‘Normal’ is the new ‘cool’: the 2014 Romanian Presidential election

An unexpectedly high turnout, spurred by the resolute mobilisation of the Romanian diaspora,–pushed centre-right candidate Klaus Iohannis (Christian-Liberal Alliance) into a surprising first place in the Romanian presidential election that was held on November 2 and 16 2014. Contradicting opinion polls which had positioned him well behind the Social Democratic Party (PSD) candidate and incumbent prime minister Victor Ponta, Iohannis secured a comfortable win by 54.43% to 45.56%.

Iohannis’ victory followed an aggressive campaign marked by personal attacks, corruption scandals and allegations of electoral fraud. The contest was dominated by the protracted battle between Ponta and outgoing President Basescu, internal party struggles on the political right, populist discourses, and religion as debate issue. The poor organisation of the elections prompted the resignation of two foreign ministers and a judicial investigation into breaches of voting rights abroad. The success of a taciturn personality, antithetic to the Romanian political scene, opened a debate over the ‘normalisation’ of Romanian politics.

From 14 to 2: a predictable result after the first voting round

Out of the 14 first round candidates, the Social Democratic Party’s, un-opposed on the left, was the clear favourite, following the party’s success in the May European Parliament (EP) elections. In contrast, the right could not find a common candidate to oppose Ponta. The two largest right-wing parties – the National Liberal Party (PNL) and the Democratic Liberal Party (PDL) – together the Christian-Liberal Alliance, eventually managed to agree on Klaus Iohannis as its presidential nominee after an indecisive selection process which betrayed inconsistencies in the Alliance’s strategy.

The coherence of the political right was further undermined by the multitude of candidates, which contradicted the vision of a ‘united right’ needed to bolster the parties’ image after their poor EP election performance. Ex-tourism minister Elena Udrea ran on behalf of the Popular Movement Party, a splinter from the Democratic Liberal Party supported by President Basescu, while former National Liberal Party president Calin Popescu-Tariceanu ran as an independent after the delayed registration of his Reformist Liberal Party (PLR). In a last minute switch originating in disagreement with the party leadership over her nomination, Democrat-Liberal MEP and former justice minister Justice Monica Macovei ran as an independent on her anti-corruption record.

However, this diversity of candidates was not mirrored in corresponding political messages. The campaign inevitably focused on the four most credible contenders – Ponta, Iohannis, Udrea and Macovei – whose messages revolved around the issues of corruption, the rule of law, austerity and the economy, and geo-politics.

In the light of attempts to pass a controversial amnesty and pardon law and disputes over parliamentary immunity, debate concentrated on the Ponta government’s record in office. Not surprisingly, EU issues played a secondary role and, as the campaign progressed, were relegated to the status of valence issue. While the two main candidates agreed on strengthening the country’s relationship with the EU, disagreement centred on the Ponta’s government performance regarding the implementation of austerity measures, economic growth, job creation, taxation and social policies.

The debates escalated into vituperative personal attacks. Ethnicity and religion came to the fore with references to Iohannis’ German origin and Lutheran faith. Ponta zeroed in on his Romanian and Orthodox identity and pursued a nationalistic line seeking the votes of the rural, conservative church-goers. He envisioned a “second Great Unification of Romania”, to include Moldova, in time for the 100th anniversary of Romania’s unification in 2018. His grandiose views built on his pompous campaign launch in a stadium, reminiscent of celebratory gatherings in communist times.

Ponta’s strategy contrasted sharply with Iohannis’, who declared he would ‘rather lose than be a boor’. He was restrained in making promises, “a BMW in a second-hand Korean car sale yard” as his online campaign manager described him. Iohannis spoke of “scandal free politics”, of a “normal Romania”, an efficient civil service, economic growth and foreign investment, delivering a clear message: a plan for a “Romania of things done well”. He used Sibiu, where he had been mayor for 14 years, to show that such a vision was possible.

These strategies propelled Ponta into the second round with 40.4% followed by Iohannis on 30.37%. However, the results were fraught with accusations of electoral fraud associated following the poor organisation of voting abroad, with thousands unable to cast their votes as the low number of polling stations closed because of massive queues generated by insufficient staff and a cumbersome voting procedure.

Ingredients for a victory? The role of the diaspora, young voters, and social media

The debacle November 2 debate framed the discussions between the two rounds of voting, with a focus on issues of corruption and electoral reform. In response to the passivity of the responsible institutions – the Central Electoral Bureau and the foreign ministry subordinated to Ponta – voters mobilised by circulating petitions asking for additional voting centres abroad and a revision of the electoral law. Instead, a blame-shifting game between the two institutions ended with the resignation of the Social Democrat foreign minister Titus Corlatean but no actual changes to voting regulations. When accused of interfering with citizens’ constitutional voting rights, Ponta retorted that Iohannis and his supporters were only looking to ease voting conditions to commit electoral fraud.

By the November 16 vote, Ponta had managed to antagonise his electorate to the point of losing Social Democrat safe seats between the two rounds (the two most striking examples: the Iasi county, where the party lost a vote for the first time in 25 years, and Constanta). In contrast, Iohannis capitalised on the votes of the eliminated centre-right candidates and also attracted the electorate of the Democratic Union of Hungarians in Romania (UDMR) party. The final results saw Iohannis comfortably win the election ten points ahead of Ponta, with an overwhelming share of the votes abroad (89.73%), in spite of the massive political and financial mobilisation behind the prime minister’s campaign.

