False hopes for Romanian presidential elections

Many Romanians believe that defeating the left’s candidate in the presidential runoff will bring a b

Presidential candidate and Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta won the first round of the presidential with 40 percent of the vote [AFP]

Romanians have taken this year’s presidential contest very much to heart. Demonstrations, fights among old friends, pleas to convince family members to get out and vote – we have seen it all during the weeks before the elections.

There was wide mobilisation especially among opponents of leading candidate Victor Ponta, the current prime minister and leader of the Social-Democratic Party. These included many public intellectuals and popular journalists as well as some of the country’s “social media active” middle class, which made the anti-Ponta message that much more vocal in the public space.

There are countless reasons to oppose Ponta and his party, which has been holding executive power since 2012. Over the past two years, the Social-Democrats have supported legislation that would give immunity to corrupt politicians, criminalise investigative journalism, and give extraordinary powers to corporations in the extractive sector.

Ponta is notoriously unreliable: While in opposition, he criticised austerity only to implement IMF-dictated austerity measures once in power; before taking office, he opposed the Rosia Montana gold mining project that brought tens of thousands to the streets in 2013, only to get behind it as soon as he became prime minister.

And yet, in their electoral zeal, his opponents have gone too far. In the past few weeks, their rhetoric has gone as far as demonising his poor electorate, which does not bode well for Romania’s political future.

‘Down with the communists!’

These elections mark the end of Traian Basescu’s ten years of domination over political life in Romania; he is about to give up his presidential seat to his soon-to-be-elected successor. For the first time in a while, the centre-right electorate could leave battered and bruised Basescu behind and look to new candidates.

In this context, two figures relatively fresh to national politics gathered most of these voters’ sympathy. One was Klaus Iohannis, a Romanian of German origin who has been enjoying long-term success as mayor of the city of Sibiu; he represents the Christian-Liberal Alliance made up of the two main centre-right parties. The other was Monica Macovei, a former justice minister credited with implementing the reforms needed to get Romania into the European Union; she ran as an independent.

Romania tackles communist-era crimes

The emergence of these two political figures came against the backdrop of a turbulent year. In 2013, some of the strongest protests in Romania’s post-socialist history rocked the country and led to the indefinite postponement of a project to build a gold mine at Rosia Montana in Apuseni Mountains. During those demonstrations, many felt for the first time that they can and should make a difference in the political life of their country. For some, the presidential elections this year constituted a major opportunity to see an electoral expression of the street movement.

This sentiment intensified the public debate around the presidential elections. And because centre-right opinion-makers were influential in framing the discussion, the centre-right vs socialists conflict has been presented as a clash between democrats vs communists, good vs evil, salvation vs doom.

According to this narrative, Ponta’s socialists are really the communists who destroyed the country before 1989 and whose corruption and retrograde views on the economy are now preventing Romania from modernising further and better integrating with the EU. The centre-right candidates, particularly Macovei and Iohannis, were presented as guarantors of a non-corrupt, well-functioning and truly European Romania.

In the first round of the elections on November 2, Ponta got 40 percent of the votes (turnout was a little over 50 percent). Iohannis was the runner-up with 30 percent and will face Ponta in this Sunday’s runoff. Other centre-right candidates, including Macovei, scored around 5 percent. There was no other candidate claiming to represent the left from a total of fourteen running, apart of Ponta and a representative of a virtually unknown old-style communist party who got 0.3 percent. 

The first round came with another reason to hate Ponta. Bureaucratic procedures and insufficient voting booths led to thousands of Romanians living abroad in Western Europe not being able to vote. Many saw this as a strategy of the socialists to exclude voters who would otherwise have voted for the centre-right (indeed, Romanians abroad voted mostly for Iohannis).

Anti-Ponta protests in major Western European cities and in Romania ensued. In Romanian towns, thousands marched chanting “Down with the communists!” and recycling slogans form last year’s Rosia Montana demos.

Blame the poor

A particularly worrying turn in the public debate took place as emotions escalated: Antipathy for Ponta turned into hatred for those voting for him. The main centre-right commentators insisted that educated Romanians from the west of the country voted for Iohannis, while uneducated people from poor towns and villages in the east voted for Ponta.

A stark opposition was created between Iohannis voters who supposedly care for the rule of law and work hard to push the economy forward, and Ponta’s electors who are allegedly interested only in getting social assistance and pre-electoral bribes (the Socialists’ dubious practice of making payments to teachers or distributing food right before elections was widely publicised). Some radical commentators even questioned the benefits of universal voting.

Regardless of the practices of the socialists, the verbal violence with which some journalists and intellectuals turned against those who voted for this party was shocking. 

Ponta’s presidential programme is the only one which pays some lip service to issues of social justice (though his so-called “pro-business leftist” programme bears uncanny resemblance to liberal Iohannis’ programme and is far from a serious leftist proposition). While social protection measures taken by Ponta are no more than patching up (marginal increases in public salaries and pensions, minor hikes in minimal wage), no other candidate speaks of anything else but further economic liberalisation and budgetary discipline.

Iohannis’ vision of Romania centres on a liberalised, competitive economy where businesses thrive and education is geared towards technological progress. He addresses exclusively the winners of transition.

But in Romania, one in five employees cannot make a living out of their salary and 40 percent of people are at risk of poverty or social exclusion. Many have been further impoverished by austerity measures implemented since 2008. In these conditions, it is not unreasonable that people fear politicians who promise more liberalisation of the economy and a minimalist state, the main line pursued by governments over the past decade and more.

Ponta is a poor choice for Romania. But Iohannis is no dream proposition either. Not only does he speak only to the successful but, despite the current antagonism with Ponta, he was an ally of the socialists twice between 2009 and 2012, and his own party too is tainted by corruption.

It is naive to think that if Ponta loses on Sunday, things will turn out fine. Not caring for the needs of a large part of the population is not only immoral but also unreasonable. We just need to look at other societies in the European Union to see what happens if poor people are ignored for too long. In Poland, Romania’s model in the East, unemployed youth join the far-right. In the UK, hopeless youth came out into the streets in uncontrollable riots in 2011.

In 2013, Romanians from all social classes and of all political colours came together to fight against a mining project that would have meant the crushing of some poor villagers by a rich corporation supported by corrupted politicians from all parties. In 2014, protesters use the same slogans to support one politician against another while the poor and peasants are demonised for supposedly voting for the socialists.

The 2014 protesters may mean well but, to be sure, most of them are just defending their own interests by promoting centre-right Iohannis. For any chance of a bright future in Romania, both the future president and Romanians themselves must resurrect another value learnt on the streets in 2013: solidarity.

Claudia Ciobanu is a freelance reporter based in Warsaw, contributing among others to Inter Press Service  and OpenDemocracy.

Follow her on Twitter: @Claudia_Warsaw