First round of Romanian Presidential Elections took place Sunday, November 2nd with 14 candidates vying for the votes of over 18.3 million electors formally residing in the country as well as a truly sizable yet unknown number of citizens living abroad.
The run-off round with the top two candidates will be held on November 16th seeing Current Prime Minister Victor-Viorel Ponta, who scored a comfortable lead, run against trailing opposition contender Klaus Werner Iohannis. The first round tally might be deceptive with questions lingering about how the electorates of the 12 other candidates would align in the second round. Another decisive factor in this projected close race is the vote of the diaspora.
Protests ignited Sunday in front of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Bucharest where friends of the diaspora decried the conduct of Romanian consulates in various European cities. Consulates had been charged with organizing polling stations abroad yet strangely failed to secure sufficient voting ballot forms. Similar questionable administrative deficiencies occurred even in the capital, Bucharest. Social media ignited, recording interminable lines of voters standing in the cold outside Romanian consulates in Munich, Berlin, Vienna, Stockholm, Brussels, Torino, Bologna, Valencia and Dublin. This was also the case in Chisinau where a sizable chunk of the population not only speaks Romanian but carries dual citizenship. Protests resulted in Romania’s London and Paris consulates requiring police assistance after the voting masses turned restless outside electoral stations at closing time.
Despite apparent vote rigging attempts, a decade since it joined NATO and 7 since its EU accession, Romania’s presidential elections are a bid for an unlikely and potentially surprising narrative of democratic consolidation. These elections will recalibrate the political spectrum in a challenging regional security environment where rampant high-level corruption is seen as undermining state security and liberal democratic consolidation.
The Goliath candidate
Favored candidate Prime Minister Ponta is the relatively young president of the Social Democratic Party (PSD). This party, dominant during much of the post-communist transition period is a grouping best viewed as an entrenched conservative elite enriched through sweetheart deals with the state. They were reluctant reformers by default under EU and NATO accession pressures and in the absence of a coherent opposition.
Highly pragmatic, PSD remains the most capable grouping to implement reforms if allowed to reposition itself as a centrist party. PSD thrives on a dejected electorate alienated by the iron first austerity package that incumbent President Traian Basescu’s reformist group enacted while in government at the height of the recession. To what extent PSD’s bureaucratic control of the levers of power and moderate centrist position rubs off on Ponta as presidential candidate remains to be decided in this second presidential round.
Western capitals are closely monitoring behavior. In neighboring Hungary, in a move to warn Viktor Orbán’s government to the dangers of continuing policies that undermine democratic values, and hinting at the type of measures applied to democracy challengers within Russia, Washington instituted on October 20th travel ban restrictions on Hungarian officials. This precedent on the grounds of corruption hurting security interests within the NATO alliance is telling. The logic of Viktor Orbán’s maneuvers towards an “illiberal state” in Hungary approximating Russian, Chinese and Turkish models would badly suit Victor Ponta’s government for which isolation spells political suicide. Behavior during the first round of elections is primarily a response to calculations made after recent visits by MP Ponta in the diaspora where he was repeatedly booed.
Character weaknesses aside, Ponta sidelined moderates within PSD opting for an antagonistic relation versus the pro-reformist President Basescu’s faction and towards anti-corruption focused civil society political groups. Having alienated other options cultivated by his moderate PSD predecessor Mircea Geoana, Ponta can neither pragmatically employ populist nationalist rhetoric whilst his coalition government employs the backing of the Hungarian minority party. The popular anti-Basescu rhetoric which allowed Ponta’s ascent is inefficient in these elections as the president is no longer a contender and the candidate of his reformist faction is not Ponta’s main opponent.
Challenging Ponta’s presidential bid is his susceptibility to character attacks which include allegations of plagiarisms in his doctoral thesis and most recently a scandal in which President Basescu insinuates that Ponta’s political ascendance had been boosted by his service as a secret agent, something undeclared which implies incompatibility with public office.
