After 1989, despite frequent disagreements with those in power and numerous social-economic struggles, we have rarely assisted in Romania to national demonstrations pro-/ against a certain cause. However, the last two years (2012, 2013) have been marked by new striking forms of solidarity of the Romanian streets, mainly the diffusion and the radicalization of several social movements marching against the exploitation of gold (Roşia Montană) and the extraction of shale gas (Pungeşti), showing their opposition to the introduction of new health reforms or calling for the resignation of several politicians accused of corruption and robbery.
The solidarity of the street, the value re-learnt by Romanians during the last mass-manifestations is one of the explanatory reasons of Klaus Iohannis’ victory in the last presidential elections that took place in November 2014. While a couple of months before the vote, a striking majority of the opinion polls predicted a clear win of the Socialist candidate, the current Prime-Minister of Romania, Mr. Victor Ponta, Romanians made an unexpected move, giving credit to Klaus Iohannis, the candidate of the electoral alliance ACL (the Christian-Liberal Alliance).
How can we explain the Klaus effect among Romanians?
During the electoral campaign for presidential elections (dominated by corruption allegations, threats to the rule of law, fraudulent and propagandistic strategies to win the elections), the memory of revolt and protest as potential agents of change has slowly diffused amid Romanians. Despite the large offer of candidates for Cotroceni (the presidential palace in Bucharest), the 14 contenders were actually a visible proof of the structural fragmentation of the Right wing (proposing several candidates with different profiles who decided to run independently or in the name of new electoral alliances), the internal disputes and opened conflicts between personalities and parties of the Right and their inability to face the homogenous campaign growing around the figure of Leftist Victor Ponta, the Prime-Minister of Romania since 2012. Thus, analysts and opinion polls predicted a quite comfortable win of Victor Ponta, showing that only one candidate could have a slight chance to challenge the former during the runoff. Klaus Iohannis, the candidate of ACL was a successful county leader in Sibiu, mayor of the city with four terms in office, each time elected with excruciating majority. Despite his success and appreciations in Sibiu, his atypical profile for national level elections didn’t seem to bring him and his party the winning card. With little experience in high politics, Klaus Iohannis comes from the German minority living in Romania (mainly in Transylvania) and belongs to the Lutheran Church. While his Socialist contender, Victor Ponta, launched his electoral program under the slogan “Proud of being Romanian” praising for the great unification of all Romanians (allusion to the unification of all provinces of Romania after World War I, in 1918 and the celebration of its centenary in 2018, under his desired presidency), Klaus Iohannis preferred to avoid any answers to the nationalist, populist and patriotic allegations made during the campaign and stated that he is running because he wishes to establish a new kind of politics in our country. Less show, less noise and more concrete solutions for the citizens of Romania…
Two other candidates, both females, announced their intention to run for elections and forecasted significant popular support: Monica Macovei, a former minister of justice and currently member of the European Parliament (recently elected in May 2014) who fought for years against rampant corruption in Romania, decided to run as an independent candidate. Despite the fact that she used to be a close supporter of Traian Băsescu (president of Romania between 2004-2014), she chose not to represent any political party or political group “because the political establishment has become a cross-party business which I am ashamed of, because my country is still struggling with corruption and economic underperformance, competition is distorted and honest business and people suffer.” The other female candidate, Elena Udrea, a former minister of tourism still close to Traian Băsescu, ran as the representative of her brand-new political party- PMP, The Popular Movement (Mişcarea Populară).
However, despite their high expectations, soon after all candidates announced their bid, it became clear for everyone that the real confrontation for Cotroceni involved two figures only, Ponta and Iohannis.
Although the media was presenting an electorate already fed up with jokes, seducing promises, big words, personal attacks, lies and exaggerations, Victor Ponta didn’t give up on jokes and, among others, stated that during the election day in November 2nd 2014, he will sit back at home with “a bag of popcorn in his lap” watching the political comedy taking place at a national level. Actually, with a comfortable lead in opinion polls, the Socialist candidate counted on low participation, vote manipulation, the classic electoral pomana (bribe), the support of the Orthodox Church (which has a tremendous influence, mainly in rural Romania) and the general apathy of the electorate which despises politics and politicians, in particular.
In the meantime, wide mobilizations among the opponents of Victor Ponta, which involved journalists, writers, actors, intellectuals, sportsmen and numerous social-media middle-class users (namely Facebook), were about to stand up against the corruptive clan-like groups surrounding Victor Ponta, the communist-like manifestations organized on the national stadium of Romania on his behalf, his jokes and negative campaign held against other candidates, namely against Klaus Iohannis and Monica Macovei.
The Election Day of November 2nd was marred by numerous accusations of fraud, incriminations and indignation. That day, the Romanian diaspora took the embassies and consulates of Romania in their host countries in order to cast their vote. The Romanian authorities were unprepared to tackle the large number of voters queuing for hours at polling stations in London, Paris, Munich, Rome and many other cities throughout Europe. Despite the long waiting hours, thousands couldn’t ballot. The expats encountered several problems such as the insufficient number of polling stations (294 stations for approximately 4 million persons), blockages during the vote and the refusal of the authorities to extend the voting hours. Therefore, the inability of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to set up the election process outside Romania was perceived as a strategy of the Socialists to exclude supporters who would have voted for center-right candidates, mainly Iohannis and Macovei.
Everywhere, the Romanian indignados publicly exposed their anger using social media, namely Facebook, Twitter and Youtube; they were all expressing their sheer rejection of Victor Ponta, highlighting the importance of each and every vote and calling for solidarity with the Romanian diaspora. Leading hashtags, without any candidate name, like #yeslavot (“I am going to vote”), #diasporavoteaza (“The Diaspora is voting”), #alegeri2014 (“elections 2014”) and #multumimdiaspora (“We are grateful to the Diaspora”), articles, short blog notes, messages, statuses, comments and videos, made that day extremely effervescent and showed the nationwide solidarity with the Romanians living abroad.
