On November 24, 2019, Romania performed a rare feat in contemporary European elections. The incumbent, anti-corruption ethnic minority President Klaus Iohannis won 66% of the vote in a contest against the woman who had been, until October, the Prime Minister and the formal leader of the most powerful party in post-communist Romania, the Social Democrats (PSD). The election was unprecedented for the huge number of Romanians from Spain, Italy, France, and other EU member states who cast over 940,000 votes, over 10% of the total vote. 94% of those voters selected Iohannis. It was also a resolute vote against corruption and populism in politics. It is a remarkable moment in a period of general uncertainty and shift towards illiberalism from Great Britain to Poland, and it’s worth pausing to consider what it means both for Romania and more broadly in Europe.
Romania was one of the post-communist countries to join the neoliberal bandwagon slower than the Visegrad group and made it to EU membership just when the 2008 global crisis was about to break. For over a decade after the end of the brutal Nicolae Ceausescu dictatorship, old communist apparatchiks together with their family and friends gave rise to the PSD and developed both a national infrastructure as well as deep connections in most local government appointments. Overall, for a long period after 1989 this party managed to retain control over much of the reform process and its implementation. Just as before 1989, personal connections, rather than ideological alignments and actual political programs, played a big role in how political organizations functioned and how the economic rewards were divvied up.
There were early attempts to restore “historic” parties, such as the National Peasant Party or the National Liberal Party. Both of these groups had prominent elderly leaders who had spent years in the communist jails or had been exiled, and whose return to the public scene may have represented a symbolic return to morality and to the values of democracy. Except that wasn’t the case. These leaders were themselves convenient fronts for what was happening inside the parties, which was a race to compete with the heirs of the communist leadership, the PSD, for capital and other resources. In essence, the political landscape had a front that looked healthy and divided along several recognizable European ideological lanes — Liberal, Socialist, Christian Democrat, Nationalist, and Peasantist. But behind this façade, a different game of dealing and stealing was in full swing.
Unlike Czechoslovakia, where people recognized Vaclav Havel as a unique and irreplaceable resource for establishing the credibility of the country among European states and international investors, Romania kicked Ion Ratiu (1917-2000) to the curb in the first Presidential elections after 1989. A man of remarkable integrity in the Romanian political landscape already before World War II, Ratiu resigned from his government position in 1940, when the legionary fascist regime came to power. He sought asylum in the U.K. and remained there until 1990, doing assiduous work on behalf of the Romanian diaspora and trying to keep the flame of democracy alive in exile. He returned to Romania soon after the Revolution and went all in to restore the National Peasant Party. He ran for President on that ticket and lost.
It took two more presidents for Romania to turn to someone whose integrity comes close to that of Ratiu. Ion Iliescu, an old communist apparatchik, had won the first two presidential elections, keeping Romania firmly on the path of slow reform and transformation of the old communist party into a “respectable” European organization that could participate alongside other social democratic parties in EU politics. He was followed by another member of the old guard, an officer of the Marines and, it was recently uncovered, also an informant for the communist secret police, Traian Basescu. A colorful figure of enormous ambition, Basescu painted himself as different from the communists and PSD and oversaw the steps Romania needed to take to become a NATO (2004) and then EU (2007) member. Except that Basescu himself became embroiled in a massive corruption scandal around the same time that Romania joined the EU and was impeached. A national referendum held soon thereafter saved him, but only because of the successful EU accession and dislike for the alternative.
Enter Klaus Iohannis (b. 1959). In a country where ethnonationalism is a mainstream sentiment and ethnic Romanians represent 90% or the population, with the rest divided among Hungarians (6.6%), Roma (2.5%), and then a large variety of other groups, each counting for less than 1%, the election of a candidate who is not ethnically Romanian seems surprising. But between the early 1990s and 2014 some important things happened with the electorate. The number of people, especially young ones, who decided to try their luck at greener pastures by migrating to various parts of the EU skyrocketed. Today it is estimated that over 3 million Romanian citizens (out of 19.3 million) live overseas, many of them holders of a Romanian passport and with deep roots in the communities they left behind. This migration includes both highly educated and barely literate persons, many contributing substantial resources to their communities back home through investments (especially in real estate), as well as by returning there and participating in those communities through new lens. They think of citizenship rights and obligations differently. They tend to be interested in EU politics. They understand the importance of the rule of law in fighting corruption and hold those committed to this cause in great respect. They also see the deficiencies of the Romanian administration at the local level less as a given fact and more as a problem that needs to be eliminated through reform and political action.
