Romanians choose change


BERLIN, Germany — The surprise victory of a political outsider in Romania's presidential election last week has offered a boost to the country's nascent battle against corruption as well as a renewed commitment to its Western allies.

But Klaus Iohannis’s promise to shake things up also introduces new elements of uncertainty.

Tipped as an also-ran from the beginning, the center-right National Liberal Party's candidate overcame a ten-point deficit in the first round vote to come away with a ten-point margin of victory in the runoff last weekend, defeating sitting Prime Minister Victor Ponta with a 54 percent majority.

The win put to rest fears that Ponta's Social Democratic (PSD) party would stymie the fight against political corruption by gaining control of presidential powers to appoint the head of the National Anti-corruption Directorate, the NAD, as well as other key posts in the judiciary.

The vote also signaled a renewed optimism in Romanian politics that — along with recent anti-corruption protests in Hungary — may herald winds of change across central Europe, observers say.

The vote for Iohannis was a clear affirmation of Romania's pro-Western stance amid worries that the region is drifting toward Russia, says Paul Ivan of the Brussels-based European Policy Center.

“It was clear during the campaign that he had a very clear, pro-Western message,” he says.

In contrast, Ponta's controversial efforts to consolidate power at home and focus foreign policy toward China rather than Europe had prompted comparisons to Hungary's President Viktor Orban, whose open declaration that he’s seeking to create an “illiberal” state is now helping motivate tens of thousands of anti-corruption protesters in Budapest and other Hungarian cities.

Iohannis is a member of Romania's German minority and observers have also hailed his win as an important rejection of the ethnic nationalism on the rise throughout the region.

“This is a very good message of tolerance,” Ivan says.

Corina Rebegea of the Washington-based Center for European Policy Analysis agrees early indicators for reform are promising.

“This is a good sign for the fight against corruption,” she says.

In his first speech as president-elect, Iohannis called on the legislature to scrap a controversial proposal to offer amnesty to political leaders jailed for corruption and lift immunities for others that had been shielded from investigation by parliament.

The Social Democrat-led parliament responded within a week even though rejecting amnesty will threaten several prominent leaders from Ponta's party, including former PSD Prime Minister Adrian Nastase, who was jailed for a second time in January.

It was a strong signal that Iohannis’s popular mandate offers him a window of opportunity.

“I wouldn't go so far as saying this is a new commitment and things will be different from now on,” Rebegea says, adding that nevertheless “he seized the legitimacy he gained through this vote. This gives him the weight and the leverage to demand that from the political class.”

In other ways, the election results make Romania's future path more uncertain, however.

The swing against Ponta, who was aiming to gain control of the executive as well as the legislative branch of the government, could presage the breakup of his center-left coalition before parliamentary elections scheduled for 2016, says Otilia Dhand of the political risk consultancy firm Teneo.

Moreover, Iohannis’s political future still hangs on an unanswered legal issue despite his having won the presidency.

As mayor of Sibiu, a Transylvanian town located 130 miles northwest of Bucharest, he allegedly violated the law by simultaneously serving on the board of directors of a local public utility, a violation that could still make him ineligible to hold the presidency.

A lower court acquitted him of wrongdoing and the parliament has since passed a law allowing mayors to serve on such boards to represent voters’ interests. Nevertheless, Romania's top court is set to review the law and Iohannis' so-called “incompatability” case later this month.

Although not even the country's constitutional lawyers can predict the outcome, Iohannis's commitment to judicial independence probably gives him an advantage in the proceedings.

However, if the judges rule against him before he officially takes office — and gains presidential immunity — on December 22, a protracted court battle could well determine the country's next president.

Assuming Iohannis overcomes that hurdle, as most observers do, he could still struggle to deliver on some of the broader reforms he promised during his campaign after the early sheen of victory fades.

Opposition legislators have already begun criticizing the president-elect for “issuing orders” — a veiled reference to the historical prominence of ethnic Germans in Romanian society, says Laura Stefan, a former official in the Justice Ministry.

“In Romania, miracles only last for three days, so I expect we'll recover quite soon and go back to the old ways of doing business,” she says.

On corruption, he will need to distance himself from controversial members of his own party and build on a marriage of convenience with civil society that emerged as a de facto anti-Ponta coalition rallied behind him in the election runoff.

A first step could be using the bully pulpit to expand the public's focus from prosecutions to prevention — comparatively boring work on transparency and accuracy in reporting on the use of public resources, Rebegea says.

Still, specific measures to reform economic policy and the political process lie outside the reach of presidential powers, which are limited to foreign policy and judicial appointments.

“When it comes to economic policy, his input is relatively limited,” Dhand says.

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But with a far-reaching national security policy — one of the president's most powerful tools for influencing the country's direction — Iohannis also has an opportunity to emphasize Romania's ties with the EU and US in ways that could encourage Western investment.

With some deft maneuvers, he could step into a vacuum of pro-Western leadership created by Hungary's Orban in the region.

“His new strategy needs to really substantiate what he means by pro-NATO, pro-EU and so on,” Rebegea says. “He needs to look at defense modernization and concrete projects by which Romania can really take on a leadership role in Southeast Europe.”

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