Provincial mayor inflicts shock defeat in Romania presidential vote

Klaus Iohannis, an ethnic German, turned around a 10-point deficit to win the runoff

 Klaus Iohannis salutes the crowds  in central Bucharest Romania yesterday.  He  defied expectations to win Romania’s presidential election yesterday, inflicting a shock defeat on prime minister Victor Ponta. Photograph: Raed Krishan/EPA

Klaus Iohannis salutes the crowds in central Bucharest Romania yesterday. He defied expectations to win Romania’s presidential election yesterday, inflicting a shock defeat on prime minister Victor Ponta. Photograph: Raed Krishan/EPA

 

Provincial mayor Klaus Iohannis defied expectations to win Romania’s presidential election yesterday, inflicting a shock defeat on prime minister Victor Ponta that was cheered by thousands of anti-government protesters on the streets.

An ethnic German whose campaign was backed by two centre-right parties, Mr Iohannis turned round a 10-point deficit to win the runoff, as widespread anger at voting problems overseas appeared to galvanize the anti-Ponta camp.

Analysts had said that victory for Mr Ponta might have helped make Romania a more stable nation, with the main levers of power held by one bloc. By contrast, Mr Iohannis’s win could trigger renewed political tensions in one of Europe’s poorest states.

Backed by a well-oiled party machine, Mr Ponta had led opinion polls throughout the campaign and comfortably beat Mr Iohannis in the first round election on Nov. 2.

But Mr Ponta abruptly conceded defeat after the exit polls were released. Later official results showed Mr Iohannis on 54.8 per cent against 45.2 pe rcent for Ponta, with more than three-quarters of polling stations counted. Turnout was at its highest since 1996.

“Dear Romanians, you were phenomenal today. We’ve seen a massive turnout, and my respect for the diaspora,” Mr Iohannis said before joining the crowds in downtown Bucharest.

Despite the loss, Mr Ponta ruled out quitting as prime minister and said his Social Democrat alliance would remain in power until parliamentary elections due in 2016.

Thousands of people took to the streets of Bucharest and other cities to voice their anger at Ponta’s government last night and demand his resignation.

The former Communist state of 20 million is emerging from painful budget cuts imposed during the global slowdown. Growth rebounded to more than 3 percent in the third quarter of 2014, but corruption and tax evasion are rife, and progress to implement reforms and overhaul a bloated state sector is mixed.

Prime minister since 2012, the 42-year-old Ponta often feuded with his rival, outgoing President Traian Basescu, which stymied policymaking and caused a constitutional crisis.

Without the check on power hitherto provided by Basescu, Mr Ponta’s rise had raised concerns he might tighten political control over the judiciary, prosecutors and media, in a country whose justice system remains under special EU supervision.

But Mr Iohannis as president will, like Basescu, face a hostile parliamentary majority that could cause more policy wrangling.

The 55-year-old Iohannis had promised during the campaign to safeguard the independence of Romania’s judicial system and the fragile progress made in tackling corruption. He also pledged economic, health and education reforms, and to create an attractive business climate for foreign investors.

Thousands of Romanian citizens, meanwhile, queued outside their country’s embassy in Dublin last night in an attempt to vote in the elections.

Potential voters from the estimated 20,000 population in Ireland queued on Waterloo Road to vote in the only polling venue available. Romanians living in Northern Ireland voted in Belfast.Some voters began queuing at midnight on Saturday to cast their ballot, and polls opened at 7am yesterday – with hundreds still waiting in line before voting closed at 9pm last night.

One woman told The Irish Times at 8pm last night she had travelled from Mayo to vote and was standing since 2.30pm. The queue was moving very, very slowly, she said. “The Romanian government knew just one place to vote in Ireland would not be enough.”

Speaking shortly before polls closed last night, Romanian ambassador Manuela Breazu said the embassy did its utmost to accommodate the voters, but could not have envisaged the numbers.

“Probably at the end of the voting we will register the highest number of voters within the total number of Romanian embassies abroad,” she said.

In the first round of the elections, some 2,265 people voted in Dublin during the 14 hours available and 100 were turned away.

“This time it is a much bigger figure and we have much more voters registered, probably 3,000 by the end of the day and probably there will remain unfortunately some outside.”

Additional reporting: Agencies