Mayor of Sibiu Klaus Iohannis (aged 55, National Liberal Party) was yesterday elected Romania's new president after he surprisingly defeated Prime Minister Victor Ponta (Social Democratic Union) by a 9-point margin. In a vastly Orthodox and ethnic Romanian country, Iohannis has been elected despite being a Lutheran and a member of the tiny German community there. Iohannis will be replacing Traian Basescu, the Romanian President since 2004.
Iohannis is a Sibiu native, a city also known by its German name of Hermannstadt. Sibiu has been for centuries the centre of the German Saxon Transylvanian community, which started to grow there in the 12th century, when King Géza II of Hungary settled them there as defenders of his kingdom's southern borders. The Hungarian monarchy granted the Saxons administrative and religious autonomy, and for centuries they held privileged positions in the Transylvanian society.
The Saxon population dropped during the Ceausescu era, and further decreased after the end of communist rule, when a significant part of the community emigrated to Germany -including Iohannis's parents.
In fact, currently only 1% of Sibiu's population belongs to the German minority. That did not prevent Iohannis from being elected mayor in 2000, and again in 2004, 2008 and 2012, always by enormous margins: his share never fell below 2/3 of the total votes. In 2012 he got 78% of the ballots.
The "job well done" slogan
Iohannis campaigned on a core idea focus: he was the "job well done" candidate -this was indeed his electoral slogan- as he felt endorsed by his performance in Sibiu. His home city was elected as European Capital of Culture in 2007, he renewed and restored the historical centre, and he boosted the city's economy, thanks to a tourism boom.
Despite his ethnic German background, the newly elected president has made sure to emphasize his unconditional connection to Romania: "What if I am an ethnic German? I am Romanian. This is my land, my country," Iohannis stated during the election campaign.
Iohannes believes Romania should now be moving towards deeper decentralization and regionalization. The president-elect argues this could be a tool for improvement starting from the authorities that are closest to citizens. As an example for this he quotes his job in Sibiu. In this process, Iohannis wants powers and funding to be transferred from the central government to regional and local governments.
But his manifesto says nothing of granting legislative autonomy to territories inhabited by particular ethnic or national groups. This is a demand that Transylvanian Hungarian parties and groups have now been advocating for decades. During his campaign, Iohannis said that "ethnic criteria" were invalid "for regionalization," since that would not "solve any problems, but would create others."
Reunification with Moldova not ruled out
Ethnic arguments are invalid for "regionalization" according to Iohannis, but on the contrary they are valid to drive the "special relationship" with Moldova, a country with which Romania shares a "community of language, history, civilization and culture," the president-elect's manifesto reads. Iohannis admits that no one can force Moldova to merge with Romania, but he also recalls that no one could stop Moldovans from joining Romania if they so wished.
Meanwhile, Iohannis argues that Bucharest must continue to grant Romanian passports to Moldovans, and to help Moldova to join the European Union.
(Image: Iohannis's election poster in Bucharest / picture by Strainu.)