2014 Presidential Romanian elections: Where do we go from here?

The outcome of the Romanian presidential elections has been nothing short of surprising: underdog candidate Klaus Iohannis beat the incumbent prime minister and favourite, Victor Ponta, with a very convincing result. Daniel Brett and Eleanor Knott take us through the whole story and get ready to discuss Where does Romania go from here before LSEE’s event on 1 December.

“Mândru că sunt român ortodox” / “Proud to be Romanian Orthodox”
Victor Ponta, Romanian Prime Minister and PSD Presidential Candidate

Top: Victor Ponta President – the president who unites; bottom: Iohannis – Romania, work done well (Source: Daniel Brett)
Top: Victor Ponta President – the president who unites; bottom: Iohannis – Romania, work done well (Source: Daniel Brett)

This weekend’s Presidential Elections in Romania produced a result that has taken many observers in Romania and the West by surprise. The incumbent Prime Minister Victor Ponta of the Social Democratic Party (PSD) was defeated by Sibiu mayor (and ethnic Saxon) Klaus Iohannis of the Christian-Liberal Alliance (ACL). Iohannis’ victory was convincing (~55% by early polls) and shocking as many of those observers on the morning of the election were predicting an easy and decisive win for Ponta, putting Ponta up to 8-10% ahead of Iohannis.

Turnout was high: about 64% of eligible Romanians voted in the second round on Sunday, compared to 57% in the first round and an average of 53-57% in elections since 2000. Particularly mobilised to vote was the Romanian diaspora, with over twice as many voting in the second round as the first and echoing the trend from 2009, when the turnout of Romanians abroad voting doubled (Chart 1).

Chart 1: Number of Romanians voting from outside Romania in 2009 and 2014 presidential elections

Between the first and second round, not only did turnout increase, pushing the numbers of both Ponta and Iohannis up, but Iohannis was able to consolidate gains from the other eliminated candidates (Chart 2). Ponta was only able to increase his vote share by 5%, while Iohannis was able to increase his vote share by 25% (from 30% to 55%). Iohannis also increased the number voting for him by over two times, essentially sweeping up the votes from the other eliminated candidates.

Chart 2: Results of first and second round of 2014 Romanian presidential elections

So, why did Iohannis win and why did no one see this victory coming?

Ponta became leader of the PSD (the Social Democrat Party) after Mircea Geoana was defeated by Traian Băsescu (Romanian president 2004-2014) in the 2009 elections. As leader of PSD, the party occupied a strong position with a large, disciplined, well-developed and organised party infrastructure from a grassroots level across Romania, his task of being elected should have been easy.

As Prime Minister, Ponta had manoevered PSD to control key state institutions overseeing the running of the election. He was able to maintain a prominent media profile, aided by the vociferous support of several television stations. PSD also controlled the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, under Titus Corlățean, thereby controlling the allocation of voting facilities abroad. Romanian diaspora had consistently supported opponents of the PSD and were key in securing Bǎsescu’s victory in 2009, even though PSD/Geoana won the domestic vote.

By comparison, Iohannis had to overcome the implosion and fracturing of the centre right parties as well as his regional rather than national profile, his lack of charisma and his ethnicity, all of which seemed to provide barriers to his election. Secondly, there were more candidates in the first round of the election (14) than since 1992. This included the four centre right candidates, Iohannis, Udrea, Macovei and Tǎriceanu, who originated in the same parties (P-DL and PNL) but decided to run for separately after a series of vicious internecine party conflicts, splitting their electorates.

Ponta was able to win the first round convincingly (40%), leaving him a position that he only needed to gain just over 10% from somewhere, with 30% of the votes up for grabs. Alternatively he could assume that the supporters of the defeated candidates would stay at home in the second round, something that seemed likely given the internecine warfare that had plagued the centre right in recent years.

