Well it isn’t completely official but the results are clear – Victor Ponta was not elected yesterday as Romania’s new president.
Normally, of course, people report the winner and would say Iohannis Klaus won the election and will soon become Romania’s fifth post-Revolution president. But this was not an election about Herr Klaus. The voting yesterday was strictly between those who supported Ponta and those who were willing to do nearly anything to make sure that he didn’t win.
Everyone I know was bursting with ecstatic enthusiasm upon learning of Ponta’s defeat and I personally am glad that my prediction of two weeks ago (narrowly) failed to come true. But it’s been very strange watching events unfold from here in my perch on the other side of the Prut River.
Only Himself to Blame
Just two weeks ago, the Romanian people had a chance to express their preference for president and the majority of them chose Victor Ponta. In second place was Herr Klaus and yet here we are two weeks later and the results are reversed. How did this happen?
As with most things in Romanian politics, the turning point is always about optics. Ponta’s loyal henchman Corlatean, in his capacity as Foreign Minister, did his best to repress the overseas vote during the first round of the elections, correctly calculating that most Romanians who live abroad would vote for candidates other than Ponta.
This backfired when scenes of long lines (UK: queues) of voters outside embassies in Austria and England were shown on the news. The Romanian ambassador in Paris called out the riot police to disperse prospective voters. Clearly it’s a huge mistake to be seen repressing people’s right to vote and social media erupted in outrage.
Ponta’s base is largely rural and religious voters and so he was taken completely unaware by the younger, urban Facebook crowd rapidly mobilizing huge street protests in cities like Timisoara and Cluj after the first round of the elections. Thousands of people gathered in the streets, ostensibly because they were outraged at the overseas vote repression, but mostly it was a big party to celebrate how much everyone hates Ponta.
Ponta’s network of cronies and greedy church officials were just not nimble enough to mount an effective propaganda response. Urban voters and people living in Transylvania (Klaus was the long-time mayor of the Transylvanian city of Sibiu) and Hungarian areas all turned out yesterday in high numbers. Rural voters and people in Moldova largely stayed home.
Even so, Klaus barely pulled it out in the end, winning a convincing but not overwhelming victory by a few percentage points.
Last verse, same as the first
The anti-Ponta crowds are celebrating today for good reason but unfortunately the party won’t last long. After all, Ponta and his thugs are still in power and Ponta is still the Prime Minister. After conceding defeat, Ponta spoke to the press.
A reporter asked Ponta is he had any plans to resign as Prime Minister. In a comment that sent chills down my spine, he responded (my translation):
Why would I resign as Prime Minister? I mean, no one asked me to resign.
Of course no one “asked” him to resign. Who exactly could do that? He and his party control the parliament. It’s not in President Basescu’s wheelhouse to ask a PM to resign. There is no king anymore. Only the people themselves could demand such a thing and, sadly, barely defeating him at the polls is not a mandate for him to tender his resignation.
As Ponta once said, when describing the Romanian government, the country is like a “car with two steering wheels” (o masina cu doua volane). The unwieldy and vague Romanian Constitution provides for a President who is “head of state” but a Prime Minister who is “head of the government”. Where exactly is the line drawn between those two positions?
Technically speaking, the President is in control of the military, foreign policy, and a few other odd jobs like managing the intelligence services. But defense is dependent on funding from the parliament and Romania’s foreign policy, as insignificant and forgotten as it is (both at home and internationally), is determined entirely by NATO, the United States and the European Union. Despite all the talk, there’s really not much for the president of Romania to do.
And, since Ponta’s accession to Prime Minister in 2012, the office of the president has largely been gutted. Smaller but prestigious government offices like the Romanian Cultural Institute (which represents Romania abroad) have been poached from the president’s control and now are under the jurisdiction of the parliament (and thus the Prime Minister). Monetary policy and the economy, as always, remains under the control of the Grandmaster.
So what exactly can Klaus, or any president, really do independently of the Prime Minister? Not much. Mostly sit around at EU meetings and wave the flag and look good for the cameras.
But he looks good in a suit
I have been to Sibiu many times and it is a beautiful and wonderful city and well worth a visit. And Klaus, first elected as mayor of Sibiu in 2000, is often given a lot of credit for transforming the city into a world class tourist destination. But a lot of his “achievements”, such as Sibiu being chosen as the EU’s “Cultural Capital” in 2007 had virtually nothing to do with him.
Luxembourg (which actually won the competition to be the 2007 Cultural Capital) simply chose to share the award with Sibiu because Romania was a new member of the EU and everyone wanted to do something nice for a country that they largely felt sorry for. Following this “win” came millions of euros from the EU to renovate and upgrade the city, something that would make any mayor look good.
And considering how Sibiu’s major museums (Brukenthal) are disintegrating and barely operational, I am not really sure what Klaus has ever truly done to his own credit. But I have to admit that he does look authoritative and proper when he’s wearing a suit and tie.
Raul Mare vs. Raul Mic
A lot of Romanians described yesterday’s election as a choice between the “big evil” versus the “little evil”, Ponta representing the “big” end of that equation.
One of the conditions for Romania joining the EU was the creation of the ANI, the National Integrity Agency, specifically designed to root out corruption by elected officials. The ANI has ruled multiple times that Klaus is in violation of anti-corruption laws, mostly related to his political party’s commercial contracts with businesses that Klaus himself owns.
Klaus initially just ignored the ANI’s rulings and refused to divest his businesses of their government contracts, bragging to the press that he was above the “petty” laws that the ANI enforces. As a result, a petition was sent to the Romanian high court (ICCJ) to declare him “incompatible” or legally barred from running for the office of president. The court’s ruling is scheduled for tomorrow, or two days after the election.
Therefore, a man who is in clear violation of the EU-mandated judicial procedures on corruption is now the de facto winner of a presidential election that he shouldn’t even be eligible for. And this is the better candidate of the two.
Only in Romania could millions of people be ecstatically happy today that a corrupt politician narrowly defeated a slightly more corrupt politician.
Let’s Think Positive!
All that being said, Klaus at least has some redeeming features, starting with the fact that he speaks two foreign languages fluently (German and English) and won’t be yet another retard on the global stage.
As an ethnic German, with close ties to the German government, he is clearly in a good position to help promote business, cultural and economic ties with Germany, and that can only be a good thing for Romania.
Furthermore, Klaus is not a member of the Orthodox Church. I rarely take much interest in religious affairs but it is abundantly clear that the Orthodox Church has a political stranglehold on Romania. Right now the Orthodox Church has plans to build a colossal church in downtown Bucharest, funded by millions of euros of taxpayer money.
Even on a local level, such as in my beloved city of Cluj-Napoca, nobody can make a move without approval from the church as they control half the prime real estate and hold moral sway over the politicians. It’s a truly good thing to know that Klaus has no superstitious fears of making a move that might displease the Orthodox Church.
And to be fair, both Klaus and Ponta are the first two candidates for president of post-Revolution Romania who were never members of the Communist Party, so that’s a good thing.
And, of course, Ponta is such a moronic gasbag clown that frankly just about anyone with a pulse would be a better president. Klaus, whatever his shortcomings, at least looks like a respectable human being and knows how to be serious for five minutes.
What else can I say? It’s another day in the Circus of the Bizarre that is Romanian politics. Let’s hope the next five years go well for Der Präsident Rumäniens!