November 17, 2014 8 Comments
The election of Klaus Iohannis, the mayor of Sibiu as president of Romania has been remarkable for a number of reasons. Not only did he lag behind in the first round of elections by 10 percent (30.37 to 40.44%) to Victor Ponta, the prime minister, but also few of the opinion polls expect his victory that turned out to be fairly decisive (for official results see here) after a close run at first, leading 10 percent over Ponta. However, it is less the election arithmetics that are striking as background of the victorious candidate and the type of politics of his opponent.
Klaus Iohannis (or Johannis to use the German spelling of his last name), is a member of the tiny German minority of Romania. He has been mayor of Sibiu for 14 years as a candidate of the German minority organisation, the Democratic Forum of Germans in Romania. The fact that he won the election in 2000 and subsequently with a large majority, desping Germans constituting only a small minority in Sibiu (less than 2%) suggest a broad appeal transcending classic minority politics. His victory at the national level, now as candidate (and president) of the conservative PNL confirms this. The switch from minority to main stream political parties is difficult in most European countries and the election as president as a member of a minority is quiet extrodinary. Several media attacked Iohannis for his minority background and in particular to him not being a member of the Orthodox church and Ponta himself made use of this theme in a convoluted comment“It’s nothing bad about Mr Iohannis being a German ethnic, but no one can accuse me of being a Romanian ethnic. We live in Romania after all and I am proud to be Romanian. The same about religion. It’s nothing bad about Mr Iohannis being a neo-protestant, but no one can reproach me with being an Orthodox”. Considering the close link of religion and national identity makes the victory of Iohannis more important. In a region where minorities have been included in parliaments and in governments, but the distinction between minority and majority has remainded salient, his victory is important. While Macedonia had a Methodist president, Boris Trajkovski, he was still clearly identified with the Macedonian majority and Slovakia had Rudolf Schuster as president (1999-2004), who is of German and Hungarian background, but this was not a feature of his political career and he was not a minority representative, but rather a former Communist who had joined the democratic opposition in 1989. The victory of Iohannis highlights the potention of minority politician become national politicians and that starting a career representing a minority does not preclude a broader appeal, in fact without it, Iohannis would have never been able to represent the German minority effectively. A caveat is in place here, the fact that Iohannis hails from the small German minority, associated with Germany and thus the EU and ‘the West’ makes him more able to transcend the majority-minority divide than if he had been a member of the much large Hungarian minority or a socially stigmatized group, such as the Roma.
The second level at which the victory of Iohannis is striking is in the defeat of Victor Ponta. In recent years, Ponta has been on the way to emulate the emerging pattern of soft semi-authoritarian rule in Central and Southeastern Europe, as Hungary under Viktor Orban, Macedonia under Nikola Gruevski, Milorad Dodik in the RS in Bosnia, Milo Djukanovic in Montenegro and recently also Aleksandar Vučić in Serbia. A combination of populism and clientalism has been able to combine control using undemocratic practicies with EU membership (or integration). These elections demonstrate that it them that are the archiles heel of these regimes. While they can manipulate and use state resources to their advantage, they still have to win on election day. A strong social media campaign and highly motivated Romanian voters abroad helped to undermine these practices. Of course, Ponta remains in office as Prime Minister, but complete control over politics in Romania remains elusive for him (unlike Orban). After Dodik suffered an important setback in Bosnian elections last months, it shows that these regimes might have been enduring, but also are weak.
The victory of Iohannis might thus have a demonstration effect on other countries in the region. While some observers have warned of excessive optimism, in particular in terms of addressing the economic and social ills of society, it does send two clear messages to neighboring countries: First, a member of a minority can become a president and soft semi-authoritarian regimes can be broken, through elections.