A New Direction for Romania?

And then it all went terribly wrong. Romania’s “Social Democrats”, who everyone believed would score a decisive victory in the second round of yesterday’s presidential elections, remained united behind their candidate and current Prime Minister Victor Ponta. But they were the ones wearing the long faces by the end of the evening. With startled eyes, they stared at the exit polls that beamed back the unthinkable — the result that most of the Social Democrats would’t have thought possible. Their competitor, Klaus Iohannis, a member of Romania’s German minority community, was leading in the polls. And he didn’t leave this position.

Romania has a new president: he is not an ethnic Romanian, or even Orthodox, and he has not mingled in Bucharest for years. “Before Romania elects someone like Iohannis, this nation will be selling its kids,” a well-informed Romanian friend with ties to the country’s political inner circle told me a year ago. Maybe Iohannis wasn’t in the cards then, but that was before people had to queue up and wait in rainy November weather for hours in order to exercise their right to vote.

It’s a bit surprising that Ponta and his party could have underestimated the psychological power of all those pictures of fellow citizens lining up to fill out a ballot, only to be refused by the ruling power. Two weeks ago, during the first round of the elections, Romanian embassies and consulates all over the world had already seen Romanians waiting in queues, thousands of them sent home eventually without voting. Presumably because their vote would’t have been for the right party.

For days no one apologized or took any responsibility. Finally the secretary of state resigned, but no one really changed the voting procedures, or thought about creating new polling stations, or tried to prevent the same kind of chaos and disenfranchisement from happening again in the second round of the election. And so on Sunday morning, pictures of people waiting in the line were already spreading on the internet. The Romanian diaspora, who in August Mr. Ponta had painted as responsible for creating the supposedly “bad image” of Romanians abroad, became a potent symbol of active citizenship. Social media spread information fast and everywhere. Anyone interested could easily read testimonies about ballot rigging abroad and in Romania itself. It looked like an unlikely fight between the modern world and outdated machinery.

Yesterday, 380,000 Romanians abroad participated in the vote. No one can estimate the number of Romanians in Romania who, inspired by what they saw online, followed their example. In the end the turnout was very high, at more than 60 percent. Iohannis received 54 percent of the vote. This represents more than a minor success; it was a decisive victory.

But it will take more than a new president to change Romania. Still, the outcome of yesterday’s election reveals some crucial points: politicians should not think that voters are mere cattle that can be bought by waving a few bills around. Not even in Southeastern Europa. Or at least, not any longer. It revealed that a dirty campaign based on hate and populist folklore didn’t correspond to people’s needs. And almost exactly 25 years after the violent Romanian revolution that removed Ceaușescu from power, Romania finally appears ready to head in a new direction. Klaus Iohannis says he stands for this path. Now Iohannis has to prove he has the will to follow it.

Cover photo credit: stilltryingtobethebatman

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Eva Konzett

Eva is an Austrian journalist with the business daily Wirtschaftsblatt. She mostly covers the CEE/SEE-region, and was a correspondent in Romania from 2012-2013. She's written for publications in Austria, Germany, and Romania.