Romania’s German turn: President-elect Johannis sends a message to Hungary’s Orbán

Romania’s President-elect, Klaus Johannis, might want to send a thank you card to the 3 million Romanian citizens living and working abroad. And also to Transylvania’s Hungarian population. Without them, Prime Minister Victor Ponta would have been able to change political chairs and become the country’s new left-leaning president, replacing Traian Băsescu, who was completing his second and final term in office. Turn-out in this past Sunday’s second round of voting was surprisingly high: 62% of eligible voters took to the polls, with especially high numbers of pro-Johannis voters at consulates in western European cities. Mr. Johannis (in the Romanian press, his name is Romanianized as “Iohannis”) garnered 54% of the vote, despite the fact that he was the underdog and nearly all pollsters predicted a Ponta victory. It would appear that this election was won through Facebook-based mobilization and a huge protest vote against Mr. Ponta, who is perceived as having been ineffective in tackling widespread corruption and who is often accused of undermining the country’s democratic system. Mr. Ponta, however, would like to remain the country’s prime minister, despite this unexpected loss.

Klaus Johannis. Photo: Facebook.

Klaus Johannis. Photo: Facebook.

Transylvania’s ethnic Hungarian population (numbering over 1.2 million) voted overwhelmingly for Mr. Johannis, even though turn-out was especially low in the Hungarian-majority Székely (Szekler) counties of Hargita and Kovászna. The Democratic Union of Hungarians in Romania (RMDSZ) is a member of Mr. Ponta’s government, but realizing that Mr. Johannis, the successful long-time mayor of the historically Saxon town of Sibiu (Nagyszeben), is much more popular among Hungarians, the party decided not to endorse either candidate. In Hargita, Mr. Johannis garnered 80% of the vote and 78% in Kovászna. He also won 80% in his home county of Szeben and 74% in the ethnically diverse (Romanian/Hungarian) Kolozs county. Outside Transylvania, Mr. Johannis won the majority of votes in Prahova, Iasi, Tulcea and Konstanca.

While Mr. Johannis is unlikely to agree to grant any major concessions to those who seek autonomy for Székelyföld (ie: Kovászna, Hargita and a portion of Maros counties), some are hoping that he will at least devolve some powers or decentralize to Transylvania as a whole. Árpád Antal, the ethnic Hungarian mayor of Sepsiszentgyörgy, believes that RMDSZ will have to mull the possibility of leaving Mr. Ponta’s coalition government. He also expressed hope that Mr. Johannis, as a former mayor, will see the value in devolving some powers to counties and municipalities and ending the centralization, which has favoured Bucharest. Mr. Antal also asked that Mr. Johannis, as a minority politician, show more “empathy” towards Hungarians.

While there was no sign of this in his victory speech, Mr. Johannis did have a message for the illiberal, authoritarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán of Hungary. As a report in the Financial Times noted, both Mr. Ponta and Mr. Johannis have distanced themselves from the anti-western and antidemocratic politics of Mr. Orbán. President-elect Johannis went as far as to observe that Hungary’s democratic system is headed in the wrong direction. “My orientation is west,” added Mr. Johannis.

As such, despite being a president of the centre-right, Mr. Orbán has not found a new ally in Mr. Johannis.

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