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How the diaspora vote became the decisive factor in the election of the first non-ethnic Romanian President

 

SPECIAL EUDO CITIZENSHIP NEWS REPORT on Romanian Presidential elections

By  Andrei Stavila

 

1. Context

The Romanian presidential campaign this year has often been characterised by analysts as the most monotonous, non-conflictual political campaign in the last 25 years. The social-democratic party (Partidul Social Democrat, PSD) has been able to build a comfortable parliamentary majority after the 2012 legislative elections, and the stalemated unity talks among the right-wing parties created both for the social-democrats and the general public the impression that the political campaign was useless, since the winner – Victor Ponta, Romanian Prime Minister and PSD’s president – was already known.

But behind the official image of Romanian internal politics, some deeper political problems were already lurking for more than five years. The last two presidential and the last parliamentary elections dramatically radicalised the electorate along strong ‘us’ versus ‘them’ lines. Similarly deep societal fault lines could only be seen in the gloomy decade of the 1990s –when families split, friendships ended, and former buddies became the strongest enemies just because they had different political views. The conflict this year was both strong and media-supported, and it only needed a spark to ignite. That spark was the diaspora vote.

 

2. The period between the two rounds of elections

The ‘diaspora problem’ generated after the first round of the presidential election on 2 November dramatically changed the perception of a boring presidential campaign. This ‘problem’ is related to the newly introduced affidavit according to which every citizen abroad must declare that he/she did and will not vote in another polling station on Election Day. This affidavit was recently introduced in order to counter accusations of ‘electoral tourism’ made after every election since 1989, and it was of crucial importance for the diaspora vote. In the first round of the presidential election the declaration had to be completed and signed in front of the members of that voting section’s electoral bureau. This dramatically slowed down the voting process. Moreover, the process has been further hampered by the small number of ballots and voting booths in the voting sections at embassies and consulates. The result was that, on 2 November,in polling stations in Paris, London, New York, Vienna, Strasbourg, Brussels, Bern, Luxembourg, The Hague, Stockholm, Valencia, Munich, Torino, Bonn, Birmingham and many other cities people had to wait in very long queues between four to six hours in order to cast their vote (Hotnews.ro, in Romanian). In Paris thousands of citizens were not able to vote at all, and at 9 p.m. (when the voting process had to be closed) one hundred French gendarmes prevented them from entering the polling station. Some Romanian citizens however succeeded to enter the building by force and demanded to vote, claiming that at least the persons present in the building should have the right to vote even after 9 p.m. However, their demands were firmly rebuffed and the situation remained tense for a couple of hours. At polling stations in Paris, London, New York and other cities where voters had to queue for hours there were protests immediately after the closing of the electoral process (see the BBC report). Images showing the long lines in different towns in Europe, United States and Canada, where the Romanian diaspora tried to exercise the right to vote in the first round of elections can be found here: Hotnews.ro.

According to Gandul (Gandul.info, in Romanian) over 900 Romanians signed an online petition requesting (a) the organisation of more polling stations abroad; (b) that in each station there should be more voting booths and more ballots; (c) that the personnel of Consulates and Embassies should be supplemented; and (d) that people should be able to complete the affidavit not only in front of the members of that voting sections’ electoral bureau, but also at home or on the street.

The main opposition party – the Liberal Christian Alliance (formed by the National Liberal Party and President Basescu’s former party, the Liberal Democratic Party) who supported Klaus Iohannis for presidency – declared after the voting process ended that it would file a criminal complaint against Victor Ponta, because it considered him guilty of hindering the exercise of voting rights in the diaspora. The allegation (which implied that the social-democrats wanted to slow down the voting process in order to prevent the diaspora from casting a ballot) can be easily understood. The Social Democratic Party has a bad history with diaspora votes, since in the last presidential election in 2009 voters abroad tipped the electoral balance, to the detriment of their candidate. Even though Mircea Geoana had 14.738 votes more than Traian Basescu in votes cast domestically, the vote of approximately 150,000 Romanians overseas made Traian Basescu win the second mandate as the Romanian President (PaginiRomanesti). The euobserver.com also wrote that ‘(t)he Ponta government (…) did little to facilitate voting conditions for Romanians abroad – who were overwhelmingly voting for Iohannis’.

