Sunday

20th May 2018

Romanians elect first ethnic German president

  • 'I will be nervous until the Constitutional Court validates the election result,' says Klaus Iohannis (Photo: Klaus Iohannis)

University Square, Bucharest: "Milestone of democracy", the place where 25 years ago people were being shot and street protests ultimately led to Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu being ousted, tried and executed.

On Sunday night (16 November), thousands of people gathered again in University Square, waving Romanian flags with a round hole in the middle, just as they did in 1989, when they cut out the Communist coat of arms.

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  • Thousands protested peacefully in Bucharest's University square (Photo: Valentina Pop)

This time, it was to celebrate the unexpected victory of Klaus Iohannis, the first Romanian president to come from an ethnic minority.

And to demand the resignation of Socialist prime minister Victor Ponta, who was the frontrunner and who lost despite an aggressive campaign and reports of electoral fraud.

Two hours after neck-and-neck exit polls were announced, Ponta conceded his defeat and said he called Iohannis to congratulate him.

Iohannis, who joined the street party in Bucharest's University Square, said he was happy about the "very good result" and thanked people for voting in such large numbers, particularly Romanians abroad who had to queue up for hours in front of embassies in order to cast their ballots.

But he also urged "maximum vigilance" for electoral observers overseeing the final count and said he will remain "nervous" until the end result is validated by the Constitutional Court.

A physics teacher by profession and mayor of Sibiu since 2000, 55-year old Iohannis belongs to a small German ethnic minority in Transylvania which settled there in the 12th century and was as numerous as 700,000 before the Second World War.

During Communism, Ceausescu had agreed to "sell" them, with the German state paying millions of DMs for over 200,000 ethnic Germans, who were allowed to leave Romania and resettle in Germany.

The exodus continued after the fall of Communism, including among Iohannis' own family, but he decided to stay and join local politics. In 2009, he was proposed as prime minister by an alliance which included Ponta as Socialist party leader. But the outgoing president, Traian Basescu, appointed someone else instead.

In the run-up to the presidential elections, Iohannis campaigned as a hands-on pro-European who would make Romania "a normal country," safeguarding the rule of law and a pro-Western course in foreign policy. As a centre-right politician of German ethnicity, Iohannis is also likely to become an ally of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

His victory was also fought online, with a massive mobilisation on Facebook and Twitter, with apps developed in Germany helping voters to see which polling stations were less crowded.

"You wrote history! For the first time, the online made the difference," Iohannis wrote on his Facebook page.

The Ponta government also did little to facilitate voting conditions for Romanians abroad - who were overwhelmingly voting for Iohannis. This caused several solidarity protests in Bucharest and other major towns and led to the resignation of foreign minister Titus Corlatean.

But on Sunday again, news from Paris, Madrid and London came that thousands of Romanians were queuing for hours and were unlikely to be all able to vote. In Torino, angry voters clashed with police, who threw tear gas to disperse them after the polling station closed.

Ponta, who went for an aggressive, nationalist campaign, referred to Iohannis as a "thing" and suggested Romanians should not vote for someone who is not of their own kind, is not Orthodox and has no children.

At 42, Ponta has had a steep career rise as a prosecutor and as a protegee of ex-prime minister Adrian Nastase, who was sent to jail for corruption. Ponta was also proven to have plagiarised his PhD thesis, but he then dissolved the scientific panel who ruled against him and appointed another one which cleared him.

What's next

Ponta is likely to stay on as prime minister, despite calls made on the streets of Bucharest, Cluj and Sibiu, where thousands of people took to the streets to celebrate his defeat and call for his resignation.

"I didn't become prime minister on my own, I was backed by people, by political forces so if at some point, not now - in a year or two - these forces will ask for my resignation, I will not hesitate to take a step back. But this has not happened and I don't think we need it now," Ponta said Sunday on Antena3 tv.

Pressure within the Social-Democratic Party is likely to grow for Ponta to resign, however. It is also likely that MPs who strengthened his majority in parliament will jump ship and join Iohannis' centre-right alliance.

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Romania's election of an ethnic German is being compared to America's election of a black president. But who is Iohannis and what does he mean for Romania and the region?

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Members of the lower house of the Romanian parliament have voted against lifting the immunity of prime minister Victor Ponta, who has been accused of forgery, tax evasion, and money laundering.

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