During the first round of election, Ponta obtained 40,44 per cent of the votes and Klaus Iohannis came second with 30,37 per cent. Among expats, 46 per cent voted for Iohannis, while 15,8 per cent ballot for Ponta. During the next two weeks until Sunday, November 16th , Ponta tried to take action against the growing support for his center-right counter-candidate, Iohannis. Several accusations and personal attacks against the latter were the watermark of fear and increasing incertitude taking over Ponta’s electoral team. Among other diatribes, Iohannis was pictured as a secret agent for the German intelligence services, Angela Merkel’s Trojan horse. Moreover, ethnicity and religion were used against Iohannis as markers of his “inadequacy” for the most important political position in Romania.
Klaus Iohannis left the street work for him, declaring that he would rather lose than act like a redneck. The solidarity protests with the Romanian diaspora that took the streets in many cities of Romania, mainly in Cluj-Napoca, Sibiu, Brasov and Bucharest were soon transformed into manifestations against Ponta’s propaganda and dirty tricks meant to facilitate his victory. Thus, Iohannis was soon perceived as the only option left against Victor Ponta.
While Victor Ponta was massively voted in the poorest counties, mainly in South-Eastern Romania, Klaus Iohannis obtained a good score in Transylvania. The dichotomous geography of the vote nourished a black and white vision of the country divided along conflictual social, cultural, and economic lines that dictated the vote. The clash between the Socialist and the Center-Right supporters was depicted as a confrontation between, on the one hand, the communists, the poor and less-educated people, the lazy ones looking for social privileges and electoral bribe, and on the other hand, the democrats, the Europeans, the hard-working and honest people longing for a corruption-free country. Moreover, while Ponta’s Socialists were associated with the former communists who took the power in 1989/1991, Iohannis’ profile was soon related the so called “German” virtues strongly appreciated among Romanians, namely their hard-working character and their proverbial honesty.
Several analysts and political commenters tried to explain the social- cultural determinants of the vote proposing different explanatory vote models. Several explanations concurred: many talked about the contagion of electoral practices among citizens from the same region and issued the idea of a culturally divided country; others pinpointed the “online” factor and the significant role of the Romanian diaspora that heated up the strong feeling of rebellion and rejection among citizens willing a new figure in politics. Actually, the vote of the diaspora was significant (160,000 votes), but not quantitatively determinant. Nonetheless, the inability of thousands to vote was the trigger point for the protest vote during the runoff on November, 16th .
Surprisingly enough, that day the turnout totaled 61,5 per cent, 8, 33 per cent more than the first round. As some analysts forecasted in the last days of the electoral campaign, a high turnout in the urban areas and abroad would give Iohannis the winning card. Ponta paid quite expensively his mistake of ostracizing expats and preventing them to vote both the first and the second round of elections. In terms of organization of the election process, the problems encountered by expats during the first round were not properly solved during the runoff. As it happened before, there were insufficient polling stations opened in Western European capitals to meet the huge voting demand coming from the electorate; moreover, despite the fact that under the Romanian law it is legally possible to open new polling stations and prolong the voting hours, none of these happened. However, on November 16, approximately 362, 692 Romanian expats went to ballot, twice the number of those who voted the first round. The thoroughness and obstinacy of expats inspired Romanians at home and, thanks to a turnout of 62 per cent, the largest in 14 years, Mr. Klaus Iohannis managed to come out ahead with 54,43 per cent of the votes.
That day, for many Romanians, maybe the Right didn’t win, but the Left definitely lost. And it was all that mattered. The vote, a negative vote against Ponta, puts a huge moral burden on Iohannis’ shoulders, who is expected not to disappoint his optimistic electorate.
Dear Romanians, you are heroes. 25 years after the Revolution, people were obliged to go out into the streets to defend their right to vote. I thank the Romanian diaspora who queued for hours in order to vote, was Iohannis’ declaration after he was informed of his fulminant victory. In absolute terms, the former obtained approximately one million votes more than Ponta.
After he expressed his gratitude to the Romanian people, Iohannis kept on being pragmatic and concise as it happened throughout the electoral campaign: The campaign is over, we made our choice. Now let’s get back to work. I am very serious and determined.
Mr. Ponta decided to escape from the reality of his abominable defeat taking one-week holiday in Dubai and thus, preparing for the next cohabitation with the elected president, Mr. Klaus Iohannis. Although the former was asked to resign from his position, he graciously decided to work with Iohannis and accept the cohabitation. The newly elected president, Klaus Iohannis, well-known for his record as a “doer”, declared his willingness to focus on the independence of justice and the rule of law and keep a tight lid on the Romanian economy which seems limping towards recession.
Months ago, the unglamorous figure of Klaus Iohannis didn’t seem an obstacle for Victor Ponta, who was extremely confident in his victory in presidential elections. The mixture of both negative and positive votes (against Ponta and for Iohannis) and the legitimate desire for change and good governance that sparkled in the minds of Romanians, revealed the power of solidarity against obedience, fraud and corruption. Despite the #KlausEffect (similar to Obama effect back in 2008), Romanians should be patient and have moderate expectations in terms of Iohannis’ capabilities to make the change they want to see in their home country.
Alexandra Sabou is a PhD candidate in Political Science at the Faculty of European Studies (Babeș-Bolyai University, Cluj-Napoca, Romania). She is currently finalizing her doctoral paper on “Identity construction in the borderlands. The case of Georgia.”Her research interests focus on nationalism, ethnic conflicts and post-conflict states in the South Caucasus. She is the editor of the Romanian International Development Review and she published several articles and book chapters.