In terms of electoral promises the two candidates adopted the same narrative regarding the eradication of corruption and safeguarding the rule of law, in spite of Ponta’s misdemeanours in the summer of 2012, when he tried to impeach the President and interfered with the workings of the Constitutional Court.  At the end of the day, the character of their campaigns – including their responses to the problematic diaspora vote – seems to have been decisive for Iohannis’ win.

Iohannis was quick to rally behind the protesters and civil society initiatives which denounced the appalling voting conditions abroad. Theirs was a narrative of change, as they asked for their constitutional rights to be respected, a revision of the electoral law, and the prompt resignation of those responsible for the organisation of the vote. Social Democrat spokespersons, on the other hand, accused voters of having deliberate chosen crowded polling stations to manipulate public opinion, instead of voting at “alternative, close stations” (in reality located hundreds of kilometres away). The only concerted action, the belated resignation of recently installed foreign minister Theodor Melescanu, was too little too late.

The alleged plan to discourage voting abroad backfired dramatically, as voter turnout more than doubled on 16 November: 379 000 Romanian expats voted in 294 polling stations across the world (compared to 147 754 in 2009). This also appeared to encouraged voters at home to cast their ballots (1 in 3 respondents to a post-election poll admitted they were influenced by the protests), which led to an overall increase in turnout from 54% in the first round to 64% in the second.

The “sensational” mobilisation of young voters (28% of 18-34 year-olds and 30% of those aged 35-50), who were mainly pro-Iohannis (38% of his voters aged 18-34), was unprecedented. This same group was the most active online: Iohannis became the most popular European politician on Facebook.

What comes next? National politics and Romania’s position in the EU

President-elect Iohannis’ immediate reaction to the result – “The campaign is over. Let’s got to work now” – spoke to a potential shift in approaches to national politics. The result was encouraging: trust in the presidency rose to 43,9% in December 2014 compared to 17,8% in October; the role of civil society was revitalised; Iohannis succeeded in directing parliament to reject the amnesty law the second day after his election and speed up the negotiation of the 2015 national budget.

However, this post-election conciliatory disposition is very likely to be short-lived. Most importantly, Ponta’s refusal to step down as prime minister implies a new period of cohabitation. Iohannis will have to tread this line carefully to ensure the experience of the past couple of years, when politicians were too caught up in domestic infighting to govern, does not recur. His intentions of reshuffling parliament and reducing its size will not sit well with parties on either side of the political spectrum that have done everything to stay in power; exemplified by the Basescu impeachment attempt.

The Social-Democrats have proven their determination to stay in power with the appointment of the revamped ‘Ponta IV’ government on December 15. Social Democrat parliamentarians were given a three line whip to approve it and threatened with exclusion from the party. The reshuffle, which saw politically controversial ministers removed from the list, is primarily a move to legitimise Ponta’s position ahead of the party’s congress next year, and also to accommodate the newly co-opted Reformist Liberal Party (PLR) which replaces the Democratic Union of Hungarians in Romania (UDMR).

At the time of writing, two main issues point to the first potential clashes in the new President’s term. The 2015 budget, scheduled for a parliamentary vote on December 21 (the day the President-elect will be sworn in) is already problematic. The National Liberals have already announced they will reject the budget and this is now more likely as the draft proposes a 31% reduction in the budget of the National Anti-Corruption Directorate (DNA), a key institution in Iohannis’ anti-corruption strategy. Secondly, the trial relating to Iohannis’ incompatibility charges is scheduled to resume in January.

It also remains unclear who is supporting Iohannis, both within his alliance and among the remaining parties on the right. The Hungarian minority has left the government under the pretext of “strengthen[ing] our relationship with voters”, but has not disclosed details of any potential co-operation with the Liberal alliance. Iohannis’ National Liberal Party is internally fragmented and, owing to its sketchy political trajectory, prone to reshuffles. The party was one of components of the Social Liberal Union, together with Ponta’s Social Democrats, from 2011-14, then quit after party leaders clashed over the composition of the government. The National Liberals’ instability, coupled with the overall lack of coherence on the centre-right, complicates Iohannis’ plans for reform.

These include Iohannis’ vision of “Romania as an European actor”, which centres on the country’s Council Presidency scheduled for the second half of 2019 and supporting Moldova’s EU membership. Iohannis sees himself as a mediator President and has advocated the formulation of an EU negotiating mandate arrived at by consensus between the President, government, opposition and civil society. Ponta had already warned during the campaign that Iohannis’ presidency will be another opportunity for the centre-right European People’s Party and “other individuals who mocked Romania in 2012” to interfere further in the country’s national politics.

The EU has all-too-often been treated as a secondary battlefield in the Basescu- Ponta conflict, to the detriment of effective political representation. In an EU environment that thrives on consensus and socialisation, Iohannis’ personality and close links to Germany could infuse a wave of credibility and see Romania “graduate from the EU integration school and become a mature, strong and respected EU state”. However, success is contingent upon national consensus, an ambitious objective in the context of Romanian politics, and implicitly on Iohannis’ capacity to mediate between the country’s fractious political forces.

Roxana Mihaila

Roxana Mihaila (R.I.Mihaila@sussex.ac.uk) is a doctoral researcher at the Sussex European Institute in the Department of Politics, University of Sussex.

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