Romania’s Underdog of Hope

NEW YORK – The results of the recent Romanian presidential election were a happy surprise. Despite mounting a well-funded and ruthless campaign based on nationalism and religious devotion, Victor Ponta, the candidate of the Social Democratic Party (PSD) and current prime minister, lost to Klaus Werner Iohannis, the first Romanian president to come from an ethnic minority.

The outcome is as significant as it was shocking. With a huge political apparatus, the support of the Orthodox Church, the revival of the levers of corruption so often used in Romanian politics, and a victory in the first round, Ponta’s triumph seemed all but certain. Yet the underdog won by a comfortable margin. What does this mean for Romanian democracy?

Iohannis’s victory may well be as important a milestone for Romanian democracy as the bloody 1989 revolution that led to the overthrow and execution of the communist leader Nicolae Ceaușescu. The difference, of course, is that Romanians had to launch violent protests to escape the communist dictatorship that had brought them 42 years of suffering; today, they are working within a peaceful political process. But, then and now, Romania’s government pushed people beyond their limit.

Indeed, the election result was less a vote for Iohannis’s Christian Liberal Alliance than a vote against the “leftist” PSD, with its unenviable record in office, and the PSD’s political enemy on the right, the Democratic Party, led by Romania’s autocratic and unpopular outgoing president Traian Băsescu. The electorate seemed tired of the persistent confrontation between Băsescu and Ponta, and, more generally, of the noisy, ugly, and treacherous burlesque that their country’s political scene has become.