Associations of Romanian students oversees requested that those who are guilty for obstructing the vote process should be punished (Mediafax, in Romanian). Moreover, as the euobserver.com noted, the diaspora’s electoral problem caused several solidarity protests in Bucharest and other major towns (in the hours after the end of the first round) and after some days ‘led to the resignation of foreign minister Titus Corlăţean’. Solidarity protests continued during the two weeks between the two rounds of elections. In Cluj-Napoca (Klausenburg / Kolozsvár), members of the opposition coalition shouted immediately after the polls closed ‘Ponta step down!’, ‘Down with the communists!’, ‘Shame on you’, ‘Thank you diaspora!’, ‘Ponta, don’t forget: Romania is not yours!’, and ‘Romanians are voting, Ponta is plagiarising!’ [in his PhD in law Ponta committed plagiarism, see below section 6]. They also displayed banners: ‘We are supporting the diaspora’, ‘Proud of keeping Romanians in lines’, ‘If they want to vote, let them vote!’, and ‘You cannot steal as much as we can vote!’ (Mediafax, in Romanian). On 14 November (the Friday before the second round of elections) citizens organised large demonstrations in several Romanian cities to show their solidarity with the diaspora and to call people to vote. For example, 10,000 people in Cluj-Napoca , and 2,000  in Bucharest protested against the government’s handling of external voting (Stirileprotv.ro).

After counting all the votes of the first round of elections it became evident that Klaus Iohannis gained strong support among the diaspora, taking three times more votes (46,17%) than his main opponent Victor Ponta (15,90%). Ponta won only in three states: the Republic of Moldova (8,202 votes, against the 6,986 votes for Klaus Iohannis), Zimbabwe (4 votes, against 0 votes for Iohannis) and North Korea (3 votes, against 1 vote for Iohannis) (Ziare.com, in Romanian). The media speculated about this overwhelming vote for Iohannis by the diaspora and in Transylvania while Ponta won in South and Eastern Romania and in the Republic of Moldova. Some remembered Samuel Huntington’s ‘The Clash of Civilizations’, where the faultline between the ‘West’ and the ‘East’ cuts Romania in half, between ‘civilized’Transylvania and the backward, poor Eastern and Southern parts of the country.

Before the second round of elections, the Central Election Office (CEO) declared that the number of polling stations could not be increased under the present electoral law (Mediafax, in Romanian). So the only solutions the Minister of Foreign Affairs had were (1) to double the number of voting booths and stamps; and (2) to let the people download and complete the affidavit at home so that they would only need to sign it in front of the members of avoting section’s electoral bureau. They hoped this would solve the diaspora problem.

 

3. The second round of presidential elections

Even if Mr. Iohannis won the majority of votes in the diaspora and in Transylvania, after counting all the votes in the first round, the final results showed that Mr. Ponta had an advantage of almost 10%: Ponta won 40,44% of the votes, and Iohannis won only 30,37% (stirileprotv.ro). For the second round of elections, ‘(a)nalysts had predicted a comfortable win for Mr Ponta, the 42-year-old Social Democrat, following a strong performance in the first round and a well-financed campaign’ (Financial Times). Once the diaspora problem seemed to be solved, almost all politicians and political analysts believed that the result of the second round waspredetermined.

However, because of the irritation created by the poor way of handling the election process abroad in the first round, the number of Romanians expats coming to vote in the second round has more than doubled: if only around 150,000 Romanians voted from abroad in the first round (according to the estimates at 11 p.m. Romanian time), in the second round more than 362,000 turned out to vote according to the estimates at the same hour (Mediafax, in Romanian). The result was that the ‘diaspora problem’ was rather increased than resolved, and almost everywhere overseas (from New York to Montreal and from Chişinau to Dublin) very long queues formed once again (Mediafax, in Romanian). Many citizens wanted to clearly express their discontent and appealed to ad-hoc symbols: while waiting in line since early morning hours, ‘Romanians in Munich flashed toothbrushes to the cameras to show how long they were prepared to wait to vote.’ (Reuters)