However PSD’s strength also rendered it toxic to many Romanian voters. As a successor of the National Salvation Front (NSF), who seized power from the Romanian Communist party in 1989, PSD served as a reminder of Romania’s authoritarian past and intolerant tendencies. This was not helped by the way PSD had behaved in government. Ponta did nothing to remove the toxicity surrounding himself and PSD during the campaign.

PSD’s campaign served to reinforce the view that it was the same old PSD, with a populist spin advocating publically for the “second great unification” of Romania and Moldova by 2018. This is nothing new: Bǎsescu and his predecessors have all invoked the nationalist reunification card to inspire votes, both at home and among Romanian citizens in Moldova (of whom 36,000 voted in the second round, twice that of 2009), however, never with a specific timetable nor have they made it a central plank of their discourse. Secondly, Ponta made slurs against Iohannis, as not a true Romanian because he belonged to an ethnic minority. Ponta sought to exploit religious identity as a marker of difference between himself and the Protestant Iohannis and to use it to mobilise the Orthodox rural population, frequently appearing alongside members of the Orthodox Church. The Church in return backed Ponta and told voters to support Ponta. Similarly, attempts to give voters material gifts were also seen as a transparent attempts to buy votes.

However, it failed, in one example PSD supporters openly campaigning in the Orthodox Church with the support of the Priest in Paris were heckled in a video that then went viral.

ImpactinGorj.com – Ponta distributing Pomana. Electoral Pomana is the practice of giving material gifts to voters in return for their support.

These appeals to populism had the opposite of the desired effect, Ponta was seen as crude, unreliable and opportunistic, rather than astute. They failed to change the negative perception of the PSD to Romanian society. As the satirical website Times New Roman argued, Ponta achieved something no one thought possible: to make himself more hated than Adrian Nǎstase (Romania’s Prime Minister 2000-2004). Anger and fear over what Romania might become under Ponta served to galvanise Romanian civil society and in turn to mobilise the electorate to go out and vote.

Secondly, the first round of the elections did not go to plan, as the large Romanian diaspora found itself unable to vote as huge queues appears outside embassies and official bureaucracy slowed the process to a crawl. After waiting for several hours to vote, thousands were turned away as the polling station doors were closed at 9pm sharp. Near riots followed and the police were called in London and Paris.

Angry voters outside the Romanian Embassy in London shortly after the Embassy Staff shut the doors on voters waiting to cast their ballots during the first round. Video courtesy of Ioana Dumitrescu

Voters queuing on Saturday evening before the polls opened on Sunday in Munich (source: Madalina Rosca via Facebook)

Where does this leave Romania?

Restricting the rights of people to vote has a pertinent message in Central and Eastern Europe with the anniversary of 25 years since the fall of Communism. Romanian voters in Munich took their toothbrushes to the queue to ensure they could vote the next day. Crowds gathered in central Bucharest holding flags with a hole removed, exactly as they had done at the fall of Communism and the Ceausescu regime at the end of 1989.

Hence, with an ‘emerging pattern of soft semi-authoritarian rule in Central and Southeastern Europe, most strikingly in Hungary and perhaps also Macedonia, there is perhaps a sigh of relief among other EU member-states that elections still matter. As Florian Bieber argues, while these semi-authoritarian politicians, like Victor Ponta and Viktor Orban, are able to ‘manipulate and use state resources to their advantage, they still have to win on election day’.

It is an important message to learn that politicians still have to be able to appeal to their electorates, at home and abroad, to legitimise their right to govern because voters are listening, and responding, to the choices made by those in power. In political science, there has been a long debate about the relative merits of presidentialism vs. parliamentary systems, leading to the conclusion that it is perhaps presidential systems that allow more authoritarian tendencies to remain by concentrating a large degree of power in a single office. However elections demonstrate that not all candidates that are able to manipulate the office of prime minister, and benefit from the electoral geography of parliamentary elections, can foster enough public support to be elected president by a majority of the electorate.

