David defeated Goliath in the recent Romanian presidential elections which centered on living standards, corruption, and the degree of Western orientation in a troubled region. The voting was a spectacular proof of solidarity between Romanians living abroad and the country’s urban electorate shaping political outcomes in their country. Harnessing this emerging identity might be an important key for the future prospects of the 20 million Romanians at home and the 4 million around the world.
President-elect Klaus Iohannis ran as the Christian Liberal Alliance candidate, perceived as a pro-reform, anti-establishment outsider. As proud Saxon Protestant member of a Transylvanian minority, he genuinely appealed to uprooted exiles, to minorities, and to an urban electorate tired of being lectured by politicians and clergy on their needs and wants. Iohannis defied predictions surging from little over 30 percent of the vote, roughly under 2.9 million votes in the first presidential round to a roaring 54.4 percent, at more than 6.2 million votes, in the final hours against favored Social Democratic Party (PSD) candidate Prime Minister Victor Ponta.
This outcome could have large implications in the country’s narrative of democratic consolidation and Euro-Atlantic integration. Through their vote and street protests Romanians discredited an uninspired streak in governance while reprimanding the dominant PSD party for abusive use of state institutions and public resources, not least for electoral purposes. President elect Klaus Iohannis has a strong starting mandate to confer continuity, predictability and an accelerated pace to the country’s foreign and domestic policy agendas as Romania is confirming its resilience as a vital regional outpost of stability in the Wider Black Sea region.
The pebble that struck Goliath
Social media lit-up on November 2nd during and after the first electoral round, recording the interminable lines at voting stations abroad and the result of many not being able to cast their vote before closing times. The incapacity if not unwillingness of the Romanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to organize fair elections led to the dismissal of a one foreign minister after the first round and to the resignation of a second foreign minister within a week, after the final election round, which proved that logistic hurdles remained unresolved, overwhelming, and the pressure was intense.
Despite measures allegedly having been taken, voting lines at consulates multiplied in length during the second round, with the cast votes swelling to triple at roughly 377,000. Once again angry voters protested on the streets of major European cities in greater numbers and in some cases sought to force entrance in Romanian consulates leading to clashes with the local police.
The visuals of these incidents made a tremendous and immediate catalytic impact via the social media and the news channels. They were absorbed as a testament to the governing party’s fear of the diaspora vote and unacceptable tactics. It was a costly outcome for the Prime Minister’s presidential candidacy and it will linger as a major setback for the image and legitimacy of his governing coalition now tagged as vote obstructionists.
The actual diaspora vote is marginal compared to the tsunami effect of humiliation and disenfranchisement. PSD strategists miscalculated how much of their power rests on keeping a dejected electorate passive home and abroad. The overall electoral turnout in the second round exceeded 64 percent, one of the highest in post-communist Romania, and this had little to do with the actual profile of the candidates.
Candidate Ponta stuck to traditional rhetoric, an antagonistic conservative discourse focused on the dominant Christian Orthodox religion and an exclusivist understanding of the meaning of belonging to the nation. The outsider opponent, Iohannis simply refrained from playing with the same rhetorical weapons, refused to conceive of the debate in nationalist terms and successfully stuck to the one topic on which the electorate voted, the same topic repeatedly highlighted by the United States and European Union allies, Romania’s needed consolidation of anti-corruption institutions and the reform of the political class.
Post-electoral depolarization and stability
The camps behind David and Goliath have joint interests in de-escalating tensions and seeing to internal vulnerabilities. Iohannis, as president elect, was the outsider to his own disorderly camp. He is unlikely to play politics as usual amongst the various political tribes of his own camp and is the least threatening to the opposing camp. With Iohannis President, the reformists should concentrate on building pragmatic alliances for legislative elections and are under no pressure to form any kind of inconvenient ad hoc and untenable coalition of coalitions.
The PSD-led camp controls both chambers of parliament and the current government and is now left alone to perform under intense scrutiny. A polarizing stance towards the presidency, and abusive practices, would only chip away at their governing coalition. This is an occasion for the PSD leadership to rein-in influential oligarchs enriched through corrupt means and change the party look while maintaining control.
Moderates within the entrenched PSD conservative elite are on the ascent following these elections and this implies a deferential attitude in constitutional dealings with the new president and the justice system. PSD moderates would benefit from a pro-reform formal attitude indistinguishable from that of opposition candidates and a personal preemptive distancing from corruption headlines and the status quo.
Corrupt local barons of all political denominations are not expected to sit idly. They will continue to use their influence, but the major political figures are more painfully aware now of the vulnerability implied by relying on such tactics.
President-elect Iohannis already requested that parliament rebuke a law proposal allowing amnesty and pardon for many high-ranking political figures now hiding behind parliamentary immunity. He also requested that the parliament answer the requests of the judicial system in allowing the progress of investigations. Parliament complied and simulated expedited interest in this.
Answering electoral outrage at the inaptitude of organizing fair elections for the sizable diaspora, Iohannis called on all parties and politicians to publicly state their position in passing a law on electronic voting. This may be a first opportunistic exercise in building consensus and broadening the stakes.
Harnessing Diaspora’s potential
The profile of the Romanian electorate has changed and the reform of the political class must follow. The Romanian society is highly mobile and globalized. This does not mean that the country has lost its human resources. The global dispersion of capable Romanians in various fields and geographical poles of cultural and economic might implies a maximization of human capital.
The livelihood and prospects of this urban electorate depend on a recently acquired mobility afforded through membership in the European Union and globalization more broadly. Cross-border mobility exerts a massive positive pull not just in alleviating socio-economic pressures in this impoverished region, but in creating the expectation that home institutions perform reliably and favorably. The electorate no longer depends on the central political elites to redistribute resources but instead seeks accountability for the large portion of the pie they contribute to through remittances, entrepreneurship and hard work.
It is up to able leaders to define how this maturing human and economic capital is recognized and leveraged upon. Moving away from localized, traditional agendas, their challenge is to reimagine identity and purpose within the region and the new Europe.