Yet such diligence seemed to be in vain. Although in some countries the process ran smoothly (for example, in Austria all 8,000 Romanians who wanted to vote succeeded to do soeven before 9 p.– Mediafax, in Romanian) in many overseas cities, in order to be able to vote Romanian citizens had to wait in the line four or five hours (e.g.: in Florence) or eight hours (e.g. in Paris). There is evidence of even longer waiting times. According to the New York Times, Ancuta Iordachescu, a photographer who tried to vote at the embassy in Paris, said that ‘After nine hours and 10 minutes of waiting I gave up’ (New York Times). People were shouting ‘The lines [to exercise the right to vote] in Paris look like the [food stamps] lines in communism’, ‘Give the decree to let France vote’, and ‘[Communist] comrades, extend the time for voting’. According to one report, the highest numbers of Romanians abroad voted in Italy, Spain, Moldova, United Kingdom, France and Germany (Mediafax, in Romanian).A huge collection of pictures on the diaspora vote in the second round in many overseas cities can be seen here: article 1 and article 2.

Gunther Krichbaum, the German Bundestag’s president of the ‘Committee on the Affairs of the European Union’ declared on Sunday, in London (talking to the former presidential candidate Monica Macovei), that what is happening ‘is incredible for a European country, and especially for a country which is a member of the European Union (…) the Prime Minister is responsible for this and has to resign (…) What is going on is a fraud’ (Mediafax, in Romanian) (watch the video in English on a social network).

On the same day, before the second round of elections was about to come to an end, the Central Elections Office (CEO) sent a warning to voting stations abroadstating that the electoral process must close at 9 p.m. Even though the Romanian Ambassador in Dublin Manuela Breazu officially requested CEO to extend the voting process after 9 p.m., the request was denied. According to CEO’s spokesman Marian Muhuleţ, at this moment ‘the law is unambiguous: the voting process starts at 7 a.m. and closes at 9 p.m.’ (Mediafax, in Romanian). Moreover, some officials fanned the flames by suggesting expatriates to cast their vote in other cities: the Minister of Foreign Affairs Theodor Meleşcanu suggested voters in Paris to go to Nancy (385 km away, a four-hour drive) (Hotnews, in Romanian) and voters in Dublin were encouraged to travel to Belfast (166 km away, a two-hour drive) (Mediafax, in Romanian). However, some Romanians did make a big effort to vote: ten Romanians in Norway paid a plane ticket (200 Euros each) from Stavanger to Oslo (550 km away) in order to be able to vote (Mediafax, in Romanian).

In Brussels, five thousands expatriates were waiting in line to vote, and they were guarded by police forces that closed the street where the Romanian Embassy was located. But the most important cases this time were Paris, Milan and Torino. Hundreds of citizens were still waiting in the three towns to exercise their right to vote even after the voting process was closed. In Torino and Paris the police used tear gas to disperse the crowd. In Torino, several individuals needed medical care after they were exposed to the tear gas (Mediafax, in Romanian).

According to an estimate of the Mediafax Research & Monitoring, citizens’ participation in the second round of presidential elections could be at record level compared to the last 14 years, the estimated turnout being 64,10% (Mediafax, in Romanian). As euobserver.com notes, ‘(t)wo hours after neck-and-neck exit polls were announced, Ponta conceded his defeat and said he called Iohannis to congratulate him’. After the votes from 99.07 voting stations have been counted, on Tuesday morning it seems that Klaus Iohannis obtained 54.50% of the votes, while Victor Ponta was voted for by only 45.49 of the electorate (Mediafax, in Romanian). If we compare these percentages to those obtained in the first round of presidential elections, we can see that Iohannis not only recovered the 10% difference, but also succeeded to win with a 9% margin over Ponta.

Considering the number of diaspora Romanians whocame (and succeeded) to vote in the second round (approximately 362,000) we can conclude that Iohannis’ triumph (with a difference of around one million votes) is not based only on diaspora votes, as was the case with Traian Basescu’s victoryin the 2009 presidential elections. However, we have to take into account that about four million Romanians live abroad (reuters.com). The 2014 population estimate for Romania is under 20 million citizens (Wikipedia), which means that one can hardly find a resident Romanian citizen not having a family member or a friend abroad. So the problems regarding the diaspora vote enraged not only Romanians living abroad, but also Romanians at home who successfully mobilised to support their family members, friends and acquaintances abroad.The social media played a major role: Iohannis’ campaign ‘was also fought online, with a massive mobilisation on Facebook and Twitter, with apps developed in Germany helping voters to see which polling stations were less crowded’(euobserver.com, in English).

