Monday

18th Mar 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.

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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.

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