Iohannis Superstar: Great Expectations in Bucharest

Sunday’s election of Klaus Iohannis as the new president of Romania has elicited something akin to euphoria across Europe. Commentators from inside and outside of the country believe the outcome signals that voters are eager to embrace the west and leave the corruption-tainted past behind. I’m among them. But the future remains uncertain.

Romania has undoubtedly taken a crucial step. Voters elected the candidate more likely to sort out Romania’s mess of 25 years of unfinished transition and a seriously flawed political landscape. Sunday’s outcome was made possible in part through the efforts of Romanians abroad who, unwilling to give up their right to vote, inspired many others inside Romania.

But their joy may be premature. The more painful realization is that the second step — the reorganization of the country in accordance with what we like to call “western standards” — will not happen overnight, even with Mr. Iohannis residing in the president’s residence, Cotroceni Palace.

  • The executive power in Romania clearly lies in the hands of the government and thus in the hands of Prime Minister Victor Ponta and his Social Democratic party. Despite his defeat in Sunday’s presidential election, Ponta has so far refused to step down as head of the government. Even if he did, this would not automatically change the current structure and composition of lawmakers in the parliament. (That said, we can still bet on how much longer this will be the case, as Ponta has taken some days off and Iohannis has openly spoken about toppling the government in 2015).
  • The role of the Romanian president is somewhat open to interpretation. In addition to his representative activities, the constitution dictates that he is in charge of shaping the direction of foreign policy. In Romania this means being a faithful member of the EU, and more importantly, NATO, alliances which are already well established. He is also in charge of the country’s defense, which again should be seen in a broader transatlantic context. For years Romania has been an obedient partner to its NATO allies, and the crisis in Ukraine has given Romania’s relevance in the Black Sea region a renewed relevance for the US and the EU. Iohannis has already announced that he will not change this direction (and even Ponta would have been unlikely to do so). The real power of the Romanian president lies in a grey area, made up of various influences, connections and the secret services. Traian Basescu, the outgoing president, was quite adept at manipulating this system to his benefit. It remains to be seen how quickly Klaus Iohannis, a politician from the countryside, can adapt to this murky scene in the capital.
  • Celebrated for economically transforming the Transylvanian city of Sibiu into a “western” island in the heart of Romania within 14 years, Iohannis is under significant pressure to quickly produce similar results in Bucharest. The fight against corruption is one of his stated priorities, but voters will want to feel a change in their pockets as well. But economic circumstances have changed dramatically since Iohannis was elected mayor of Sibiu in 2000. Romania no longer has the relatively booming economy it had between 2003 and 2008. Investors are hesitant. For the most part, only those who came before the crisis are still active in Romania. The “eastern fantasy” of western firms competing to conquer the East on the cheap is probably never coming back.
  • Klaus Iohannis is not a Rambo-like lonely fighter, but a member of the National Liberal Party (PNL), which he joined as vice president in early 2013. Back then, he argued that he needed the support of an established party in order to be able to be part of the process of political change. The fact that as president, he will have to resign as the party’s leader won’t change the fact that he supports PNL. While Iohannis might be a fresh face in Bucharest, PNL certainly is not. PNL was part of the government until spring. The party had been part of the ruling coalition with the Social Democrats since May 2012, and during that time, PNL wanted Iohannis to be assigned the office of minister for internal affairs. Prime Minister Ponta refused to offer Iohannis this powerful position and the coalition fell apart in February. Iohannis is also backed by certain remnants of  the “Conservative Party” (PDL), which is also an old player in Bucharest politics.

Love is given away quickly in the Romanian political world, but it can also be taken away overnight. Power and influence are the political machinery’s currency. The election of Iohannis is a powerful sign of deviation from the norm, but it will take more than a president for change.

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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.