 

4. After the second round

Thousands of citizens protested on Sunday night in Bucharest in support for the extension ofthe voting hours, in support of the diaspora and against Prime Minister Victor Ponta who they feared would become the new President of Romania. Approximately 10,000 protested in the streets of other Romanian towns, including Sibiu (Hermannstadt / Nagyszeben), Braşov (Kronstadt / Brassó), Cluj-Napoca (Klausenburg / Kolozsvár), Timişoara (Temeswar), TarguMures, Oradea, Arad and Iaşi (Mediafax). After Victor Ponta accepted defeat, the protests were transformed into demonstrations of joy with people cheerfully welcoming the announcement that Iohannis won the elections and warmly thanking Romanian diaspora. They were also chanting ‘Daciana, dragosteamea! (Daciana, my love!)’ (Daciana is Ponta’s wife and a European MP; the allusion is to the 2009 presidential election, when then-PSD candidate Mircea Geoana, after the preliminary results of the polling institutes suggested his victory, exclaimed ‘Thank you Mihaela, my love!’ – althoughhe eventually lost). People in Bucharest gathered in the historic University Square (the ‘Milestone of Democracy’, ‘the place where 25 years ago people were being shot and street protests ultimately led to Communist dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu being ousted, tried and executed’ –euobserver.com, in English), where Klaus Iohannis also came to thank them for their vote, being welcomed with the chanting ‘Klaus, Klaus, you saved us from Mickey Mouse’ (Mickey Mouse became the nickname of Victor Ponta in the presidential campaign). They also chanted ‘Thank you diaspora!’(Mediafax.ro, in Romanian).

Sunday evening, Romanian politicians asked for the resignation of Victor Ponta as Prime Minister, of Theodor Meleşcanu as Minister of Foreign Affairs and even of the entire government. Ludovic Orban, vice-president of the National Liberal Party (PNL),asked Ponta to resign because he did not increase the number of voting sections abroad (Mediafax, in Romanian). However, Ponta declared on Sunday evening that ‘categorically, I will not resign as long as my colleagues do not ask me to do so’ (Mediafax, in Romanian). Mihai Răzvan Ungureanu, former Prime Minister and presently the vice-president of the Democrat Liberal Party (PDL) asked Meleşcanu to resign (Mediafax, in Romanian).Vasile Blaga, the president of PDL also requested Mr. Ponta to resign, but he did not say whether the opposition was ready to form a government, as social democrats have the majority in Parliament (DIGI24, in Romanian). Finally, on Monday Klaus Iohannis declared that the Government must analyse the way the presidential elections had been organised abroad and must punish and dismiss those responsible, claiming that ‘somebody must bear the consequences’ (Mediafax, in Romanian).

 

 

5. What will happen next

It is interesting to see what will happen next. On the one hand, on Monday the social-democratic vice-president and mayor of Craiova, Lia Olguţa Vasilescu posted not without irony a message on a social network telling diaspora Romanians to come home after ‘they took their country back’ (an allusion to Iohannis’ declaration after the elections) and that she will offer them ‘free land and no local taxes’ (Mediafax, in Romanian). On the other hand, Klaus Iohannis urged the Parliament to consider postal voting and electronic voting and other measures in order to make sure that the ‘diaspora problem’ will not happen again.

Finally, the political situation of the two contenders for the near future is not known. On the one hand,  Klaus Iohannisis still subject to a legal proceeding with the National Agency for Integrity, and if he loses this lawsuit, he may not become Romania’s President even if elected. On the other hand, even if Victor Ponta did not resign as a Prime Minister yet, some members of the Social Democratic Party already call for his resignation.

If both leaders will keep their positions, cooperation will be difficult: Once Mr Iohannis is confirmed as president he will have to govern jointly with Mr Ponta’s Social Democratic party, the largest grouping in the parliament. Under the semi-presidential system, the president will be responsible for foreign and defence policy and will control appointments of prosecutors and the judiciary’ (Financial Times, in English).