Ponta is seen as the protégé of former PSD leader and former Prime Minister Adrian Nastase, who had been indicted in several corruption cases and has served a prison sentence after being convicted of corruption in 2012. Ponta has done little to distance himself from Nastase and other alleged affiliations with individuals whose names deck the lists of high-profile corruption investigation cases. Ponta’s potentially obstructing role as president in future anti-corruption proceedings completes a strikingly non- reconciliatory profile for a PSD candidate. The party had usually pragmatically banked on an electorate which traditionally votes for paternalistic moderate figures that best relay an image of stability.
The slingshot candidate
The most exciting dark horse top presidential candidate favored for the second round is the incumbent Mayor of Sibiu, Klaus Werner Iohannis who rose to prominence mainly as an independent via the electorally insignificant ethnic minority party of the Democratic Forum of Germans in Romania, a provincial grouping. Only in 2013 did he accept membership as vice-president in the mainstream National Liberal Party (PNL).
A German-speaking Saxon in the ethnically diverse tinderbox province of Transylvania and a member of a minor Lutheran church in a Christian Orthodox dominant nation, this provincial physics teacher brought about the most improbable political ascent in post-communist Romania. His repeated mayoral landslide victories in the last decade showcased the limits of nationalist discourse and the ability of a discerning electorate to judge based on consistency in governing performance.
Iohannis succeeded to turn Sibiu into an investment hub and a top tourist destination. Toping this was a successful bid to turn Sibiu into the European Capital of Culture in 2007. In 2009 all parliamentary groups except President Basescu’s Democrat Liberal Party (PDL) proposed Iohannis as Prime Minister Nominee, forcing the president’s refusal and subsequent unsuccessful attempts to nominate alternative candidates. Cast into Romania’s political maelstrom as the consensus unity government candidate, Iohannis succeeded to remain dethatched and preserve his steadfast incorruptible image.
Prospects for an anti-corruption reformist coalition
Repeating missteps familiar from the 1990’s and the history of botched experiments in civil society coalition building, the various reformist camp political groups and civil society players have been positioning themselves in this election with independent candidates. This so far served to detract from Iohannis’ potential electoral base in the first round, undermining his chances and theirs in defeating Ponta.
One such civil society independent candidate is the former justice minister Monica Macovei, currently a Member of the European Parliament. Her sustained efforts consolidated the independence of the National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA), an institution which had produced commendable progress in investigating and prosecuting large scale corruption cases, often involving high level officials.
Macovei, like Basescu remain defined as polarizing reformist figures not coalition builders. Presidential candidate Elena Udrea, the leader of the People's Movement Party (PMP) backed by Basescu often undermines Macovei, a self-defeating strategy when both seek Ponta’s removal from the race and eventually from government. If Macovei’s true drive is to consolidate the cause of anti-corruption she would best serve it by backing Iohannis for President and alternatively as Prime Minister joining a coalition that would protect DNA from political pressures. This coalition would benefit from reconciliation between the PNL and PMP, but having in mind the recent betrayal history this is the most difficult bridge to cross.
Other current independent presidential candidates would be more pliable towards a PNL-led coalition under Iohannis. The ethnic Hungarian minority party currently in Ponta’s government has a long tradition of landing in governing coalitions that maximize the interests of its core electorate. It should have no qualms about supporting a PNL-led coalition under a Transylvanian Saxon minority leader.
Prime Minister Ponta’s government whose term ends in 2016 would be vulnerable inside PSD if presidential elections are lost and many elastic politicians could see the benefits of distancing themselves from this PSD leader.
Governance stability prospects for a rising Euro-Atlantic ally
No matter which of the two accede to the presidency the country will remain stable and despite warranted fears it is unlikely to reverse commendable progress in the institutional consolidation of its independent justice system. This is precisely because the entire Romanian political elite stands to lose if isolated militarily and economically in a volatile neighborhood where the territorial sovereignty of states is still being challenged.