Still, Iohannis has a lot of work to do, to live up to the expectations of those who voting him into office. He is inheriting a regime that saw two attempted impeachment referenda, multiple coalitions and a fracturing of the centre right. He has vowed to resign should an attempt to impeach him be called, yet the promises you make out of office, as Ukraine’s new President Petro Poroshenko is fast learning, are nothing compared to the decisions and favours you make once in office. His plans to reduce the size of parliament as well as his desire to reject the political amnesty law for corrupt politicians is likely to put him on collision course with powerful vested interests who will resist any efforts to reign in their power leading more conflict and political instability.

The political landscape remains difficult to predict, whether Iohannis can create a stable party organisation to support him or whether he will have to depend on the goodwill of the fractious and egotistical centre-right remains to be seen. Similarly how the PSD will react to this defeat is impossible to predict, and finally, whether the popular mobilisation despite the anger at the lack of choice in economic programmes will lead to the creation of a new left alternative also remains to be seen. It is likely that parliamentary politics will remain highly volatile in the short term, especially if anti-corruption and reform efforts threaten established vested interests, just as cases elsewhere in the region, such as Ukraine, demonstrate: it’s one thing to win thing to win an election, it’s another thing to govern and meet the expectations of the electorate.

Where Romania goes from here, is something we’ll be discussing further on 1 December at LSEE’s event analysing the 2014 Presidential elections, organised in collaboration with the Romanian-Moldovan Research Group.

This post was originally posted on South East Europe at LSE the blog of LSEE Research on SEE, the Research Unit on South Eastern Europe of the London School of Economics: 2014 Presidential Romanian elections: Where do we go from here? There’s also a podcast from the event.

Daniel Brett Open University
Daniel Brett is an Associate Lecturer at the Open University, he has previously taught at Indiana University and the School of Slavonic and East European  Studies. He works on contemporary Romania, rural politics and historical democratisation.

Ellie Knott – London School of Economics
Ellie Knott is a PhD candidate in the Department of Government at LSE researching Romanian kin-state policies in Moldova and Russian kin-state policies in Crimea. She tweets @ellie_knott


How will Moldovans vote in the 2014 Romanian Presidential Elections?

Vrem să începem a doua mare unire a românilor. / We want to begin the second great unification of Romanians – Victor Ponta (Romanian Prime Minister and 2014 Presidential Candidate)

The Great Unification: Victor Ponta President (Cotidianul.Ro)

In 2009, 95% of Moldovans voting in Romanian presidential elections voted for Băsescu (in the second round). In my interviews, Băsescu was extremely popular in Moldova: he was the guy that was personally responsible for allowing, and easing, Moldovans’ ability to acquire Romanian citizenship (well, legally reacquire (redobandire) on the basis that Romania are returning the citizenship taken from present-day Moldovans’ grandparents/great-grandparents). He was so popular, one of my interviewees told me, he could win a presidential election in Moldova.

Ok, so this 95% supporting Băsescu was only 11,000 votes (out of a possible of 51,831 eligible to vote) but it signifies much more. Otherwise, why have figures like Eugen Tomac and parties like PSD recently opened offices in Chisinau, Moldova’s capital? Because they know they need a solution for after Băsescu can no longer run. Secondly, the 2009 elections demonstrated the importance more generally of the diaspora vote in Romanian elections. In 2009, Băsescu lost the election from the electorate inside Romania but won the election because of high support among Romanian voters from outside, of which Moldovans were a crucial number.

Romania is, interestingly, also one of the few states that have external constituencies. So the Romanian diaspora have their own parliamentary seats (4 deputies, 2 senators).

Why is the 2014 Presidential election interesting (in terms of the Moldovan electorate)?

It’s interesting for a couple of reasons. Firstly, we know that the number (re)acquiring Romanian citizenship in Moldova is increasing but we don’t know by how much the number acquiring is increasing. There aren’t good statistics and Romania play fast and loose with declaring how many in Moldova are (re)acquiring Romanian citizenship to Eurostat (i.e. they haven’t given any figures to Eurostat since 2009). As the citizenship agency told me: they don’t collect data by country of origin, so we may never know how many are acquiring Romanian citizenship. So, the number eligible vote in Romanian elections is increasing (most likely) because if you acquire Romanian citizenship, you can vote in Romanian elections without being resident in Romania and without ever having resided in Romanian elections.

