In a stunning upset victory, Sibiu mayor Klaus Iohannis, an ethnic German, defeated prime minister Victor Ponta, in Sunday’s Romanian presidential election, challenging confident predictions that Ponta would easily take the presidency.
Ponta’s center-left Partidul Social Democrat (PSD, Social Democratic Party), dominated both the December 2013 national parliamentary elections and the May 2014 European parliamentary elections, and Ponta entered the runoff as the prohibitive favorite after a resounding victory in the October 2 first round, when he took 40.44% of the vote to just 30.37% for Iohannis, the new leader of the center-right Partidul Național Liberal (PNL, National Liberal Party).
But Ponta’s 10-point lead disguised the fact that he fell 10% short of an absolute majority and, as voters’ minds focused on the runoff, Iohannis gained from a surge in turnout — from around 53% in the first round to over 64% in the runoff.
That’s despite the endorsement that Ponta won from third-place challenger, Călin Popescu-Tăriceanu, a former PNL leader and the country’s prime minister between 2004 and 2008, who founded the Partidul Liberal Reformator (PLR, Liberal Reformist Party) in July, helped boost Iohannis to an unexpectedly wide margin of victory — 54.50% to just 45.49% for Ponta.
Iohannis, a physics teacher by training, has served as mayor of Sibiu, a city in Transylvania, since 2000, and he led the relatively small Forumul Democrat al Germanilor din România (FDGR, Democratic Forum of Germans in Romania) from 2002 to 2013. As outgoing incumbent Traian Băsescu receded from the spotlight after a decade as president, Iohannis assumed the leadership of the PNL, the larger of Romania’s two major opposition parties, though Iohannis also had the support of Băsescu’s Partidul Democrat-Liberal (PD-L, Democratic Liberal Party).
Though the PNL joined forces with Ponta (pictured above) in 2011 to form the Social Liberal Union, it left the coalition in February 2014 to enter opposition, eyeing an alliance with the PD-L. When the PNL suffered disappointing losses in the May European elections, however, its leader Crin Antonescu stepped down, paving the way for Iohannis to reboot the party and become the joint PNL/PD-L presidential candidate.
Though ethnic Germans settled much of Transylvania, including the city of Sibiu, two waves of German exodus, first after World War II and again after the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Iron Curtain, have left few German-speaking enclaves in Romania. Today, just over 4% of Romanians are ethnically German.
Iohannis’s victory was reminiscent of the defeat of center-left prime minister Robert Fico in Slovakia’s presidential election in April to centrist entrepreneur Andrej Kiska. Ponta, a powerful prime minister since 2012, who has worked to maximize his political position after last year’s elections, must have hoped he would instead follow in the steps of former Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who became president following Turkey’s first direct presidential election in August, or former Czech prime minister Miloš Zeman won the Czech Republic’s first direct presidential election in January 2013. In the two weeks following the first-round vote, polls gave Ponta a steady, if narrow, advantage.
All four examples (Czech Republic, Slovakia, Turkey and Romania) demonstrate that the move from prime minister to president is fraught with peril, including the self-inflicted wounds that Fico, and now Ponta, have administered to themselves, weakening what would have otherwise been governments with robust majorities. Czech voters seem largely to regret electing Zeman and, as Erdoğan consolidates political power in the Turkish presidency, Turkish voters might also regret their decision.
In Ponta’s case, however, the creeping rise of corruption within the PSD complicated Ponta’s attempt to claim the presidency. The most recent scandal, which broke in early October, was dubbed ‘Microsoftgate,’ and it implicates several top officials, including a former finance minister, in the fraudulent procurement of Microsoft licenses.
As recently as May, voters seemed happy to vote PSD to continue punishing the Romanian right for the austerity policies that the PD-L-led government of Emil Boc, prime minister from 2008 to 2012, were forced to enact in exchange for a loan program from the International Monetary Fund.
The PNL supported the Boc government before it joined Ponta’s coalition. But it’s less associated with Boc and Băsescu, and the party, like Iohannis, was always much better suited to contest the presidency than the PD-L, and Iohannis was, in particular, effective in creating an opposition platform triangulating between the still-discredited economic policies of the PD-L and the growing concerns about Ponta’s abuse of power, the PSD’s corruption and the growing tone of Ponta’s nationalism.
Moreover, as memories fade from the worst days of the global financial crisis (Romania’s GDP growth rose to 3.5% in 2013, and it’s still expected to grow by 2% in a difficult economic environment this year), voters have turned on Ponta, whose presidential bid looked like a naked power grab. It didn’t help that Ponta waged a divisive campaign that attempted to cast Iohannis as an outlier within Romanian society — a Lutheran with German roots and no children in a country that’s over 80% Orthodox. It didn’t help that voting difficulties prevented many Romanians abroad from voting in the first round, which only fueled doubts about Ponta’s government in the final two-week campaign.
It’s not the first time Ponta has overreached. When he first came to power in 2012, he ruffled European Union leaders by, at first, overstepping constitutional and legal norms that many feared would mimic the illiberal actions of Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban, including a failed attempt to change Romania’s election law in a manner that would favor Ponta’s PSD.
Ponta tried to oust Băsescu in July 2012 in a constitutionally suspect referendum, in violation of a ruling of Romania’s constitutional court. The attempt only narrowly failed because turnout fell only slightly below 50%. Băsescu hasn’t missed the opportunity to slam Ponta throughout the presidential race, calling him an undercover spy at one point and comparing him to authoritarian leaders like North Korea’s Kim Jong-un.
Sure enough, Iohannis campaigned as a safe pair of center-right, pro-European and pro-Western hands who could protect Romania’s rule of law. That’s no small matter for a country just seven years into EU membership, surrounded by Ukraine and Moldova (both home to pro-Russian separatist movements), the increasingly contrarian Hungary and Serbia and Bulgaria, two countries with strong ties to Russia.
Like Fico, Ponta will limp on as a weakened prime minister — even without the PNL, his PSL still commands a strong majority in the Parlamentul României (Romanian parliament).
Though he will face calls to resign, Ponta, at age 42, has had a striking rise to power in Romania, and it’s hard to believe that his relationship with Iohannis will be any worse than his acrimonious relationship with Băsescu.