Romania, unable to independently defend even its sovereign airspace, bordering Ukraine in crisis as well as sister nation Moldova pregnant with the 14th Russian army permanently stationed in its separatist region of Transnistria, does not have the luxury of allowing itself an authoritarian illiberal streak in leadership for fear of isolation. With constant Russian efforts at enforcing an antagonistic security paradigm, with Turkey in a perennial identity self-search within the security alliance, Romania is rising as a needed stability outpost for Washington and EU capitals and centrists elites stand to win if at the helm of a democratic consolidation in this hotspot.
Picking-up the Euro-Atlantic mantle of outgoing president Basescu is not a straightforward task. Romanian foreign diplomatic efforts, while not as incisive or antagonistic as Poland’s, have warned EU and NATO allies against their wavering responses to Putin’s attempts in testing their resoluteness. Basescu articulated early on the dangers of Russian tactical moves in limiting Europe’s gas and oil supply options and became a voice for Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic integration. His administration signed in 2005 the accord allowing the installation of US military bases on Romania’s Black Sea coastline and consistently followed through contributing military deployments to all NATO allied missions. Outgoing President Basescu, and governments led by his political faction built credibility steering the country through one of the worst recessions and enacting iron fist austerity measures with obvious self-flagellating electoral results.
Basescu’s presidency was marked by political polarization but he reshaped nationalism discourse historically centered on fears concerning Transylvania. He did so focusing on foreign support for the eventual integration of neighboring Moldova and its Romanian speaking population in a common European home. This focus shift saw a marked departure from the perennial use of populist nationalist discourse characteristic of week administrations facing economic challenges. This is not a minor feat, flaming nationalists feelings with regards to Transylvania has been the favorite tool of governance and a reflex for all pragmatic politicians irrespective of ideology. It would be a difficult task for Ponta to credibly fill the position of his rival Basescu, even if that rivalry has consumed its logic.
Iohannis’ election would afford the entire Romanian political class a rare legitimate narrative of a democratic country firmly rooted in a culture of tolerance towards minorities and one seeking to define itself as a liberal democracy. His conciliatory position would allow a depolarization of the political spectrum and the formation of a solid governing coalition. If elected Ponta would prolong the polarization of the political spectrum with the PSD-led governing coalition likely to lose steam and forcing the alignment of current reformists into an anti-PSD coalition. Iohannis would become the likely contender as Prime Minister of a coalition, something most parties would agree to. Presuming Ponta’s weakness inside the PSD should he lose, the party may shift back to the center making it a potential stability factor.
Nuances of opportunity in either electoral outcome
These contrasting moderate vs. radical, conciliatory vs. polarizing profiles of the top candidates should not be read as a black or white outcome in terms of the country’s democratic consolidation but as a reading into expectations of qualitatively different parameters of what is achievable.
Romania will remain a stable European democracy with a representative multiparty political system if either Ponta or Johannis become President. Just as there are doubts about Ponta’s allegedly obstructionist potential there are doubts about the efficiency of an uncomfortable coalition of coalitions forming among the various vociferous pro-reformers. There is an interesting distinct possibility that PSD as a party would revert to a more moderate centrist leadership and become a coalition builder with or without Ponta’s election as president. Many high-ranking PSD party members have worked hard over these decades to obtain western recognition and integrate the country in transatlantic security structures, to ensure the country’s stability and their own relevance as the default moderate elite. It is uncharacteristic for PSD to permit a Ponta presidency that could alienate western capitals. Even if elected Ponta would have to shift into a difficult but necessary reconciling moderate role.
Either outcome should not detract from the rise to this kind of prominence of a consensus-building, German-speaking ethnic minority presidential candidate in a Central European Country. Students of nationalism and East-Central European history ought to take note, as should neighboring countries playing with the dangerous flame of nationalism.
Romania, despite resting on weak state institutions, has so far defied predictions of disintegration along ethnic lines. Instead, it is offering a narrative of bridging perceived fault-lines in European civilizational tectonics. A decade after joining NATO, it is firmly implanting itself as a reliable security ally and, irrespective of the final electoral tally, the country will continue to consolidate state institutions with EU and US support. Indeed, a remarkably resilient alternative liberal model for the Wider Black Sea region.