Showdown in Romania

An election on the horizon and the threat that lies within.

romaniaRomania is a consequential state. It is the demographic and geopolitical organizing principle of southeastern Europe, much like Poland is in northeastern Europe. Therefore, its presidential election is important. Here are the two candidates and consequences if one or the other wins on November 16, in the second round of the presidential elections:

Voters will choose between the socialist candidate, Victor Ponta, and the center-right one, the mayor of the Transylvanian city of Sibiu, Klaus Iohannis. The former is a young (42-year old), utterly ambitious former prosecutor turned politician. The latter is an ethnic German former highschoool physics teacher. In July 2012, the then recently appointed prime minister Ponta was one of the masterminds of an onslaught against the country's rule of law that resulted in the temporary suspension of President Traian Basescu. Western pressure played a key role in foiling what many perceived as a creeping coup d'etat.

The greatest threat, at this moment, is what many commentators and some of the country's most prominent intellectuals, including former Foreign Minister Andrei Plesu, regard as Victor Ponta's irresponsibility. Not only during the campaign, but for the latest two and half years when he served as Prime Minister, he displayed a disturbing inclination for prevarication, demagogic use of xenophobia, and pro-Putin stances. In May 2012, "Nature" magazine exposed Ponta's plagiarism in his PhD dissertation. Such charges led to resignations in other EU countries, including Germany and Hungary. Not in Romania, where Ponta replaced the academic bodies supposed to check on this charges.

The institutions that Ponta viscerally loathes are the National Anti-corruption Directorate and the National Integrity Agency. In recent months, with support from the Romanian Intelligence Service, these agencies intensified the anti-corruption offensive. Many of the most notorious oligarchs are now behind the bars. Huge schemes have been publicly denounced. One can speak of a prosecutors' revolution that has swept away a whole cobweb of sordid arrangements. If Ponta is elected president, this legal revolution is doomed to fail. Unlike Ponta, Iohannis has announced that he would continue the war on corruption.

Politically and ideologically, Ponta is protean, volatile, and versatile. He has no hesitation to contradict himself. In fact, he belongs to a cohort of cynical politicians (not only in Romania) for whom ideas and values do not matter and whose only goal is self-aggrandizement. Liberal democracy is not his cup of tea. Although he describes himself as a a man of the left, he has many things in common with his surname sake, Hungary conservative populist prime minister, Viktor Orban. If Ponta gets elected president, one can expect Romania's slide into kleptocratic authoritarianism, the country's "Orbanization."

This is the stake of the forthcoming vote: will Romanians allow Ponta to further amass power and demolish the rule of law or will they support Iohannis and his Christian Liberal Alliance? To expand his electoral base, Ponta has accepted the support of the egregious demagogue Corneliu Vadim Tudor, leader of the rabidly nationalist "Greater Romania Party". It would be the ultimate irony for such a denouement to occur in the only East European country where the demise of communism was the result of a violent, bloody revolution. In the first round, Ponta came ahead of Iohannis by ten percent. The Romanian diaspora's vote, overwhelmingly pro-Iohannis, may decisively tilt the balance in his favor. In the first round, thousands of Romanians in major West European cities could not vote because of poor logistics (there were huge lines in front of very few voting sections). For many, this scandalous situation was a deliberate scheme organized by Ponta. This has has led to the resignation of the country's Foreign Minister.

It is hard not to notice the salient differences between Iohannis and Ponta. First and foremost, his support for transparency and accountability. Iohannis pledged to abolish, if elected, the legal immunity of political figures, including the country's president. He also pledged that he would not grant pardon to those sent to prison because of corruption, including former Securitate collaborator and media mogul, Dan Voiculescu, whom the pro-Ponta media eulogize as "martyrs of freedom". The choice in Romania is not between evil and lesser evil, but between a candidate who despises the rule of law and one who cherishes it.

Unlike Ponta, Iohannis is not an enemy of the institutions that spearhead the struggle against corruption. Unlike Ponta, he has strong and proven pro-Western convictions. Unlike Ponta, his does not bend truth in ways meant to simply ensure his continuously growing power. For these reasons, the choice between them is one between democracy and its opposite.

Vladimir Tismaneanu is a professor of politics at the University of Maryland (College Park) and author of numerous books, including most recently "The Devil in History: Communism, Fascism, and Some Lessons of the Twentieth Century." Marius Stan is a Romanian political scientist, author of books in Romanian and Polish, and currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Bucharest.

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