Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Bloomberg News: Romania Bucks Nationalist Wave With Election Shock

By Edith Balazs and Andra Timu 
November 18, 2014


When Romanians picked an ethnic German leader for the first time in 133 years, they did more than shock the frontrunner, Prime Minister Victor Ponta. They ran counter to a Europe-wide trend of rising nationalism.

The choice in 1881 was Carol I of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, the first German king of Romania. On Nov. 16, voters picked Klaus Iohannis as their new president, giving the mayor of the Transylvanian city of Sibiu a surprise victory over Ponta. The leader of the opposition Liberal Party erased a 10-point deficit in the first round two weeks earlier.

Iohannis, 55, will be the first member of an ethnic minority to be president in Romania, where relations with ethnic groups including Hungarians are often strained. His victory, driven by discontent with the government and a campaign focused on battling corruption, is a sign “that nationalistic tensions in Romania and the region may be overcome one day,” according to Otilia Dhand, an analyst at Teneo Intelligence in London.

“This is more dramatic than Americans electing Barack Obama,” said Charlie Robertson, global chief economist at Renaissance Capital Ltd. in London. “Electing someone belonging to 1 percent of a country’s minority is a sign of political maturity.”

Voters were driven by anger at thousands of their compatriots living abroad being unable to cast their ballots and the government’s “arrogant” response, Dhand said.

This “prompted Romanians to look beyond nationalistic lines and support Iohannis,” she said.

Ukraine Conflict

Iohannis triumphed as the conflict in neighboring Ukraine threatens to plunge back into open warfare and unleash a new wave of nationalism and separatism across the region.

Extremist and anti-EU parties gained ground at this year’s European Parliament elections. Radical groups made gains in countries including England, France, Denmark and Hungary, boosting their presence in the 28-nation bloc’s assembly.

In eastern Europe, a region peppered with minorities and criss-crossed by borders cutting through nationality lines, the proximity of the Ukraine crisis and the memory of the violent dissolution of Yugoslavia give an edge to ethnic tensions.

Hungary, Bulgaria and Slovakia are among the countries that have witnessed violent incidents involving local Roma, or Gypsy, communities in recent years along with a rise in the popularity of radical political groups.
Hungarian Minority

In Romania, tensions between the majority and ethnic Hungarians of more than 1 million run deep, often spilling into violence at sports events. Soccer fans regularly clash when the two nations play each other, such as at a Euro 2016 qualifier on Oct. 14, when almost 50 people requested medical care and 12 were hospitalized.

The Hungarian minority is pushing for autonomy in Transylvania, which the government in Bucharest rejects. Hungarians have gained some concessions in the past decade, including better access to education and some judicial procedures in their native language.

UDMR, their largest political group, has been in coalitions with parties across the political spectrum since the collapse of Communism in 1989. Currently part of Ponta’s alliance, Chairman Hunor Kelemen brushed aside expectations that Iohannis will be a “champion of minority rights,” even if a majority of Hungarians voted for him. Iohannis’s victory raises the risk that they will be seen as having unreasonable demands about minority rights, Kelemen said.

No ‘Paradise’

“It would be hasty to assume that his victory will bring on paradise in terms of minority rights,” Kelemen told the regional radio station Radio Marosvasarhely. “I wouldn’t have high hopes that Klaus Iohannis will solve minority problems.”

Iohannis promised “deep changes” in Romanian politics and pledged to preserve the country’s relationship with the U.S., the European Union and NATO.

He also called on the government to dismiss those responsible for the botched ballot abroad and asked outgoing President Traian Basescu to recall diplomats involved in the diaspora vote.

“Even though Romanians haven’t voted Iohannis for his nationality, but because of hatred for the government, he can still use his ties with Germany to his advantage,” said Alexandru Cumpanasu, an analyst at the Association for Implementing Democracy in Bucharest. “He must be wise though, because foreign politics have changed and he cannot just count on blood ties like Carol I.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Edith Balazs in Budapest at ebalazs1@bloomberg.net; Andra Timu in Bucharest at atimu@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: James M. Gomez at jagomez@bloomberg.net Balazs Penz, Kevin Costelloe

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