Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Telegraph: Romanian presidential election: does Klaus Iohannis's victory prove social media can win an election?

By Ria Ivandic, King's College London
24 Nov 2014


Elections tend to be unpredictable until the very end, but very few people anticipated the win of Klaus Iohannis in the second round of Romanian presidential elections held on November 16th, after the first round of results and polls were consistently in favour of the centre-left prime minister Victor Ponta.

Two crucial components played off each other: a strong voice of Romanian expatriates amplified by social media.

For a country with a population of 20 million, a peculiar characteristic of the Romanian electorate is its numerous diaspora of four million people, a group that proved to be crucial during these elections.

In the first round of elections held on November 2nd, Mr Ponta took 40.4 per cent of votes overall, while Mr Iohannis came second with 30.4 per cent.

However, the first round of elections was accompanied by unrest across European capitals as many Romanian expats who turned out to vote were left waiting outside polling stations for several hours. Romanians in Munich flashed toothbrushes to the cameras to show how long they were prepared to wait to vote. Many were later turned away, unable to cast their ballot, after polls closed and Romanian authorities refused to exend the deadline.

This was seen as a strategic move from Mr Ponta’s camp as the expatriate community was largely made up of Mr Iohannis' supporters, who voted 74 per cent for Mr Iohannis against just 25 per cent for Mr Ponta in the first round.

However, this quickly backfired against Mr Ponta. An apparent discrepancy between the number of polling stations and the estimated voters in most European countries (in Germany only five stations were open for more than 200,000 expats), voters saw this as an ideologically selective denial of exercising the right to vote.

What followed was a series of solidarity protests as a sign of support for the diaspora that led the Foreign Minister Titus Corlățean to resign.

A strong social media campaign was led by young, urban voters and soon hashtags such as #yeslavot , #alegeri2014 and #diasporavoteaza (meaning “I’m going to vote”, “elections 2014” and “diasporavoting”) sprang up across several social platforms raising awareness of the importance of going out to vote.

The social campaign proved to be successful as voter turnout rose from 53 per cent in the first round to 64 per cent in the second round, and more importantly, expat turnout more than doubled to an estimated 379,000 people.

The second round of elections did not see an improvement in bureaucracy as the new foreign minister Teodor Melescanu, a former presidential candidate who gave his support to Ponta, did not allow additional polling stations to open and many voters were still unable to cast their ballot.

This led to violence in cities including Paris, where police used tear gas to disperse voters left outside the embassy. Using smartphones and social media, these actions were shared online, incentivising even higher voter participation. Subsequently suggesting that voters should travel from Paris to Nancy to vote, Melescanu became the second Foreign Minister in 10 days to resign.

On the morning of November 17 it was confirmed that Klaus Iohannis had been elected as the next president of Romania, winning 54.5 per cent of the vote.

Remarkably, he also reached one million followers on Facebook, by this measure becoming the most popular European politician. By comparison, British prime minister David Cameron has just over 400,000 followers on Facebook, while German chancellor Angela Merkel has 908,000.

Moreover, in a Europe where extreme nationalism has been on the rise in recent elections, the Romanian electorate has looked beyond religion and ethnicity.

Mr Iohannis is a protestant and descendent of Saxons who settled in Romania in medieval times, becoming the country's first president from an ethnic minority. He is a former high­school physics teacher that rose in political circles after successfully running the Transylvanian town of Sibiu.

Mr Iohannis has announced plans to safeguard the independence of Romania's judicial system and tackle corruption, key issues in his election campaign.

More than 80 per cent of Romanians believe that their elected president will make good on his promises, according to a study conducted by IRES.

However, the dramatic turnaround in his popular support during the voting process show that none of this would have been possible without the combined efforts of overseas voters and an effective social media campaign.

No comments: