Romania gets a German president

First Slovakia, now Romania. For the second time this year, a centre-left prime minister in central Europe has failed in his bid to move up to the presidency.

Victor Ponta, leader of the Romanian Social Democrats, has been prime minister since May 2012, after unseating the previous government in a vote of confidence. He went on to win elections the following December at the head of a broad-based alliance that included both the centre-right National Liberal Party (PNL) and the Conservatives.

That involved a degree of tension with the incumbent president, Traian Băsescu, who was associated with the opposition Democratic Liberal Party (PDL, also centre-right). Unlike Slovakia, Romania’s president is independently powerful, broadly on the French model, so “cohabitation” with a government of a different political complexion can be difficult. An attempt to impeach Băsescu failed when a referendum fell short of the required minimum turnout.

Tensions within Ponta’s coalition were also a problem – perhaps not surprisingly in view of its ideological breadth – and last February the PNL walked out. (In its place, Ponta shored up his parliamentary support by taking in the UDMR, the party of Romania’s Hungarian minority.) The PNL aligned itself with the PDL and together nominated Klaus Iohannis to run against Ponta for the presidency on the expiry of Băsescu’s term.

In the first round, held on 2 November, Ponta led fairly comfortably, with 40.4% to Iohannis’s 30.4%. But the also-ran candidates, none of whom had more than about 5%, were mostly opposed to the Social Democrats, so it was always likely that the runoff would be closer. Nonetheless Ponta remained favored by the opinion polls.

But on Sunday, Iohannis scored a clear second-round victory, taking 54.5% of the vote to Ponta’s 45.5%. (Official results can be downloaded here.) Ponta quickly conceded defeat, saying “We are a democratic country. The people are always right.” He says he intends to stay on as prime minister.

In a mostly Eastern Orthodox country, Iohannis is distinctive for being both a Protestant and an ethnic German. Ponta’s campaign had tried to exploit ethnic and religious prejudice against him, but without success – indeed, the attempt is thought to have provoked a backlash. Romania’s German minority, once substantial, now amounts to less than 1% of the population, but the results (as mapped at Wikipedia) still show Iohannis’s support strongest in Transylvania, Dobruja and the western border areas, and weakest in the ethnic Romanian heartland.

Romania is the seventh-largest member of the European Union and is potentially a major regional power. But it remains one of the poorest EU members, with corruption said to be rife and public confidence in its institutions evidently low.

Turnout, however, was well up – to 64.1%, the highest for a presidential election since 2000. It’s said that what particularly hurt Ponta was the high turnout from expatriate Romanians, who voted overwhelmingly for Iohannis, braving considerable logistical problems to do so.

The result is clearly a bad sign for Ponta’s government when it comes to the next election, due in 2016. The dynamics of Romania’s party system, however, are so idiosyncratic that it would be unwise to draw much of a lesson for anywhere else. More than anything, it probably shows Romanian voters, like those in Slovakia, being unwilling to concentrate too much power in one pair of hands.

Nonetheless, it will at least be an encouraging sign for the centre-right in Europe, which, after a poor couple of years, has this year been showing greater signs of resilience.



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