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From hero to zero: The spectacular rise and the immediate decline of the Romanian president

President Klaus Iohannis

There is nothing quite like it in contemporary European politics. Perhaps there never was. The story of the current Romanian president seems more of a farce, a figment of imagination, than a real story. As with everything Romanian, it would be deeply funny and amusing if it weren’t tragic.

President Klaus Iohannis came to power in November 2014 in very contested circumstances. Trailing by 10% his main competitor after the first round –the then Prime Minister Victor Ponta – and pretty much unconvincing during the TV debates before the run-off, Iohannis was all but defeated. In fact, from the very beginning, very few people actually believed that Iohannis stood a chance. Then the unexpected happened and Iohannis won the second round with a confortable 10% margin in his favor. He was basically transformed from a certain loser of the elections to an unlikely winner in the space of a few hours on Sunday November 16, 2014. What happened?

Already during the first round of vote, TV stations showed long queues of people waiting to vote in the special polling stations organized abroad. By the end of the day, even though more people voted than in any of the previous elections, a significant number could not cast their ballot. This sparked controversy at home and elicited accusations of deliberate attempts to block the vote of the diaspora by the incumbent Social Democrat Prime-Minister since historically diaspora voted for the right.

The government had about two weeks to fix the problem, but after arcane political and legal skirmishes, it largely failed to do so. On the day of the run-off even more people were queuing in front of the embassies and consulates abroad from the early morning. Some people even travelled from Romania for this event in order to be able to film the queues and take part in the process of waiting, which both regular media and social networks were covering amply. In addition, a special application allowed people to check-in after they voted. Encouragements for people to go out and vote were doing the rounds by the minute in all media outlets. By late afternoon people were queuing in the country as well, waiting to vote. The more people were lining up in front of voting stations, the more others followed suit and joined them. As the night approached turn-out estimations were going through the roof. Meanwhile, the number of facebook followers of Mr. Iohannis page was growing by the second. The trend was clear.

By late evening, several groups announced meetings in the central squares of the main cities in order to protest what was perceived to be a clear attempt to block the vote of the diaspora by the government in order to help the Prime Minister’s bid. Just as people were taking to the streets, especially in Bucharest, footages of voters that were still waiting in line to vote outside embassies in Italy and France being dispersed by police with tear gas simply brought the atmosphere to a boiling point. Protesters decide therefore to try to storm the headquarters of the Social Democratic party where the Prime Minister was. En route, people were seen burning the campaign materials of the prime-minister in the middle of the street.

But what was expected to be a long and very tense night finished quickly after the prime minister unexpectedly conceded defeat and congratulated Mr. Iohannis for his win. Tension gave way to euphoria among the protesters who celebrated the victory as their own. In a highly symbolic gesture, the new president met his supporters late at night in the Universitate Square, echoing a similar scene from 1996 when the right-wing candidate defeated the first post-communist president Ion Iliescu, Mr. Ponta’s colleague. The parallel and the political message were clear for everybody.

Therefore, Iohannis was the main beneficiary of the unprecedented popular mobilization of that day (a turn-out of 64%, which was one of the highest in post-communist era) and became the unlikely hero of the elections. His popularity at this stage was sky-high. From an obscure, quiet, un-charismatic and barely known provincial mayor –albeit with the pedigree of being German and for transforming the city of Sibiu into a much-appreciated capital of culture – Iohannis became a popular star literally overnight. He generated so much hope that things will change and will get better and elicited so much popular enthusiasm that even some of his closest supporters and advisers realized at the time that this might backfire. For example, for his book launch scheduled two weeks after the elections some 5000 people showed up. They –ironically – queued for hours in order to be able to get the new president’s signature and a photo.

Fast-forward less then 16 months later. After an ill-advised public statement, Iohannis facebook page is losing thousands of followers daily. They “unlike” his page in protest. A creation of facebook during the election day, this is the first medium in which popular dissatisfaction is articulated, even though at first sight it might appear to be a trivial matter. The discontent with the President expressed in this “unliking” is much wider spread that the medium of facebook and it was building up in the preceding months. Barely after a year in power, Iohannis lost his support and credibility in almost all quarters, including among some of his staunchest previous admirers. Even the party that promoted him and hoped to ride the wave of popular enthusiasm for the 2016 local and parliamentary elections is now cautiously keeping the distance. What did go so terribly wrong for this man to move from election hero to political zero in record time?

