Elizabeth Pond Blog

A Winner Lacking Charisma – But Not Much Else

The surprise election of Klaus Iohannis as President of Romania is rare good news

Against all predictions, a political outsider, the long-term mayor of Sibiu, Klaus Iohannis, won Sunday’s presidential elections in one of the EU’s poorest member countries with a convincing 55 percent of the vote. Promising “less show, less noise,” and with strong anti-corruption credentials, he is Romania’s best hope yet for the country to leave its post-Soviet legacy behind.

Sunday night brought some rare good news to Central Europe. Romania voters, fed up with the  corruption-networked political, business, and judicial system in one of Europe’s poorest countries, turned out in a record 62 percent to upset all predictions and elect Klaus Iohannis president with a convincing 55 percent.

Iohannis might have been the model for Vaclav Havel’s ideal of the anti-politics politician. He shuns charisma. His election campaign is widely described as lackluster, with slogans calling for nothing more stirring than making Romania a “normal country,” a “Romania of thoroughness,” a “Romania of things well done.”

Unlike most prominent Bucharest politicians, he is not the head of a top-down clientelist party. He comes instead from the grass roots as the long-time mayor of Sibiu – and when he first won election in that Transylvanian city in 2000 he was an oddity even there, as a former physics teacher from the two percent ethnic German minority in the municipality and an active Lutheran in an overwhelmingly Orthodox land. Unlike most politicians, too, he has remained popular even after more than a dozen years in office, winning reelection in 2004 and 2008 with majorities of over 70 percent.

What Iohannis does offer his voters is a record of pragmatism, independence, and honesty.  As mayor, he began attracting German and Austrian investors to Sibiu (or Hermannstadt, in its medieval German name). Even in a post-Communist system with virtually no municipal authority to levy taxes, he built an industrial park by trading and patching together unused bits of land and installing water, gas, and electricity lines to the greenfield plots.

Along with Luxembourg, Sibiu was selected in 2007 as the European cultural capitals of the year, and wandering German apprentices wearing traditional black carpenters’ hats rebuilt the Lutheran cathedral and steep-roofed townhouses in jig time for the celebration. Manufacturing and tourism are now booming and produce full employment that stands out in a country with an average jobless rate of seven percent.

“I am running because I wish to establish a new kind of politics in our country. Less show, less noise, and more concrete solutions for citizens, for Romania,” Iohannis kept saying during his campaign. He also promised regularly to stem corruption. Voters – including especially the young and the franchised Romanian diaspora in Germany, Austria, and elsewhere in Europe – seemed to believe that he would do an impartial job rather than simply using an anti-corruption drive to send political rivals to trial.

As president, the conservative Iohannis will have more of a role in foreign than in domestic policy, especially since he must cohabit with a Social Democratic parliament. Crucially, however, he appoints the state prosecutor and has a say in judicial appointments. He can therefore lend strong support to the present lone-wolf prosecutor-general, Laura Codruta Kovesi. She has succeeded, improbably, in defying all death threats and getting prison sentences for an impressive roster of senior politicians – including a powerful former prime minister – on corruption charges.

Iohannis traces his ancestry back to the land-owning farmers and artisans who were invited to Transylvania by the enlightened Hungarian King Geza II in the 12th century. In later centuries this community and their urban guilds defended the autonomy and local democracy guaranteed in their royal charter and became a lobby for a developing rule of law against encroaching tyranny. (As part of this defense, they seem to have run the first campaign of character assassination against Count Dracula, a Wallachian monarch who was trying to extend his influence in Transylvania.)

During World War II, in a chauvinist groundswell that today’s German community renounces, they supported Hitler. When Romania became part of Moscow’s empire from the end of World War II until 1989, most of the community emigrated to (West) Germany, taking advantage of Bonn’s Ostpolitik and willingness to pay a ransom to Bucharest for granting exit visas to ethnic Germans. Although some children of émigrés have been returning to Sibiu and starting small businesses as the local economy improved, the number of ethnic Germans in Romania has shrunk to only 37,000 today.

The absence of any large ethnic constituency makes the victory of Klaus Iohannis all the more surprising.  In the best-case scenario, it might even signal the embryonic development of a civic rather than just an ethnic sense of citizenship in Romania.

Elizabeth Pond is a Berlin-based journalist and the author of Endgame in the Balkans: Regime Change, European Style (Brookings).

IP Journal, German Council on Foreign Relations  November 11, 2014 https://ip-journal.dgap.org/en/blog/eye-europe/winner-lacking-charisma-not-much-else

© Elizabeth Pond