Wednesday

16th Jan 2019

Analysis

Romania's Obama moment

  • With 1.1 million likes, Iohannis is, on Facebook, the most popular EU leader (Photo: Klaus Iohannis)

A book fair in Bucharest: hundreds of people queuing up, all wanting to get their copies signed.

After three hours, Klaus Iohannis, the writer of the autobiography - Step by Step - stands up, the final book waiting for his pen. "If they queued up for me, I couldn't leave before signing the last copy”, he says.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 18 year's of archives. 30 days free trial.

... or join as a group

Iohannis is Romania's newly-elected president.

After his surprise win on Sunday (16 November), when the German-speaking, Lutheran mayor of Sibiu became the first Romanian president from an ethnic and religious minority, he is being compared to Barack Obama - the first black president of the US.

On Facebook, he has just passed 1.1 million fans, more than German leader Angela Merkel or Italy’s Matteo Renzi.

But despite his popularity, he is neither a populist, nor, like Obama, a gifted orator.

In his victory speech on Monday, Iohannis, a 55-year old physics teacher, was as down-to-earth as it gets, his main message being: “The campaign is over. Let's get to work now”.

His online campaign manager, Vlad Tausance, said in an interview that Iohannis ought to have been difficult to promote on the Internet.

"He does not take cat pictures (although he has five adopted cats). He refuses to use his family in the campaign (although he has a wonderful and elegant wife). He does not want to give personal details (although he is passionate about cycling and roses)”.

But it turned out Iohannis did not need the "stupid recipes", as Tausance described the online cliches.

"All we did was to be coherent in communicating his real personality. He is a BMW in a second-hand Korean car sale yard. Why should moderation or consistency be seen as defects? Why should seriousness be a handicap? Is decency so boring?”, Tausance said.

Iohannis’ common-sense attitude and his strong support for rule of law made his victory possible.

During the elections he said: "I prefer losing than being rude”.

But he won with 54.4 percent of the vote despite an aggressive campaign by prime minister Victor Ponta, who had won the first round and who was polling to win the run-off as well.

In contrast to Iohannis’ style, Ponta put up flashy billboards all over Romania.

He hired a US consultancy - Podesta Group - to help his side. In one TV debate, he used a rhetorical trick lifted directly from US political drama House of Cards - the "I want you to apologise to my wife” trick.

Ponta also played the nationalist and religious card, highlighting that he is himself Romanian and Orthodox Christian, while describing Iohannis as a "thing".

Ponta spokeswoman Gabriela Vranceanu Firea attacked Iohannis for not having children.

Anti-Iohannis activists also threw dead and live chickens at his HQ with notes attached saying: "I am Iohannis and I am afraid of TV debates”.

The chicken episode was the only one which Iohannis reacted to.

It has repulsive connotations: Under the Nazi regime in Romania, if someone threw a decapitated chicken into your garden, it meant that Nazi death squads were coming to kill you the next day.

Iohannis said he never thought that Nazi death threats could come back in modern times.

The chicken-throwing was not a coincidence: Iohannis noted that another ethnic German Romanian, Eginald Schlattner, has even written a book about its history - The Beheaded Rooster.

It also harked back to Romania's brush with ethnic conflict in the early 1990s, when violent clashes with the Hungarian minority posed a big concern in its EU entry process.

Minority rights are strong today. The Hungarian minority party is a permanent fixture in Romanian coalition governments. Minority languages also have their place in schools and media.

Indeed, Ponta’s appeal to anti-minority feeling mobilised disenchanted opposition voters.

There were also fears that if he becomes president, he might set free leagues of corrupt politicians serving jail sentences after the Ponta majority in parliament proposed the move last year.

Images of the long queues at foreign embassies where expat Romanians were trying to vote were another mobilising factor.

Especially when police fired tear gas at voters in Paris and in Torino, Italy, when polling stations closed and people refused to leave without casting their ballot.

Stopping a trend?

Looking beyond Romania’s Obama moment, Iohannis' election also comes amid a wider trend in the region - the emergence of increasingly populist and nationalist leaders in Hungary, Bulgaria, and Slovakia.

It's true that Iohannis will have to work with Ponta as prime minister and as the leader of a strong parliament majority.

But Ponta will also have to work with Iohannis: Just two days after the election, parliament repealed the amnesty bill on corruption convicts.

The same day, parliament also lifted the immunity of several MPs under investigation for graft, who had been shielded for months.

"After over a year in the parliament drawers, the amnesty law was rejected today in the lower chamber. So it can be done," Iohannis tweeted.

As a German-speaker and as a member of the same centre-right political family as German chancellor Angela Merkel, he is likely to get along well with the de facto leader of the EU.

His first appearance at an EU summit will not be in December, however.

Romania’s outgoing president, Traian Basescu, will be in office until 21 December, three days after EU leaders meet in Brussels.

With Romania still under EU tutelage on rule of law under the European Commission’s “Co-operation and Verification Mechanism”, Iohannis has promised the new year will mark the beginning of new times, however.

Romania will "graduate from the EU integration school and become a mature, strong and respected EU state”, he said.