The immediate explanation is that Iohannis did not really have genuine supporters of his own. Or if he did, his support was not bigger than his local constituency in Sibiu – a peculiar city of 100,000 – and some admirers among the Liberal party top brass and intellectuals who understood his political potential. And his political potential was simply that of generating a fantasy, or to be more precise, to offer the persona around which an already existing local fantasy could be projected. But, as we know from Zizek pace Lacan, once one gets trapped in other people’s fantasies and dreams that person is “really fucked”.

This is exactly what happened to the Romanian president. His electoral victory was the result of a complex political confluence. On the one hand, the vote for him was in fact a vote against his competitor. Victor Ponta, for all his undeniable achievements as Prime Minister, was unable to inspire anything more than hatred against him. Surely, some of his actions (for example organizing his birthday party on a stadium filled with 60,000 people, Ceausescu-style) and arrogance did not help him in this respect, but more generally, Ponta was indexed as the embodiment of “corruption” per se. Being the head of the Social Democratic party – historically associated with post-communist corruption and venal politicians – exponentially magnified the rejection towards him and placed him in a long line of nefarious politics of which he became the main representative.

By contrast, Iohannis embodied an entirely different fantasy: in relation to him the Romanians could mobilize their self-hating, self-depreciating narratives, feelings that are constitutive of Romanian modernity and her subsequent quest for civilization. Iohannis was the good, hardworking and civilized German, doing administration and not politics, in fact uninterested in politics and not corrupt. Iohannis was the significant alterity, the Other that is better, different and more civilized, the one who is able to lead the people towards civilization. Iohannis appeared as a modern-day Carol I – the German prince who agreed to become the Romanian king and who took up the task of civilizing and modernizing the country by virtue of his nobler origins and superior position.

The entire history of these self-colonizing and self-orientalizing political feelings was resuscitated around Iohannis. Against the old-fashioned nationalism of Ponta’s campaign (with its main slogan Proud to be Romanian), Iohannis campaign was also nationalist, but in a self-hating way: Romanians are inferior and therefore they need to catch up and become civilized in order to properly belong to the European civilization.

Once the confrontation was set up in this way, it became immediately clear that all those voting for Ponta were in fact backward barbarians (largely the poor, elderly and disenfranchised segments of the population for whom the Social Democrats still offer a modicum of redistribution), while those voting for Iohannis were enlightened, civilized, progressive, Europe-loving members of the society. Paradoxically, therefore, the campaign for Iohannis managed to mobilize two apparently contradictory feelings: in a first instance one of self-hatred, followed, in a second instance, by an aspirational, positive affirmation of civilization, distinction and civility. This is so because in Romania self-hating is not such a violent act as it seems in relation to the subject. It is the first step of affirming the subject’s civilization, of being able to recognize difference and to embrace European values. This is why people who declare themselves to be the most European, also feel the need to take a big distance from everything local, to depreciate the local environment and associate it with barbarity.

The next question that needs to be asked is this, however: why was Iohannis precisely the one best fitted to articulate this fantasy, apart from the obvious fact of his German origins (and the mythology surrounding this ethnicity)? Why him and not somebody else?

Here class played a powerful role too. Iohannis represents the parvenu segment of the post-communist provincial petite bourgeoisie (teachers, professors, notaries, engineers of higher qualification, doctors, etc.). Prior to 1989, most of these people were subordinated in all ways both to the higher and local echelons of the communist Party and also to the technical intelligentsia. The struggle between these two categories shaped then the political and social space of the transition, leaving the provincial petite bourgeoisie to look after itself. Some members (like country doctors and teachers, agricultural engineers or even technicians) became part of what was called the “losers of transition” and had to migrate or become content with a life at the margins of misery. Others, like the Iohannis, managed to turn their fortunes around. As high-school teachers, Mr. and Mrs. Iohannis managed to acquire no less than 6 houses –“little houses” as he calls them because, indeed, they can never be compared to the houses of the higher, metropolitan bourgeoisie. Asked about how he feels about his fortune and what would he tell his high-school colleagues who were less fortunate and are barely making ends meet as teachers, Iohannis gave a candid answer which can also stand as a political verdict. He said: tough luck. Indeed, for many members of the post-communist provincial petite bourgeoisie luck, or the lack of it, is what made the difference between the direction of their social mobility.

