Romania constitutional court declares Iohannis president-elect

Written by on November 21, 2014 in Perspectives - Comments Off on Romania constitutional court declares Iohannis president-elect

Romania’s constitutional court validated on November 21 the outcome of the presidential elections in the country, officially naming Sibiu mayor Klaus Iohannis president-elect. The final results published by the country’s election authorities showed Iohannis winning 54.4 per cent in the run-off against prime minister Victor Ponta.

The court’s ruling starts a one-month transition period, with Iohannis due to take office in a ceremony scheduled for December 22.

Right place, right time
The slogan for Ponta’s failed presidential bid was “the president that unites” and he delivered on that promise – uniting enough people against himself to lose the election. He had hoped to tap again into the resentment against outgoing president Traian Basescu that brought his party a majority in parliament in 2012, but instead the voters saw the threat of social-democrats holding all the major state offices as the bigger threat.

Last time the social-democrats controlled the government and the presidency, in 2000 to 2004, the country made big strides towards joining the EU, but also saw corruption grow to endemic proportions as media were being silenced by a combination of threats and government handouts.

That resulted in the European Commission asking Bucharest to reform its judiciary and set up institutions targeting high-level corruption exclusively, as part of the judiciary oversight framework known as the cooperation and verification mechanism (CVM). Despite political resistance and attempts to de-fang institutions like the anti-corruption prosecution DNA, the system has work and dozens of officials in local and central government are under investigation.

The prospect that the social-democrats could undo all the progress made in recent years has motivated the high turnout that led to the stunning comeback by Klaus Iohannis in the presidential run-off, more so than the unpolished campaign run by his staff and his awkward performance in the two debates against Ponta in the week before the run-off.

Iohannis is a relative newcomer to big stage of Romanian politics, but he is not entirely unknown after having served as mayor of the town of Sibiu since 2000. Under the stewardship of the former physics teacher, the town has flourished, attracting foreign investment and having one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country.

Iohannis has won re-election by landslide three times and was briefly nominated as prime-minister in 2009, but Basescu declined to name him prime minister-designate. Four years later, the centre-right National-Liberals once again turned to Iohannis as a prime minister in waiting and he agreed to join the party, leaving the Democratic Forum of Germans in Romania, the small party representing the German ethnic minority in parliament, which he led for a decade.

The National-Liberals’ nomination of Iohannis as deputy prime minister in Ponta’s cabinet earlier this year served as the formal reason for the party to leave the ruling coalition with the social-democrats, although relations had already been tense for months. Following the party’s poor performance in the European Parliament elections in May, party leader Crin Antonescu stepped down, making way for Iohannis.

Given Iohannis’ reputation, he was seen as a shoo-in for the run-off, but Ponta’s 10-point lead in the first round put him firmly in the driving seat. Lacking Ponta’s well-oiled party machine and the government resources the prime minister generously handed out before the election, Iohannis instead staked his campaign on the message that he would do everything to keep the judiciary independent and able to go after high-level officials accused of corruption.

(Although the two centre-right parties backing Iohannis have their fair share of officials under investigation – and Iohannis himself has been declared incompatible for representing Sibiu city hall in shareholder meetings, a ruling he has successfully appealed against, with the high court due to hear the case next week – but nowhere near the numbers in Ponta’s social-democrat party.)

And yet, the promise to keep the wheels of justice turning and his dignified stance during the debates might have not been enough if Ponta’s government had not botched the organisation of the voting abroad. Thousands of people queued for hours to cast ballots in the first round and many were unable to, sparking outrage and demands to create more voting stations abroad, which the cabinet ignored.

Attempts by media aligned with the Ponta campaign to ignore or present the reports of poor organisation of elections as overblown further stoked the fires of discontent, which manifested in the highest turnout in a presidential election since 1996. That is not to say that Iohannis made no contribution to his own win, but it was the protest against the prospect of a Ponta presidency, rather than the efforts of Iohannis’ campaign, that drove the increased turnout.

