Has Klaus Iohannis made good on his pledge to make Romania ‘a better-functioning democracy’? Not yet. The president spoke to correspondent.world on coming to office.11 November 2019
“This means a huge step forward for Romania,” said incumbent president Klaus Iohannis. “A modern, European, normal Romania won today.”
Iohannis described the vote as “a great joy for democracy in Romania”.
In a first round of elections two weeks earlier, he had won nearly 38%, followed by former prime minister Viorica Dancila’s 22%.
In the two-candidate run-off, Iohannis managed to garner close to two-thrids of the popular vote. That has left the ‘old guard’ – widely seen as successors to the Communist pre-1989 regime’s elite – trailing badly in his wake.
“Millions of Romanians from the country and from the diaspora voted for our project, for a normal Romania, and for continuing the process of changing Romania for the better,” he said.
Dancila’s Social Democratic Party (PSD) was ousted from the Government in October, after ruling in Romania for almost three years, a period marked by controversial reforms in the justice area and populist measures including increases in public salaries and pensions.
The National Liberal Party formed a minority Government, which was voted in by the parliament just one week before the first round of the presidential elections, with the support of a broader coalition.
When he surprised the public five years ago to become Romania’s president despite being a novice on the national political stage, Iohannis pledged to root out corruption and dig fearlessly into the nation’s murky past.
“By the end of my mandate,” Iohannis, then 55, had told correspondent.world in an interview for and published by The Times and The Independent, “I want our [estimated four million] Romanians working abroad all to come back, because the economy is functioning well enough to provide a decent income for everybody.”
Mr Iohannis, who was previously mayor of the picturesque Transylvanian city of Sibiu, had also said he wanted to transform the corruption-ridden economy and forge closer links with western Europe.
The President thrives on tilting at windmills. He is apparently progressing to another period in office, while in his first five-year-term, no fewer than five prime ministers have come and gone.
He also advocated a return to fiscal restraint, bolstering the rule of law and dealing with corruption.
His lack of experience on the national political stage turned out to be an advantage. The electorate had become weary of flashy politicians they saw engaging in petty, vituperative quarrels while the nation’s employment levels, agricultural output and pensions all went into decline.
“My election was certainly a surprise to analysts and even to my own supporters – but especially a huge shock for most of Romania’s politicians,” Mr Iohannis chuckled, as he sat in front of an old stove heater in a stark office decorated only with a baubled Christmas tree.
Mr Iohannis began his career as a physics teacher, then became a popular mayor of Sibiu, which he transformed into a tourist attraction, cutting unemployment to near zero. “I am not a rebel, but I am a very different kind of politician,” he said. “I think this is one of the main reasons I got a huge number of votes.”
It has been very difficult though for him and his party to make significant headway. The Socialist Democrats have remained in government, and despite huge street protests in 2017 clung on to the levers of power and to the avenues of corruption and nepotism.
A court sentenced a former prime minister to jail for corruption, but efforts have continued to subvert the rule of law in Romania
Popular disgust led to socialists losing half their votes during a recent European Union election, a trend that is set to continue.
No-one could have predicted that five years ago – not even Mr Iohannis himself.
On the eve of the presidential election run-off in 2014, most news outlets predicted that the incumbent prime minister and presidential front-runner, Victor Ponta, was poised for victory. The socialist premier had held a 10-point lead in the first ballot. In the second round, Mr Iohannis garnered nearly 55 per cent of the vote.
One factor, he said, was his highly successful campaign to attract young voters via social media. “I was amazed at the huge number of followers [on Facebook] at the end of my campaign. Right now, it’s around 1.3 million. I never imagined I would be the number-one politician in Europe on Facebook.”
It is true: second is the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, with less than a million. The achievement is all the more remarkable since Mr Iohannis is from Romania’s small German-speaking ethnic minority and is a Lutheran Protestant, when most people are Romanian Orthodox Christians.
His opponent ran a nationalistic campaign and promised a boost to pensions, even though the country is running short of money and has needed to borrow large sums from the International Monetary Fund in return for agreeing to austerity measures.
Iohannis said that he planned to transform politics while in power: “I think we have had too much show, too much sterile debate, not enough solutions.”
He urged his people to swallow more years of austerity. “A lot needs to change,” he said.
The 30th anniversary of the overthrow of the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu falls just before this Christmas, just as Mr Iohannis probably begins his new term of office..
“By the end of my mandate, Romania has to be a better-functioning democracy. By then, nobody should question the rule of law in Romania. The education system should be good enough to make us proud. People should get decent treatment in hospitals. And the economy should be good enough to encourage Romanians living abroad to come home.”
It sounded – and still sounds – like a tall order. But Iohannis yet again proved he can confound the experts’ predictions.