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Romania celebrates ‘vote of blind faith’ election victory


Bucharest, 16 November: Romanians demand the Prime Minister's resignation beneath a photo of his political opponent, Klaus Iohannis. © Casa Jurnalistului

After a full day’s voting, on Sunday 16 November, a ‘Yes we can!’ feeling swept through Romania, taking over social media and reaching all the way to people still queuing outside Romanian embassies throughout Europe, hoping to vote.

Their enthusiasm is understandable. After two weeks of protests amid concerns that the current prime minister, Social-Democrat Victor Ponta, would be elected president, their fears were assuaged.

A little after nine in the evening, it became clear that Klaus Iohannis, a Liberal-Democrat and the mayor of a provincial Transylvanian town, had won, with 54.5 per cent of the vote compared to Ponta’s 45.49 per cent,

These have been the most fiercely contested elections Romania has seen in a long time, with voters’ anger ignited by the voting conditions in the Romanian diaspora.

Never a traditional support base for the Social-Democrats, Romanians abroad were prevented from voting in both election rounds by a stalled voting process and legal debates mired in newspeak and accusations of blame (two foreign ministers have already resigned over the debacle).

Fuelled by social media networks, in the course of the two weeks between the first and second round of elections, public opinion coalesced against the prime minister.

Most of all however, people rallied against the idea that the country was simply up for grabs by the followers of the old communist regime.

In a classic, ironic case of leaders toppling due to self-made enemies, Ponta recast himself as the enemy of most Romanians abroad, increasing their determination to vote in the second round.

In some cases, people queued for more than 11 hours, standing in the cold and rain, waiting for what should have been a matter of routine, a basic democratic tenet – the right to vote. In total, almost 400,000 Romanians voted abroad.

Back home, with a turnout of 62 per cent, Romanians flocked to polling stations, propelled by their friends and family abroad as much as by a sense of urgency and fear. Theirs was a self-defence vote cast out of dread rather than support, something of which the president-elect is very aware.

Klaus Iohannis did not win on his own merit. At 55, more elegant and soft-spoken than the brash Victor Ponta, he is still perceived as a weaker candidate, with relatively little experience in the big political arena.

Still, he has been quick to acknowledge that he understands the message Romanians have sent him: that this is a vote of blind faith, a choice of the ‘lesser evil’ and for some, a hope that the old system can finally be done away with.

Almost 10,000 people protested in Cluj, Transylavania, against Prime Minister Victor Ponta. Daniel Tapuleasa

On the other hand, at 42 and as one of the youngest European prime ministers, Victor Ponta is the darling of European Social-Democrats. His campaign relied heavily on honing this Western-leader image. Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, also a Social-Democrat, even went on Romanian television to give Ponta his support.

Many Romanians, however, associate his image less with European leaders and more with local moguls and party leaders sponging off the state’s resources, whose names are constantly popping up in numerous corruption trials.

His particular brand of ‘shadow politics’ is less than appealing to an increasingly young electorate which is becoming more politically astute and less willing to accept leaders with seemingly unbreakable ties with corrupt politicians, all eager to see a ‘friend’ in the top seat of the country.

And yet Ponta has a stable support base of traditional voters. A more seasoned politician, he was at a clear advantage during the elections and could easily have slid into the president’s seat, had he stuck to a clean campaign against a relatively unknown adversary.

His fate was sealed by the ire he triggered in an otherwise latent, young electorate, by dragging his feet on the diaspora vote issue and refusing to acknowledge the corruption plaguing his party.

On election night, people across the country protested against Ponta, with 10,000 gathered in front of the government building in the capital Bucharest, all demanding his resignation.

Throughout the day, news of voting fraud taking place in the south of the country had filtered through social media, while footage of mile-long queues abroad had already aired in prime time.

When the exit polls started predicting Iohannis as the winner, the protests turned into a street celebration.

That is perhaps the best outcome of the elections: not the fact that Iohannis has won, but that Romanians have found a common idea to rally around, one heartfelt enough to draw them out of their houses and into the streets in their thousands.

They wish for a different Romania, where the ‘smart guys’ don’t always win, where politics is about more than personal gain and where leaders are held accountable for their actions (or lack thereof). Most of all, a Romania which allows them a future.

Now, in the first post-election week, it’s more important than ever not to forget that. Iohannis might have polled better than Mr Ponta, but he, too, is surrounded by ‘faithful’ party cronies, who should be shown the door as soon as possible.

Any hope in Iohannis’ integrity or political astuteness is misplaced. Instead, what is needed is increased awareness of the political games being played out in Parliament, now facing a weakened Socialist majority and a slowly crumbling coalition.

More significantly, Romanians should realize that this was not Iohannis’ win, but their own. If they want to set the country on a better trajectory, they should not forget that.

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