Teodor Melescanu was the second foreign minister to resign in as many weeks over the organisation of presidential elections abroad. Photo: mae.ro

Teodor Melescanu was the second foreign minister to resign in as many weeks over the organisation of presidential elections abroad. Photo: mae.ro

Moving forward
To his credit, Iohannis appeared to have firmly grasped the message and wasted little time. In his first speech after partial results were announced on the morning of November 17, he asked the lower house of parliament to reject an amnesty bill – although ostensibly meant to reduce overcrowding in Romanian prisons, it was largely seen as an attempt to get several high-profile politicians now serving sentences out of jail, as well as thwart ongoing investigations.

A day later, the lower house put the bill on the agenda and voted to reject it, removing it from the legislative agenda – but, as some local observers noted in the aftermath, as long as the social-democrats continue to hold a majority in both chambers of parliament, there is nothing to stop a similar bill from being put forward again.

Iohannis’ other major demand, that parliament amend the electoral laws to allow voting by post, could be put on the agenda of parliamentary committees in the coming weeks, although the exact details of the amendments might take some time to negotiate.

The powers of Romania’s president are mainly in shaping foreign and defence policy, less so domestic matters – although the holder of the office does have some influence over the appointment of some senior magistrates – like government policies. Nevertheless, Iohannis has firmly set the sights of his National-Liberal party (which is set to merge with the Democrat-Liberal party that also backed Iohannis in the election, next year) on taking over government “in 2015 or, at the latest, 2016” when Romania is due to hold the next scheduled parliamentary elections.

For the time being, the distribution of seats in parliament makes the creation of a new centre-right government coalition very difficult, but time is clearly on the opposition’s side, as Ponta faces the twin challenges of fending off attacks on his position as party leader (still subdued for the most part and targeted more at his chief ally, party secretary-general and deputy prime minister Liviu Dragnea) and having to quickly draft the 2015 budget.

The cabinet will find it difficult to present a budget bill to include all of Ponta’s electoral promises without exceeding the deficit targets or raising taxes, which Ponta said he would not do. Either scenario – increased taxes or foregoing the promised made during the campaign – would further erode support for the social-democrats, which will further incite spirits within the party and demands for Ponta’s resignation as party leader. (The two previous social-democrat leaders who made a run at the presidency, Adrian Nastase in 2004 and Mircea Geoana in 2009, lost the party leadership within months of losing the presidential election.)

Iohannis will face his own challenge, meanwhile, to pursue a firm stance on the independence of the judiciary without appearing overly antagonistic like his predecessor at the presidency, Traian Basescu. When taking office, Basescu said he would be “the playing president” and his opposition won him public support initially, which evaporated once Basescu’s Democrat-Liberals (a party that he no longer supports) were in government and implemented austerity measures.

Iohannis, by comparison, has said that he would be “the free president”, implying that he would not be beholden to any vested interests. In that respect, his lack of deep ties to the National-Liberal party apparatus might come in handy, but it has also raised question marks about his ability to influence the party and keep it firmly on a course aligned to the policies he intends to pursue.

Romania’s post-communist era has had its fair share of false dawns: in 1996, the elation from centre-right parties winning the presidential and parliamentary elections proved short-lived, as the ruling coalition fell to infighting, and the optimism from the social-democrats’ defeat in 2004 eventually made way to disappointment as history repeated itself.

Iohannis will take office on the 25th anniversary of the day that Nicolae Ceausescu fled Bucharest in a helicopter in the middle of a full-blown revolution against his rule, effectively ending the communist regime in Romania. Iohannis’ victory has drawn a few comparisons to those events as some observers dubbed it “a revolution by voting”, but whether it brings long-lasting change or just another disappointment, only time will tell.

(Klaus Iohannis photo from pnl.ro)

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About the Author

Alex Bivol is the news editor of The Sofia Globe.