Surely, Iohannis was one the lucky ones but luck never comes by itself. It must be tempted. For Iohannis luck came in the form of some forged documents based on which, from his position as mayor, he managed to become the owner of a house in the center of Sibiu. This brought the Iohannis income as rent –overvalued as some media investigations claimed. There is now a judge ruling by which Iohannis must return the house to the rightful owners, a decision based on the acknowledgment that the initial documents were fake. Since the president has immunity there is no charge yet against him or his wife for forgery.

This revelation shattered the anti-corruption aura of the President, but it did not really come as a huge surprise. It sparked no unlikes. It is such a typical story for how the petite bourgeoisie made its fortunes after 1989 that it was largely registered as a matter of intra-class complicity, a sign, after all, of solidarity. What made Iohannis possible, therefore, was not only his suitability for the fantasy of the middle class, but also this uncanny class alliance between the post-communist middle class (and I include here the central bureaucracy of the state that represents the main supporter of Iohannis precisely by virtue of the fact that he promised not to interfere at all with its work, thus granting its much-awaited autonomy from politics) and the parvenu provincial petite bourgeoisie. The middle class accepted to offer political power to the petite bourgeoisie by supporting Iohannis for president (and it will offer more power during the 2016 local elections) in order to concomitantly keep at bay the popular classes and shut out their political representation and to further erode the power of traditional politicians. (A situation that is not dissimilar to the one in 1866 when Carol I was brought to power precisely in order to shut out any possibility of popular reform after 1848, and to erode the power of the reformist post-unification politicians).

Of course Iohannis was bound to disappoint the expectations set up by his supporters’ fantasy sooner or later. He could not have been a new Carol I, a true modernizer, etc. But what is worse, he even failed to live up to the more modest fantasy of being German. What seemed quiet wisdom, in fact turned out to be cluelessness. His long absences from the public sphere and his penchant to communicate strictly via facebook were at first welcomed as a different strategy compared to the former president, only to be later interpreted as disinterestedness. The image of a hard-working administrator was soon dispelled by the image of President always on expensive state visits or on exotic vacations. And this was even before the real political blunders actually started to kick in, like the one that prompted the facebook turmoil or the one that determined Der Spiegel to run a damning op-ed unambiguously titled The Dilettante.

From the image of a serious and trustworthy president, Iohannis was reduced to memes making fun of his ridiculous, barely credible statements. On a recent state visit to Israel, Iohannis made the confession that in a previous life he dreamt of going there. He meant, of course, that in his life before becoming a president he dreamt of coming to Israel. As one local journalist noticed, Iohannis speaks badly both Romanian and German. His councilors were already ridiculed ever since he became President and they do not seem to be of any help now.

What I believe is the real explanation of the incredible plunge of popularity of the President is again class. If during the campaign period his provincial petite bourgeois background was a bonus, it quickly became an impediment once in power. If his disinterest in professional politics and central struggles was a plus, once in power this appears only as interest in the small perks of the job: state visits, a new very expensive Mercedes (one of the first purchases of the presidency after Iohannis came to power), getting things for free, etc. Unable to shake his parvenu class background, Iohannis alienated himself from all his previous sources of support. He is the victim of other people’s fantasies but also of his own class position, conviction and taste.

In the opening of his Late Victorian Holocausts, Mike Davis tells the story of former US president Ulysses. S. Grant grand trip around the world “that would have humbled even Alexander the Great”. Without paying a single dollar and with the transportation provided by the US navy, the Grants covered places as diverse as India and Italy, Burma and Spain, and left in their trail a series of gaucheries. This would not be a bad description for the Iohannises’ trips either, with only one exception though –they did not even wait for their time in office to come to an end. This moment should not be far away though.




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