December 6, 2009
By NICHOLAS KULISH
SIBIU, Romania — Klaus Johannis, the successful mayor of this Transylvanian city, finds himself at the center of the bitterly fought presidential election here, even though he is not running for office and is not even ethnically Romanian.
The fact that Mr. Johannis comes from the country’s tiny German minority, which would be a major liability in other countries in Eastern Europe, puts him at a distinct advantage here in Romania. So much so, in fact, that should the Social Democratic challenger, Mircea Geoana, succeed in his bid to unseat the incumbent center-right president, Traian Basescu, in Sunday’s vote — he is leading in the polls — he has promised to appoint Mr. Johannis as prime minister.
Mr. Geoana’s decision to back Mr. Johannis for prime minister as one of his campaign promises hinges on the mayor’s success in rebuilding this old town into a small gem that was named a European Capital of Culture in 2007 while attracting foreign investments and thousands of jobs to this unlikely corner of the Continent. But Mr. Johannis also benefits from the positive stereotypes Romanians associate with the German population, known as Transylvanian Saxons, who have called the region home since the 12th century.
The Saxons, known in German as Siebenbürger Sachsen, are considered hard-working, precise and uncompromising, an attractive mixture in a country tired of mismanagement and corruption, and one of the hardest hit in Europe by the economic crisis. It also does not hurt that the country experienced some of its best moments under German kings more than a century ago, even though the monarchs were unrelated to the local German population.
“I think it’s a real advantage that he’s German,” said Bianca Florea, 18, a student, as she passed through the main town square in Sibiu on Friday. “Well, not exactly German, but Saxon.” Asked why, Ms. Florea responded, “We Romanians are a bit lazy, that’s my opinion.”
But like most of the dozen residents interviewed here, she was skeptical about Mr. Johannis’s prospective move to Bucharest, despite praising his work as mayor.
“He could go there and do a good job for a while or he could be a puppet for others,” Ms. Florea said. Mr. Johannis belongs to none of the major parties, but instead to the small German Democratic Forum, which represents the 60,000 ethnic Germans remaining in the country. Hundreds of thousands of others left during the oppressive regime ofNicolae Ceausescu and in the years immediately after the fall of Communism 20 years ago.
Political analysts in Bucharest say that for all Mr. Johannis’s successes managing Sibiu, working as a figurehead leader in the capital at the whim of hard-nosed political operators would be another story.
“It’s a high-risk business because I would be an independent prime minister running a political government,” Mr. Johannis said in an interview in his office overlooking the town square on Friday. “Nobody’s tried this before. But I’m pretty optimistic it would be a success.”
Few question his success in Sibiu, or Hermannstadt in German. Local residents like to joke that his vote tallies for his re-election bids in 2004 (87 percent) and 2008 (83 percent), look like rigged elections under Communism. And that comes despite the fact that ethnic Germans represent just 2,000 of the city’s 155,000 people.
Mr. Johannis, who is fluent in English as well as German and Romanian, traveled the Continent drumming up interest in the city, helping to attract major companies like Renault and Siemens.
But he built his reputation among voters by building roads and bringing heating to once-unheated schools in town, and for showing up personally for spot-checks at municipal offices and building sites, a form of hands-on management that he conceded in the interview would be impossible on a national scale.
“It’s one thing to change a city and run it,” Mr. Johannis said. “It’s a whole different business to change a country and run it. But I think in the end, the abilities that a public manager needs are the same in a mayor as in a prime minister.”
Romanians appear ready to take a gamble, in part because they find themselves in such a difficult spot. The International Monetary Fund forecast an 8.5 percent contraction in the country’s economy for 2009, and along with the European Union and other institutions, it put together a $30 billion bailout for the country earlier this year.
But that sorely needed money is at risk unless the government can make difficult changes.
Instead, this past autumn saw turmoil, infighting and the collapse of the government in a no-confidence vote in October. A poisonous presidential campaign fought more over personal issues than substantive policy has only increased the public’s desire for a new face, preferably a German one.
“We used to have a German dynasty, which created the modern Romanian state,” said Sorin Ionita, research director of the Romanian Academic Society in Bucharest. King Carol I, who was born in what is now southern Germany, ruled for nearly 50 years, through the turn of the last century, a golden age for Romania. “The Germans today, they benefit from this image in Romania,” Mr. Ionita said.
But the Germans suffered under the Ceausescu dictatorship, a period that received renewed attention this year when Herta Müller, an ethnic German born and raised in Romania, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for her novels about that time. Mr. Ceausescu literally sold ethnic Germans to the West German government for hard currency, several thousand dollars worth for each of them, in return allowing roughly 10,000 to 15,000 of them to emigrate each year from 1978 to 1989.
It was no wonder that many of the Transylvanian Saxons chose to leave after the Iron Curtain fell, including Mr. Johannis’s parents, even though local Romanians demonstrated in the streets for them to stay, recalled Paul Philippi, 86, the honorary chairman of the German Democratic Forum. The exodus reduced a population that once numbered some 800,000 to the small group of mostly elderly people who remain today.
Romanian children now make up 90 percent of the classes at German-language schools, according to the German Democratic Forum, seeing better economic prospects if they can learn the language of the dwindling group that built the city.
But right now, it is the departure of just one German that is on the minds of local citizens, their beloved mayor, who few say they want to lose to national politics. “I would like him to stay for us,” said Aurelia Badila, 58, an accountant, “but for him it is a promotion, and it could be good for Romania.”