Some 19 million Romanian registered voters will have the chance this Sunday to cast their ballot for president of the country, a five-year term, but the election campaign was almost completely stolen by a long-festering government crisis of the former ruling Social-Democrats (PSD).
According to the Constitution, if any one candidate receives an absolute majority, the first round on November 10th will be the only round, but that is not going to happen: It would require one candidate getting at least 50% of all potential votes, not of all votes cast. With a turnout of just over 53 percent at the previous, 2014 elections, even if that increases to an unusually high 60%, that would mean that over 90% of those who actually vote will have to side with the same candidate. This last happened in Romania during the Communist dictatorship of Nicolae Ceaușescu.
So the real question for the first round is, who will challenge the incumbent, President Klaus Iohannis, in the second round?
In the race to raise awareness of issues important to the ethnic Hungarian community in Transylvania is the president of the Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania (RMDSZ), Hunor Kelemen. With dual degrees in veterinary medicine and philosophy, the 52-year-old Kelemen ran his campaign under the self-explanatory “Respect” slogan. Polls put him at four percent — which is in line with the ethnic Hungarian vote as a percentage of overall voters — which means he stands no chance for the second round and even he has said openly that this his candidacy is not about winning but about raising awareness of issues. However, he may also have some bargaining power with the candidate left standing for the second round by offering an endorsement that would bring the support of Hungarian voters in the second round.
Among the most likely candidates for the second round, let’s take a look at the sitting president. Romania has a semi-presidential system, with the head of state’s powers forming a sort of hybrid of those in parliamentary systems, where the president is more of a figurehead (see Germany, for example), and presidential systems like those in France and the United States. The president has significant powers in defining and executing foreign policy and veto rights regarding laws passed by parliament and the composition of the cabinet.
Since Romania again became a pluralist democracy after the 1989 revolution, presidents – with the notable exception of former commercial sea captain and secret police informant Traian Băsescu – have rarely used the full powers of their office.
The current president, Iohannis, was no exception, having had a muted political presence in the first two years of his term. An ethnic German and high school physics teacher, he entered politics representing the ethnic German minority, was mayor of the Transylvanian town of Szeben (Sibiu, Hermannstadt) for fourteen years from 2000, joined the National Liberal Party (PNL) in 2013, and won the presidency the very next year in the party’s colors.
Much to the chagrin of other ethnic minorities – most notably the largest one of Hungarians – he has, since being elected president, turned his back on minority issues, only occasionally paying lip service to them, mostly on account of Romania being a member of the European Union.
He only really began to use the full attributes of his office when the Social-Democrats (PSD) won the general elections in December 2016 and had a major, albeit indirect role, in the fall of previous Prime Minister Viorica Dăncilă, deposed by a vote of no confidence on October 10th this year.
While officially there are no less than fourteen candidates for the presidency, Dăncilă is one of three who will eventually challenge Iohannis in the second round. While her reputation and standing was significantly damaged by her performance – or rather lack thereof – as prime minister, her party still remains the first or second most popular one in the country, with recent aggregated polls putting her at between 13 and 23 percent of votes against Iohannis’ 37-45 percent.
The next challenger is Dan Barna (44) with 10-19% in recent polls. A lawyer by training, he is an MP and the president of parliament’s third largest party, the Save Romania Union (USR). His chances are, however, severely hampered by allegations that before entering politics his law consultancy firm had channeled European Union funds to friends and relatives.
The third and last candidate who could face Iohannis in the second round is actor and politician Mircea Diaconu, 69, with a standing of between 7 and 16 percent in recent polls. A former member of the liberal PNL, he now has the backing of two smaller leftist parties. He also has a skeleton in his closet, having been investigated in 2012 by the prosecution for allegedly having used his significant influence in the art world to secure his wife (Diana Lupescua) a director position at a Bucharest theater, despite her lack of qualifications.
Title image: Romanian Presidential candidates (left to right): Mircea Diaconu, Klaus Iohannis, Viorica Dăncilă, Hunor Kelemen, Dan Barna.