Klaus Iohannis, Romania’s new president-elect, viewed from abroad

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A victory for Iohannis, a step forward for democracy and minority rights in Romania: Klaus Iohannis viewed from abroad

by  Claudia Moscovici

I have not seen the Romanian public so enthusiastic and optimistic about a political event since the anti-Communist revolution of 1989. On November 16, 2014 the Romanian center-right candidate, Klaus Iohannis, an ethnic German, won the presidential election. His victory over Victor Ponta came as a welcome surprise for many Romanian voters. Ponta was ahead during most of the presidential campaign and had won the first round, on the November 2nd election. Many Romanians view Iohannis’ victory as a step forward for democracy. What are some of the factors that led to Iohannis’ unexpected victory and how is it perceived by the press abroad?

Reuters recently briefly covered the Romanian election with some ambivalence. In an article published on November 16, Matthias Williams claims, “Analysts had said that victory for Ponta might have helped make Romania a more stable nation, with the main levers of power held by one bloc. By contrast, Iohannis’ win could trigger renewed political tensions in one of Europe’s poorest states.” Despite these misgivings, in next sentence the author expresses the other side of the coin, which coincides with what I’ve been reading in the Romanian press: namely, that Romanians had grown increasingly critical of the Ponta regime and were ready for a change: “Thousands of people took to the streets of Bucharest to voice their anger at Ponta’s government on Sunday night and demand his resignation.” Williams brings up one of the main issues at stake, which is the country’s growing disenchantment with political corruption: “Growth rebounded to more than 3 percent in the third quarter of 2014, but corruption and tax evasion are rife, and progress to implement reforms and overhaul a bloated state sector is mixed.” (see http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/11/16/romania-election-idUSL6N0T608D20141116)

Young voters, the educated elite and Romanian citizens abroad (the diaspora) voted, overwhelmingly, in favor of Klaus Iohannis. Romanians would like to build a country with less political corruption, more transparency in the government, a thriving economy and a more democratic voting process in the country and especially for Romanians living abroad. In fact, the difficulties in voting for oversea Romanian citizens, which got international media coverage, drew widespread sympathy for Iohannis, both within and outside Romania. “Overseas voters, “ Williams notes, “played a key role in swinging the vote at the last presidential election in 2009. Romania’s large and growing diaspora is widely seen as anti-Ponta, and many voiced their anger when long queues and bureaucratic hurdles prevented them from voting in the first round. The uproar triggered the foreign minister’s resignation, sparked protests in cities across Romania and may have helped galvanize the anti-Ponta vote.” In Paris and Munich people lined up for hours on end, waiting for the opportunity to vote. In Munich, some people showed the cameras their toothbrushes, to indicate they’d be willing to spend the night there if that’s what it took.

For many Romanians, Klaus Iohannis represents a change for the better. Although much of his political platform remains to be seen, in the eyes of his supporters he stands for political accessibility, honesty and good character. A former physics teacher and current mayor (of Sibiu) of German origin, Iohannis also represents a victory for ethnic Romanians. Ethnic Germans living in Romania were brought into the international limelight a few years ago, when novelist Herta Müller won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2009. Despite the fact that ethnic Germans have been living in Romania for hundreds of years, they still face some prejudice and obstacles. In fact, As Alison Mutler points out in The Associated Press article of November 17, Victor Ponta tried to play the nationalist card by depicting Iohannis as a cultural outsider. This strategy backfired. Mutler notes, “His win was also the failure of the nationalist card played by Ponta, who mocked his rival’s minority German ethnicity and the fact that he is a Lutheran and not a member of the powerful Orthodox Church.” Iohannis supporters, The Economist reports on November 17th, 2014, “greeted the mayor of Sibiu with cries of ‘Danke Schön’. He will become the first member of an ethnic minority, and the first non-Orthodox Christian, to serve as president in Romania’s post-communist history.” (see http://www.economist.com/blogs/easternapproaches/2014/11/romanias-elections-0?fsrc=scn/tw/te/bl/ed/Transylvaniansurprise)

This unprecedented win represents not only a victory for democracy in Romania, but also a step forward for ethnic minorities. Ethnic Germans, or Rumaniendeutsche, were numerous in the country before the end of WWII, numbering almost eight hundred thousand. Most of them immigrated to Germany (or were evicted from the country) shortly after WWII, when Romania became Communist. By 2011, their numbers fell to less than 40,000. A second wave, over 100,000 ethnic Germans, immigrated to Germany following the anti-Communist revolution of 1989. Although still perceived as “foreigners” by some native Romanians, ethnic Germans have lived in Romania—mostly in the region Transylvania—for centuries. The majority belong to the ‘Saxons’, who are descendants of Germans who settled in Transylvania during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Iohannis, who states that his family has lived in Romania for over 700 years, is most likely a descendent of this ethnic group. The second group, the Swabians, are descended from Southern Germans who settled in the Banat region during the eighteenth-century. The third group, the “Lander” Germans, came to Northern Transylvania during the eighteenth century. While ethnic minorities may still face some prejudice in Romania, the country has made great strides over the past ten years in representing ethnic minorities.

“Conditions for minorities in Romania today have been significantly improved through reforms pushed through in the run-up to the country’s accession to the EU. An accession treaty signed in early 2005 resulted in Romania’s full membership in 2007. … Minorities are currently represented in both chambers of parliament.” (for more information on Minorities in Romania, see Minority Rights, (http://www.minorityrights.org/3521/romania/romania-overview.html).

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Romanians have a lot of hope for the country under the new government. They hope for a healthier economy and more job opportunities. They would like to see the continuing integration of Romania into the European community, less political corruption, and a more democratic—and easier–process of voting, especially for the diaspora. Iohannis has expressed his commitment to fulfilling these hopes, so the country has reason for optimism. He has also shown his accessibility to the public—and graciousness–during a recent book signing of his autobiography, Pas cu Pas (Step by Step), published by Curtea Veche Publishing, where he spent hours with fans, signing over 3000 autographs. This presidency wouldn’t be the first time a member of a minority group has paved the way for the majority. After all, as Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Almost always, the creative dedicated minority has made the world better.”

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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