Romanian presidential election: Transylvanian German to take on Ponta in second round

The main Hungarian candidate in the first round of voting in Romania’s presidential election – Hunor Kelemen of the centrist Democratic Union of Hungarians in Romania (RMDSZ) – received only 3.50% of the vote on Sunday, but came out on top in the country’s two Hungarian majority counties, namely: Hargita (Harghita) and Kovászna (Covasna). The right-wing Transylvanian Hungarian People’s Party (EMNP) candidate – Zsolt Szilágyi – performed disastrously, winning only 0.58%. The future of a party with no growth potential is very much in question. But much more interesting than the performance of the two ethnic Hungarian candidates is the fact that many Transylvanian Hungarians decided to vote for another presidential hopeful, who happens to be the popular ethnic German mayor of an historic Saxon town called Nagyszeben (Sibiu). Even a cursory look at the map of Romania after the first round of voting shows a stark regional divide: in Transylvania, with the exception of Hungarian-dominated Szeklerland, which voted for Mr. Kelemen, this multi-ethnic area supported Klaus Johannis (or Iohannis, in Romanian), who finished less than 10 points behind the country’s current prime minister and front-runner for president, Victor Ponta. Nationwide, the left’s candidate garnered 40.33% of the vote, as opposed to 30.44% for Mr. Johannis.

Blue represents counties that supporter Mr. Johannis, while those in red voted for Mr. Ponta. The two Hungarian-majority counties of Székelyföld, or Szeklerland, voted for Mr. Kelemen, of RMDSZ. Illustration produced by Transindex.ro and based on 98% of the votes.

Blue represents counties that supported Mr. Johannis, while those in red voted for Mr. Ponta. The two Hungarian-majority counties of Székelyföld, or Szeklerland, voted for Mr. Kelemen, of RMDSZ. Illustration produced by Transindex.ro and based on 98% of the votes.

With the exception of the southern Transylvanian counties of Hunyad and Krassó-Szörény (where the Hungarian population is now only 5% and 1% respectively) the rest of this linguistically and ethnically diverse region voted either for Mr. Johannis or for Mr. Kelemen.

One of the clear messages of the vote, however, is that it is possible for a minority candidate to perform well in Romanian elections, even if his co-nationals form a very small and dwindling minority. The Saxons (Germans) only account for 0.7 of Transylvania’s population, thus little more than 36,000 residents in total, down from 6% in 1956. Hungarians currently number just over 1.2 million in the same region. Yet – to draw a comparison to the Roman Catholic President John F. Kennedy  – Mr. Johannis did not run for president of Romania as a German candidate, but was simply a contender, whose background and heritage happened to be tied to the Saxons. And his relatively successful 14 year stint as mayor of Nagyszeben (where he is credited with restoring the town’s historic centre and turning it into a major tourist destination, which helped pave the way for the town to become the 2007 European Capital of Culture) was certainly not due to mere ethno-nationalism and ethnic loyalty among the town’s Germans, considering that they now only account for an anemic 1.6% of the total population. When re-elected for a third term in 2008, Mr. Johannis garnered 87.4% of the vote, thus winning over the Romanian majority.

Mr. Johannis. Photo? Facebook.

Mr. Johannis. Photo: Facebook.

Clearly, the ethnic Romanian voters who are supporting Mr. Johannis in the presidential race are not doing so because of his German heritage, but rather as a result of his national popularity as a mayor who brought about “order” in his town and seemed to personify the hope of greater prosperity, westernization and closer connections to other countries in the European Union. In 2005, he was granted the title: “Personality of the Year for a European Romania.” Since he wasn’t a member of any major political party, Mr. Johannis was perceived by many as being relatively “independent” and above partisan politics.

While Mr. Johannis launched his political career under the banner of the Democratic Forum of Germans in Romania, his run for president is being supported by the National Liberal Party of Romania (PNL), as well as by the centre-right Democratic Liberal Party (PD-L). Together the two entities formed an electoral partnership called the Christian-Liberal Alliance. It is under this banner that Mr. Johannis takes on Prime Minister Victor Ponta, who is supported by the Social Liberal Party and the National Union for the Progress of Romania. Clearly, unlike in Hungary, the term “liberal” is not a pejorative in Romania.

Mr. Ponta and Mr. Johannis have some personal “history.”  Until February 2014, Mr. Johannis’ PNL was part of Mr. Ponta’s coalition government. The PNL had hoped to have Mr. Johannis become not only interior minister, but also deputy prime minister. This, however, was not accepted by Mr. Ponta’s party and the PNL left the coalition. The Hungarian RMDSZ’s Mr. Kelemen, however, ended up in Mr. Ponta’s cabinet and became deputy prime minister in March 2014.

The run-off is scheduled for November 16th. The Hungarian Free Press contacted the Romanian embassy in Ottawa and spoke with political attaché Silvana Bolocan, who highlighted the fact that of the 14 presidential candidates ahead of the first round, three were from minority communities (ie: two Hungarians and a German). Ms. Bolocan added that despite problems in voting at several consulates (especially in Munich, which witnessed extremely long queues), in Ottawa, Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver, the voting process “took place with normality.” She told the HFP that 2,688 voters had cast their ballots in Canada. As an aside, it’s important to note that overseas voters tended to favour opposition candidates, especially Mr. Johannis.

A bilingual (Romanian/Hungarian) sign on the gate of a voting station in the majority Hungarian Kovászna county. Photo: transindex.ro.

A bilingual (Romanian/Hungarian) sign on the gate of a voting station in the majority Hungarian Kovászna county. Photo: transindex.ro.

Now than Mr. Kelemen and others are out of the running, Mr. Johannis will face off with Mr. Ponta and will have to find a way to unite the badly divided centre-right vote and make up the 10% difference between him and the front runner. According to political scientist Gergő Illyes, this will be an uphill battle for Mr. Johannis. Speaking to the liberal transindex.ro news site, he noted that ethnic Hungarians are unlikely to vote for Mr. Ponta, even if RMDSZ decides later this week to throw its support behind the centre-left prime minister. Mr. Illyés suggests that supporters of the extreme nationalist Corneliu Vadim Tudor (who received 3.66% of the vote) are likely to throw their support behind Mr. Ponta. The same can be said for the populist Dan Diaconescu’s supporters (4%). Mr. Johannis, on the other hand, might be able to scoop up most of the those who voted for four other candidates, including Mr. Kelemen, which gives him a boost of up to 15%. But since Mr. Johannis is sitting at just over 30% of the vote, that still puts him just under 50% support, which he would need, in order to beat Mr. Ponta on November 16th. 

Mr. Illyés suggests that the race will be a close one and that either Mr. Ponta or Mr. Johannis may make a few small gestures to ethnic Hungarian voters, in order to win them over in this tight campaign. Neither will touch the prickly subject of autonomy for Székelyföld, for fear of losing Romanian voters. At the moment, Hungarians prefer Mr. Johannis, but Mr. Illyés notes that if Mr. Ponta’s challenger overtly rejects Szekler autonomy, it could means that Hungarian voters stay home come voting day “en masse.”

One Comment

  1. You will never have any kind of autonomy in Romania, and this for a very simple reason (apart that the contitution doesn’t allow it): Romania is the country/land of Romanians, and we (romanians) will never allow a single romanian to become a minority in a breakaway region in our own country. hungarians stole from us enough land, ENOUGH ! Romania aspires to a United Europe, unlike hungary who aspires to a Europe divided by nationalism and extremism.

    Johanis presedinte ! 🙂
    … a romanian who hates only the hungarian extremists, the normal hungarians are cool.

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