The person who came to embody the hopes for such reform in the 2014 elections was Klaus Iohannis. A physics high school teacher who later became the mayor of Sibiu (2000), Iohannis gravitated slowly towards the National Liberal Party as the closest platform for his presidential bid, having originally been part and eventually leader of the small Democratic Forum of Germans in Romania. Iohannis speaks Romanian with the accent of a non-native speaker. But he is married to an ethnic Romanian. And he chose to stay in Sibiu when most of his family migrated to Germany at the beginning of the 1990s. In 2014, I did not believe Iohannis could win the elections, given his ethnic background in the context of the level of nationalist bias in Romania. But the overwhelmingly positive Romanian stereotypes about the ethnic German minority living there (hard working, correct, punctual) greatly helped Iohannis, as did his splendid work as mayor. During his mandate in Sibiu, the city turned from a gross industrial center into a flourishing touristic attraction. From education to hospitals, from street cleanliness to public transportation and easements for public cultural events, Iohannis did well by his constituency. And Sibiu is one of the most frequently visited cities in Romania. Romanian tourists travelling there came to understand what is possible to achieve in their own cities, if only someone with his integrity and approach to governance could be put in charge. That was the reputation he was able to solidify over the three mayoral mandates he won with overwhelming support from the ethnic Romanian majority there (89% in 2004 and 88% in 2008).
In 2014, the electoral offers in the presidential elections were dire. The field was wide, with fourteen candidates competing initially. Many of them were individuals well known and connected to various corruption allegations. The strongest candidate in the initial round was PSD leader Victor Ponta, who at that time stood accused of plagiarizing his PhD thesis (an allegation that has been confirmed with his degree rescinded) and of a number of other forms of corrupt behavior. Iohannis, to many people’s surprise, came in second. In the second round between these two, Iohannis went from 30% of the vote to 54.5% of the vote. It was a spectacular victory. More than anything, it was a vote against the PSD and corruption. It expressed hope in the possibility that someone who made Sibiu great again could extend that vision to the whole of Romania. And the people who lived outside of Romania voted en masse for Iohannis.
Fast forward to 2019. Much has happened in the intervening 5 years. Some of Romania’s post-socialist neighbors have seen a polarization of the political landscape and a turn towards illiberalism, most evident in Hungary and Poland. All that happened through electoral processes and a series of behind the scenes capture of economic and media resources by the illiberal parties on the rise. In Romania, those corrupt practices were what had kept the PSD in power for over two decades. What we see since then is a slow unravelling of that behind the scenes process through the spectacular work of anti-corruption special prosecutor Laura Codruta Kovesi. She was appointed by Ponta in 2013 and soon gained greater visibility after the US Embassy awarded her the “Woman of courage award” in 2014 for her anti-corruption efforts. With the very visible and enthusiastic endorsement of the US government through this award, Kovesi was initially protected from the internal mudslinging between the PSD and the liberals. Once Iohannis won the presidency, he voiced his full support for this independent anti-corruption office. For a while, Kovesi managed to do her job with outstanding results, winning her office the highest rate of public trust (60%) of all government institutions in Romania.
But Kovesi’s actions soon reached into areas of political corruption that rendered her a danger to several parties, most prominently the PSD. That party was in control of Parliament in 2018 and decided to propose her dismissal on the basis of 20 counts of alleged criminal behavior. The US Embassy protested, Iohannis opposed this move, and the issue was eventually brought before the Constitutional Court, which agreed with the PSD and forced Iohannis to sign her dismissal. Since then, Kovesi has found new wind in her sails with her appointment as the special EU anti-corruption prosecutor, which the PSD resisted dearly, both as a personal slap in their face and also likely out of fear for what her activities in Brussels, now fully protected from any vengeful personal attacks by the Romanian corrupt system, might bode for corrupt government and business practices in the country.