Romanians elect first ethnic German president

In a surprise result, Romanian voters have elected Klaus Iohannis as their first president to come from the German ethnic minority, defeating Socialist prime minister Victor Ponta.

Analysis

A union between Moldova and Romania: On the cards?

A group of Romanian MPs is promoting the idea of re-unification between Romania and the Republic of Moldova. The issue raises many questions, not least how Russia would react.

Romanian PM under fire on corruption charges

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.

Magazine

Democracy protests make headway

Pro-democracy protests made some headway in central and eastern Europe, with flawed laws repelled and an underdog candidate winning the Romanian presidential elections.

German spies to monitor far-right AfD party

Germany's domestic spy agency, the BfV, is to start monitoring the far-right AfD party in a move endorsed by the government, but decried as a witch-hunt by the party's leaders.

News in Brief

  1. Spanish PM calls for EU gender equality strategy
  2. Farage says bigger Brexit majority if second referendum
  3. Macron starts 'grand debate' tour after yellow vests protests
  4. Barnier: up to London to take Brexit forward
  5. Stimulus still needed, ECB's Draghi says in final report
  6. May's Brexit deal defeated by 230 votes
  7. German economy hit by global economic turbulence
  8. MEPs narrowly call for end to 'tampon tax'

Opinion

EU parliament vote strengthens whistleblower protection

We must not undervalue what a massive step the European Parliament vote represents. The hard work has paid off. We can take a moment to celebrate, but the hard work begins again for finalising strong protection for European whistleblowers.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. International Partnership For Human RightsKyrgyz authorities have to immediately release human rights defender Azimjon Askarov
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersSeminar on disability and user involvement
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersInternational appetite for Nordic food policies
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNew Nordic Innovation House in Hong Kong
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Region has chance to become world leader when it comes to start-ups
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersTheresa May: “We will not be turning our backs on the Nordic region”
  7. International Partnership for Human RightsOpen letter to Emmanuel Macron ahead of Uzbek president's visit
  8. International Partnership for Human RightsRaising key human rights concerns during visit of Turkmenistan's foreign minister
  9. Nordic Council of MinistersState of the Nordic Region presented in Brussels
  10. Nordic Council of MinistersThe vital bioeconomy. New issue of “Sustainable Growth the Nordic Way” out now
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersThe Nordic gender effect goes international
  12. Nordic Council of MinistersPaula Lehtomaki from Finland elected as the Council's first female Secretary General

Latest News

  1. MEPs allow Draghi's membership of secretive bank group
  2. EU parliament backs Morocco deal despite row
  3. Barnier open to 'future relations' talks if UK red lines shift
  4. German spies to monitor far-right AfD party
  5. On Morocco, will the EU ignore its own court?
  6. UK parliament rejects May's Brexit deal in historic defeat
  7. EU suggests majority vote on digital tax by 2025
  8. MEPs redouble appeal on sexual harassment

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic design sets the stage at COP24, running a competition for sustainable chairs
  2. Counter BalanceIn Kenya, a motorway funded by the European Investment Bank runs over roadside dwellers
  3. ACCACompany Law Package: Making the Best of Digital and Cross Border Mobility,
  4. International Partnership for Human RightsCivil Society Worried About Shortcomings in EU-Kyrgyzstan Human Rights Dialogue
  5. UNESDAThe European Soft Drinks Industry Supports over 1.7 Million Jobs
  6. Mission of China to the EUJointly Building Belt and Road Initiative Leads to a Better Future for All
  7. International Partnership for Human RightsCivil society asks PACE to appoint Rapporteur to probe issue of political prisoners in Azerbaijan
  8. ACCASocial Mobility – How Can We Increase Opportunities Through Training and Education?
  9. Nordic Council of MinistersEnergy Solutions for a Greener Tomorrow
  10. UNICEFWhat Kind of Europe Do Children Want? Unicef & Eurochild Launch Survey on the Europe Kids Want
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Countries Take a Stand for Climate-Smart Energy Solutions
  12. Mission of China to the EUChina: Work Together for a Better Globalisation

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersNordics Could Be First Carbon-Negative Region in World
  2. European Federation of Allergy and AirwaysLife Is Possible for Patients with Severe Asthma
  3. PKEE - Polish Energy AssociationCommon-Sense Approach Needed for EU Energy Reform
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Region to Lead in Developing and Rolling Out 5G Network
  5. Mission of China to the EUChina-EU Economic and Trade Relations Enjoy a Bright Future
  6. ACCAEmpowering Businesses to Engage with Sustainable Finance and the SDGs
  7. Nordic Council of MinistersCooperation in Nordic Electricity Market Considered World Class Model
  8. FIFAGreen Stadiums at the 2018 Fifa World Cup
  9. Mission of China to the EUChina and EU Work Together to Promote Sustainable Development
  10. Counter BalanceEuropean Ombudsman Requests More Lending Transparency from European Investment Bank
  11. FIFARecycling at the FIFA World Cup in Russia
  12. Counter BalanceEuropean Parliament takes incoherent steps on climate in future EU investments

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us