Romania’s facebook president

Who is Romania’s new President Klaus Johannis? And what are the big challenges that await him? Hertie School Professor of Democracy Studies Alina Mungiu-Pippidi tells the story of Johannis’ success and explains what reforms need to be undertaken now.

A contestant in the German “Who You Wants to be a Millionaire?” show, a few days ago, was not certain if someone called Klaus Johannis was President of either Bayern München or the EU member state Romania. His confusion has a chance of being cleared up this week when Chancellor Angela Merkel receives this not so ordinary newcomer to European top politics.

Romania’s Klaus Johannis, elected the fifth President of Romania on 16 November 2014, will make his first appearance at an European summit after his visit to Berlin. Mr. Johannis’ rise deserves some attention. Not only was he directly elected by six million Romanians, which grants him, next to the French President Hollande, the second strongest mandate of a head of state in Europe; not only is he the European leader whose Facebook page has 1.5 million fans, a number which enabled him to win elections against a largely hostile media, jumping from only 2.8 million supporters in the first election round. He is also a German-speaking Lutheran, whose ancestors settled in Transylvania six hundred years ago and who won in a country which is overwhelmingly of Latin descent and Christian Orthodox, directly from a provincial mayoral office – with not a single day of experience in national politics.

Populism had nothing to do with it. He is the most understated politician ever. He refused to make any promises (‘Deeds, not words’ was his slogan), offering only his past as evidence (three highly successful mandates as mayor of Hermannstadt-Sibiu, elected with over 80 percent against all Romanian parties). He refused to attack his opponents who slandered him. His comment ‘I would rather lose than be rude’ went viral on the internet within hours. His (not sensational) autobiography sold 100,000 copies already, more than any other book in years: He announced this as part of his effort to bring people back to reading books.

His main challenge though, is not about books, but is no less formidable. Earlier this week, “Clean Romania!”, a watchdog platform, published a count that over 30 ministers that served in the past three and a half government cycles have been indicted or are already serving sentences for corruption. These were the cabinets of Socialist Prime Minister Adrian Nastase (2000-2004) with nine members facing legal problems, including himself with jail time, Liberal Prime Minister Calin Tariceanu 2005-2008 (also nine), Emil Boc (2009-2012) with six and the current Ponta government with five. Party wise, Socialists lead with eleven ministers , followed by the two center right parties each with seven. And this is only counting full ministers – in 2013 alone, more than 1,000 officials were indicted. On top of the list, prominent members of the families of former president Traian Băsescu and current Prime Minister Victor Ponta. Every day, top politicians can be seen on TV in handcuffs.

Mr. Johannis had the best of both worlds so far. He won as candidate of the two center right parties, but he is the new kid on the block, a last minute import to run for as President. He has not been in any government with any of the above. He would have never won, had it not been for his opponents’ attempts to manipulate the election by preventing Romanian migrants or temporary workers in other EU countries from voting. A law was literally suspended for 45 days to buy support from opposition mayors in exchange for budgetary transfers. This mobilized tens of thousands of people in Romania and abroad, who used Facebook to share this injustice and thus became volunteers in Johannis’ campaign. They took to the streets to demand better vote organization and accuse electoral fraud.

Romania had been rather demoralized after the EU accession, as politicians failed to use the advantages it brought. Romania lost a third of its EU funds allocation due to poor administrative capacity and corruption, jobs could only be found abroad. Turning Romania back into a country where people could hope to make a living, from highly qualified professionals to those picking strawberries in Italy, was a major theme of the campaign and is central to Johannis’ program.

Cleaning Romanian politics in times of such regional turmoil is however a challenge, despite the strong endorsement of civil society. Some politicians already claim that prosecutors destabilize the country by their massive chase of politicians. Such systemic corruption needs reforms, not just arrests. Romanians notoriously lacks prevention tools such as better transparency and completely new blood in politics. The expectations thus invested in President Johannis are huge. After his victory, political trust skyrocketed in Romania. He instantly became the most popular politician and more than one million people who did not vote for him, now claim that they did. While the victory prevented Ponta’s Social Democratic Party (SDP) from monopolizing power and gaining control over judiciary and secret services, they still control the majority in the Parliament until the 2016 elections. What can Johannis achieve with a party under reform itself? He pledged to deliver ten years (two mandates) of growth, to end client driven and irrational spending, and finally some highways – travel time from Sibiu to Bucharest over the mountains would be halved if a long planned EU-funded road was finally built. For this, he either needs to get a parliamentary majority in 2016 or earlier, or he has to persuade the current parliament to vote with him. He already managed to convince them, using his strong popular mandate, to stop shielding MPs from the law. But many other, more daring reforms are waiting.

Klaus Johannis’ way into government was in many ways innovative, it seems that Mr. Johannis governance has to be innovative as well. He has to reform parties, politics, and government, and he cannot do it based on the political establishment. He needs to change the modus operandi of the state, especially budgetary planning, predictability, and transparency. And for this, he needs to channel the popular energy which carried him into office to more institutionalized participation. The 1.5 million Facebook fans need to become 1.5 million contributors to new rules of the game. Until then, more game of thrones is to be expected in Romanian politics.

This text first appeared in Süddeutsche Zeitung on 27 February 2015.

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