Do Moldovans want to vote in Romanian elections? Yes and no: some definitely do, seeing it as an obligation and duty. And many wanted to personally thank Băsescu for facilitating their acquisition of Romanian citizenship. Others wanted to vote, but didn’t want to stand in line. The number of Romanian polling stations in Moldova has often constrained how many actually end up voting because they didn’t want to have to queue for hours to exercise this right. This year, the number of polling stations is the highest it’s ever been with 4 polling stations in Chisinau and 17 across the rest of Moldova. The effect this has on turnout will therefore be very interesting.

Secondly, it’s interesting because Băsescu, the incumbent, cannot run again for President. It’s up to the new candidates to convince this growing Moldovan, and typically pro-Băsescu, electorate to vote for them. In the last few weeks, I’ve pretty invasive examples of reaching out to vote for different candidates, from a text message from PSD espousing unification sentiment and encouraging votes for Ponta:

I also saw an email telling people to vote for Iohannis (Ponta’s main competitor):

“We think Romania deserves a president balanced and powerful Father of the Nation, a guarantor of respect for the constitution. A strong Romania, with a clear voice and respected in the European community. Moldova in its European road needs a reliable neighbour, an ally that’s strong, safe and predictable.”

Iohannis, just as Ponta, has also continued to stoke the unification flame declaring in Moldova:

“Moldova is on the way to Europe. […] in Romania there are politicians who say that Moldova’s European integration is inconsistent with the unification of Moldova with Romania. And I say it is not so, for union with Moldova is something only Bucharest can give and Chisinau only can accept. And if our brothers across the Prut will unite the country, no one can stop them.”

Iohannis Rally in Chisinau (Ziarul National)

So, it’s all to play for in the first round of Romania’s 2014 Presidential Elections and whoever Romanians, and Romanian citizens in Moldova vote for, the post-Băsescu era looks set to be quite interesting. There were already queues of people waiting to vote outside the Romanian embassy in Chisinau at 7.20 am this morning.


There’s been a lot of consternation that the rights of voters abroad was restricted, via long queues and polling stations which closed before they should, preventing those from standing in line from voting. This is particularly fraught given that PSD are the ones controlling how many polling stations there are outside Romania  (e.g. the Romanian Foreign Minsiter, Titus Corlățean, is from PSD), while Romanians abroad are typically (more) anti-PSD. The Department for Romanians Abroad (under the Romanian Foreign Ministry) has already put out a statement defending its provisions for Romanians voting abroad, on the basis that the number of polling stations abroad has increased since 2009.

In fact, despite the queues, 71% more voted in the first round of the presidential elections yesterday compared to 2009. This does not speak to % of turnout comparisons, as this data is not available yet. But still: there were big increases in the number of the Romanian diaspora voting in 2014 (161,054) vs. 2009 (94,383).

Numbers Voting in First Round of Presidential Elections - 2009 vs. 2014
Numbers Voting in First Round of Presidential Elections – 2009 vs. 2014

Evening Standard: Hundreds of Romanians locked outside London Embassy ‘denied their right to vote’ (3 November 2014)

There’s also already a petition to Jean-Claude Juncker to  “Please ensure the Romanian Presidential Election are free, equal, universal, secret and direct” which (as of 1pm  3/11/2014) already has 1,110 signatures.

I’ll be discussing how Moldovans vote in a panel event, alongside others discussing the Romanian elections following the second round of the Presidential elections, on Monday 1 December at LSE (yes, it’s also Romania’s National Day):

Panel Discussion on Romanian Presidential Elections 2014

Where does Romania go to from here? Romania and the Presidential Elections
Venue:  Cañada Blanch Room, (COW 1.11), Cowdray House, LSE
Time:  6:00 – 7:30 pm