescu. Only the intervention of major EU players and the US prevented what many still describe as a constitutional coup d'état.

To make matters worse, the government has had no coherent economic plans despite the fact that the country is well endowed in natural resources. The priority appears to have been divesting state assets into private hands.

President apparent

Yet this autumn Ponta’s bid for the presidency appeared to be a virtual coronation. For half a day, Bucharest was brought to a standstill as he held a triumphant campaign rally on his birthday, September 20, drawing comparisons with Romania’s infamous communist dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu.

Victor Ponta. EPA

Gloomy commentators warned that Romania would soon become a mere geopolitical expression if it fell completely into the hands of an elite of dedicated asset strippers. Acute skills shortages were opening up in all sectors as citizens headed abroad to obtain much better salaries. Experts warned that before long, there would be insufficient salary earners left to provide for pensions and social welfare.

When I attended a conference in late October in Cluj, Romania’s second city, there was little talk of the election. Two days after leaving, Ponta won more than 40% of the national vote in the first round. He was 10% ahead of his main rival, a centre-right provincial mayor from the fast-disappearing German-speaking minority.

A stranger comes to town

Klaus Iohannis was described by the pro-government media as almost an alien. He is slow-speaking and deliberate in manner, a handicap in a self-styled Latin country not lacking in melodrama. Nor is he an ethnic Romanian, somehow still a black mark despite the fact that the country had allowed minorities a mainstream role in public life as a condition for joining the EU in 2007. Close supporters of Ponta branded him “the stranger”.

Ponta’s chief allies had the nerve to disparage Iohannis for not being a member of the majority Orthodox faith, even though Ponta spends Sundays indulging his passion for motor racing rather than attending church. In a tense television debate on November 11 he refused to deal with serious issues and instead directed invective against Iohannis.

Iohannis fought back strongly in a second debate and by now observers were beginning to sense that the contest was not sewn up after all. This coincided with a mounting feeling that the 3m expatriate Romanians were treated badly in the November 2 election.

Many were not allowed to vote despite queuing all day. The authorities had not made enough overseas voting sections available, and refused to open new ones on the grounds that it would have violated local laws (Germany strenuously denied this for example). Many of the Romanian diaspora used social media to communicate their humiliation to each other and family and friends at home, beyond the control of the government-dominated domestic media.

Introspective Cluj woke up and became the epicentre of vigorous protests against this expat treatment in successive weekends. Ponta’s mishandling of the economy was lampooned by Moisie Guran, a television commentator, who was able to speak without a script for an hour on the economic ills of the nation.

Wake-up call

Romania’s middle class, a segment of which had relocated abroad, woke from its torpor as the election day approached. They felt embarrassed by the prospect of a president who had been exposed as a plagiarist in 2012 when his PhD in international law was shown to have at least 85 pages directly taken from other sources.

They recalled the disdain that he had shown for his intellectual critics by purging the Romanian Cultural Institute in 2012, despite the fact that it had won numerous international plaudits for its flair in revealing a multi-layered Romanian culture to the world. At the same time, the country grew aware that the central city of Sibiu had benefited from the civic-mindedness and energy of Iohannis as mayor. Many took the risk of voting for “the stranger” to avoid the sinister prospect of a Ponta presidency. On the two occasions last Sunday that I paid a visit to the polling station at the consulate in Edinburgh, I was surprised at how busy it was.

Iohannis won with 56% and will now be sorely tested. His opponent’s parliamentary majority continues and Ponta will probably try to sabotage his presidency. Iohannis will need to find capable helpers so as to build a practical agenda for change in time for parliamentary elections due in a couple of years, with stimulating economic revival an obvious necessity.

Whether he is willing to support the justice sector, which is an oasis of progress in a mediocre state, may determine the kind of president he is. Reform pioneered by the justice minister and defended by President Basescu created an independent corps of judges and prosecutors. Many politicians from all sides of the spectrum had been found guilty of corruption in recent years as a result. Crushing the independence of the judiciary had been a priority for the trans-party alliance around Ponta.

Romania’s first king was in fact a German. Carol of Hohenzollern is revered today for equipping the country with solid institutions and public works. On the 25th anniversary of the bloody events which freed Romanians from communist tyranny, similar priorities from Romania’s rulers are badly overdue today.