Moreover, even within the two major parties one can already see some convulsions: many ‘political barons’ in the Social-DemocraticParty want to see those responsible for the Sunday disaster penalised, and in the Liberal Christian Alliance former Liberal Democratic Party members ask for more important political positions, considering that they work harder for Iohannis’ election than the members of the National Liberal Party.

 

6. Addendum: the political profiles of the two candidates

Victor Ponta (42 years) is a well know politician in Romania. After 1989, he was for a short time a member of the National Liberal Party’s youth organisation, but he quickly switched sides and became a member of the Social-DemocraticParty (the successor of the Communist Party). He later became the disciple of Adrian Năstase – his PhD supervisor and political mentor. But this relationship proved to be detrimental for Victor Ponta. Firstly, Ponta was accused of plagiarism in May 2012 (after only a month into his term as a Prime Minister) by an anonymous article published in Nature. The charge, reiterated by Frankfurter AllgemeineZeitung, was that more than half of his thesis in law on the International Criminal Court (2003) was copy-pasted. On 20 July 2012 the Ethics Committee of the University of Bucharest found him guilty of plagiarism. However, the National Committee of Ethics (the highest and notoriously politicised forum) already decided two days before that the Prime Minister had not plagiarised, and that the quotations ‘respected all academic requirements that existed in 2003’ (Wikipedia, in Romanian). The general impression among the Romanian electorate was that - although the plagiarism accusation was incontestable - this was a political masterstroke directed by President Traian Basescu who had strong connections with the Secret Services and who did not want to appoint Mr. Ponta as Prime Minister. The same year, ‘Mr. Ponta’s mentor, Adrian Nastase, a former prime minister, was imprisoned for improperly raising funds’ (Financial Times, in English). Finally, it is important to note that Victor Ponta does not have the image of a politically strong leader; the general impression is that he was elected as PSD’s leader after MirceaGeoana lost the presidential election in 2009 in order to calm down the party’s ‘political barons’ who already started to fight for succession.

Klaus Iohannis (55 years) has quite a different image than Victor Ponta. He worked as a physics teacher at various schools and colleges in Sibiufrom 1989 to 1997, and from 1997 to 2000 he was Deputy General School Inspector and General School Inspector of the Sibiu County. He entered politics in 2000, when he was elected mayor in thecity of Sibiu (Hermannstadt / Nagyszeben). He was re-elected by landslide votes in 2004 and 2008 and ‘is credited with turning his city into one of Romania’s most popular tourist destinations’ (Wikipedia; see also Reuters). He was for more than ten years the president of the Democratic Forum of Germans in Romania, a centrist political party representing the German minority in Romania. In October 2009 four of the five political parties in Parliament proposed him for the office of Prime Minister, but President Basescu refused to appoint him. In February 2013 he became a member and simultaneously the First Vice-President of the NLP (after the liberal President Crin Antonescu courted him for a long time to become a member in order to use him, based on his clean public image, against President Traian Basescu). He quickly replaced Antonescu as the President of the NLP (united this time with Basescu’s former party, the Democratic Liberal Party) which triggered Antonescu’s disapproval and refusal to support him in the 2014 presidential campaign. In the eyes of the Romanian electorate, Iohannis has his own unresolved issues. Firstly, he was publicly accused of being a member of a child trafficking organisation in the 1990s. He reportedly helped Canadian couples to buy Romanian children and some video recordings show the supposed grand-mother and an aunt of those children complaining that they were always trying to know what happened to their relatives, but Iohannis constantly refused to answer them. Iohannis persistently declared that he was only an intermediary in this affair, helping only with driving and language translation (Romaniatv.net). A second issue in this presidential campaign was related to Iohannis’s wealth (six houses and apartments, several bank accounts, plus his quality of land owner). Since he was only a schoolteacher until 2000, many asked how one could have possibly acquired such a fortune. Unexpectedly, Iohannis publicly answered in a very rough manner, saying that ‘we don’t have children, so while some invested in their children’s education, we invested in real estate’ (Gandul.info). Finally – and probably most importantly – Iohannis is still subject to a legal proceeding with the National Agency for Integrity (NAI). In April 2013 the NAI declared that he held incompatible positions because he was simultaneously the mayor of Sibiu and also a representative of the municipality in two trading companies (Ziare.com).  If he loses this lawsuit, he may not become the Romania President, even if elected.