The new President of Romania: expectations vs reality. Part 1

As a Romanian journalist I find it difficult to write about the internal politics without assuming that I will be labeled. This ridiculous situation has escalated in the past years due to the increasing fights among different political parties (including the President), which has made it practically impossible for the press to maintain an objective eye on the domestic affairs.

Nevertheless, this surprising win of Mr. Klaus Iohannis, mayor of Sibiu and president of the Liberal Party, has been received with so much curiosity both inside Romania and out, that it certainly deserves an analysis.

For those political experts who ask themselves whether a wave of fundamental changes will occur in Romania’s foreign affairs, as well as domestic ones, let us take a look at the factors that might influence- or not- a shift.

Ethnicity

Iohannis descents from a German minority family, based near Sibiu, a picturesque town in the heart of Romania. Large waves of German ethnics came on the Romanian territory approx. 800 years ago, settling in the areas near the Carpathian Mountains. Their communities have always been regarded as hard working and prosperous, and have maintained good relations with the Romanian majority and also with the other minorities. Also, the last 4 kings of Romania (1866 – 1947) have been of German descent and have left a positive trail in the national history of my country. Therefore, most Romanians look up to their fellow Germans.

Political background

There have been a lot of discussions about the ethnicity of the elected president, Klaus Iohannis, and less of his political background. He is currently the president of the National Liberal Party, the oldest party on the Romanian political scene, which for the past 25 years has had alliances with all the other major parties, including the Social Democratic Party, led by the current prime-minister, Victor Ponta.

Until March 2014, Mr. Iohannis – back then only vice-president of the same Liberal Party – had been in a 2 years alliance with the social democrats. Many obstacles marked their road to power (accomplished at the Parliamentary elections of November 2012), when the alliance between liberals and social democrats won 70% of the votes. But toppling their common enemy (as described by both sides), current president, Traian Basescu, was the goal that made them stick together.

The plan was simple: the president of the liberals at that time, Crin Antonescu, was their presidential candidate, while Mr. Ponta would remain prime minister after they would have seized the power in November this year. Both parties fought hard against the protégées of Mr. Basescu from the Democrat Party, and the plan of getting along seemed to work up until a point, when internal fights erupted and the alliance broke. Mr. Iohannis’ party went on to form an alliance with former ‘enemy’, the democrats, only 3 months after the split.

All this is crucial information – based on facts, not interpretation- because the whole campaign of Mr. Iohannis has been aimed at his former allies, the social democrats.

For sure, all is permitted in love and war, one would say, nevertheless it is vital to know that the elected president is not a stranger to the dark ways of politics and has been a part of the troublous events of the past 3 years.

Though I fully understand the enthusiasm of the people, I hope that past actions are not forgotten and people understand that Mr. Iohannis was not bothered by the social democrats’ policies when his party shared power (until March, I repeat) with them.

Nevertheless, any political campaign – everywhere in the world – is marked by the need to distance yourself from your opponents’ view and follows a smart strategy of ‘wrapping an old gift into a new paper’ to make it seem fresh. One must give credit to the liberals for succeeding – the vote was a true indicator of this.

External ties

As many successful German ethnics in Romania, Mr. Iohannis enjoys a strong endorsement from fellow German businessmen located here and abroad. German investors (some of which are related by birth to Romania) are an influential part of this country’s economy and have developed several large business projects here over the past decade. Moreover, the Democrats- current political partners of Mr. Iohannis’ Liberal Party (which has deserted the ALDE and joined EPP soon after the euro-elections in May) – have a close connection with CDU, Angela Merkel’s political faction. Given the influence of the Chancellor in Europe, one could say Romania’s elected president chose the winning card…so far. On the other hand, some analysts raise concerns regarding the equity of Mr. Iohannis future actions, especially those related to Romanian foreign policy.

Foreign Affairs

Since the break from communism, the Romanian leaders were constant in regard to their external strategy: oriented towards the West, dedicated to achieving the ‘European Standards’, never again looking East (in translation- to Russia). The Euro-Atlantic partnership has always (since 1990) been treated as a vital part of this country’s modernization, regardless who was president or who run the Government.

Therefore, I believe there are no indicators that anything will change, if no dramatic modification of political or social climate occurs in Europe. After Mr. Putin’s aggressive actions in Ukraine, Moscow became the boogie man of all Eastern-European countries and this ‘theme’ was also exploited during the campaign. Fortunately for both Romanians and our European partners, there were absolutely no facts to support any ‘shift’ towards Russia, even if the liberal-democrats implied this on the social democrats.

Romania does not have a loud voice on the world’s/Europe’s political scene, probably due to its inferiority complex (accentuated by the 45 years of Soviet influence). Also, there is no secret that all the leaders of these past 25 years of democracy have not manifested any desire of stepping up as influential figures abroad, but rather acted as ‘backstage personnel’. The elected president will most likely not draw away from this line.

However, the low level of nationalism expressed so far by Romanian political class should be regarded, as a positive counterpoint in today’s restless Europe and hopefully, it will remain the same.

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