Iohannis has lost some of his luster in this process. Many had hoped he would stand up to the PSD and defy the Constitutional Court’s decision. But he refused to, seeing such a move as antithetical to upholding the rule of law. He has also been visibly less effective in standing up to the PSD on other matters, such as the investigation into the police abuses that happened on 10 August 2018, during an enormous rally organized by the Romanian diaspora in Bucharest. Romanians living primarily in the EU and Canada organized an anti-corruption rally that brought together tens of thousands of Romanians in the streets and eventually saw a violent reaction on the part of law enforcement. Though peaceful overall, some violent scuffles took place, some of them being blamed on the PSD as inciters. This provided an opening for the police to use water cannons, tear gas, and other violent methods to disperse the protesters. Videos of these encounters went viral the next day, and Iohannis called for an independent investigation. A year later, we still don’t know exactly what happened.
In the first round of presidential elections that took place on November 10, 2019, Iohannis competed against the recently ousted PSD Prime Minister, Viorica Dancila, as well as 12 other candidates. Many of these individuals represent new political formations of various populist stripes (mostly right leaning), together with PLUS and USR, a new center-right liberal alternative alliance that had performed extremely well in the May 2019 EU elections, the first in which they competed. In that contest, the PLUS/USR ticket won nearly the same percentage of votes as the PSD. The PLUS/USR candidate, Dan Barna, represents the professional middle class with wide international experience and connections that many among the 3 million diaspora Romanians recognize as their own. Romanians voting overseas showed a higher level of participation than in the past, and than inside Romania, and overwhelmingly selected Iohannis with 53%. Barna came in second with 27%, a percentage slightly higher than that won by PLUS in the EU elections just five months before. Barna, in my view, energized the diaspora constituencies.
But in the first round the presidential vote was overall less decisively in favor of Iohannis. He won 38% of the vote, with Dancila in second place at 22%. Barna got 15% of the vote, with an independent candidate, Mircea Diaconu, as fourth at nearly 9%. In short, the diaspora vote substantially helped both Barna and Iohannis. Dancila received less than 3% of the diaspora vote, so her base was primarily in Romania. In fact, the Social Democrats have become a regional party of Southern Romania, winning a substantial plurality of more than 5 points in only 7 of Romania’s 41 counties, 6 of them in Southern Romania. In the second round, Dancila won only 5 of those 6 counties, and only 3 by more than 3 points.
In the second round, which took place over the 22-24 November weekend, Romanians in the diaspora voted over three days. Over 940,000 people participated, which counted for more than 10% of the total votes cast, as their rate of participation was substantially higher than the nearly 50% voting rate in Romania. The participation of so many Romanians at voting stations in Great Britain, Spain, France, and other European states was big news in Romania proper. Images of young and old waiting patiently to cast their vote became a topic of discussion all over social media, with many voters taking pride in this action and also sending messages to their fellow citizens in Romania proper to follow their lead and cast their votes in this important election. The commentaries were overwhelmingly critical of PSD and identified the election as a vote on continuing the anti-corruption fight.
After his strong showing in the first round, Iohannis’ re-election was not a surprise. It came primarily as a relief to many people, since most Romanian citizens have come to hate the PSD. The diaspora voted 94% for Iohannis and brought his victory from safe (56%) to a clear mandate (66%). In the second round Dancila got 6% of the diaspora vote and a total of nearly 34%. This new type of electoral power that migrants hold is a phenomenon; political parties and policy makers will need to respond to with increasing attention. It is part of the brand new world of EU unity and globalization of labor. From a broader European perspective, this election shows Romania to be better able to stave off the populist wave sweeping through the continent. Just a few years ago, the level of ultra-nationalism in Romania was worrisome to many observers. Today, preference for more moderate politicians makes this country stand out in the region. And re-electing a president who is both an ethnic minority, who also has spoken out on his commitment to fight corruption. while not engaging in corrupt practices to enrich himself makes Romania stand out even more in the region. The challenges for the liberals, moving ahead, will be to resume the anti-corruption fight interrupted a year ago, using Kovesi as an asset rather than competitor on that account.