On November 2, 14 candidates entered the first round of presidential elections here. However, it was always obvious that vote would be rather pointless, as the top two, namely Victor Ponta, who’s the current Prime Minister and the candidate of the Social Democrats (PSD) and their Conservative (PC) and so-called Progressive (UNPR) allies, and Klaus Iohannis, who’s the candidate of the Christian-Liberal Alliance (ACL), made up of the Liberals (PNL) and the Democrat Liberals (PDL), had a huge lead over any of the others. The end result was 40.44% for Ponta and 30.38% for Iohannis, with third-placed Calin Popescu-Tariceanu, leader of a splinter group of Liberals (PLR) wishing to remain allied with PSD and named future Prime Minister in case Ponta’ll win, obtaining 5.36%, and fourth-placed Elena Udrea, who’s current president Traian Basescu’s protegee, at 5.20%.
Since, as I said, that round of elections was quite irrelevant, it was used by the top parties, and by PSD in particular, as a dress rehearsal for the runoff, trying to see what will work and how in order to steal as many votes as possible and discourage or completely bar those known to vote for the opponent from doing so. As such, on top of the typical maneuvers, particularly in rural areas, which were now reported quite in detail by a large number of independent observers who largely came out of the lines of last autumn’s protesters, PSD’s main ploy was to stop Romanians living abroad from voting, knowing that they vote overwhelmingly against them and also remembering all too well that they lost presidency in 2009 just because of them, as they had won by a very narrow margin inside the country but when the votes from abroad were also counted the final result was the other way around.
Well, people didn’t stand for that. There are probably 3.5 to four million Romanians living abroad, nobody’s exactly sure how many, but it’s probably safe to say that just about every Romanian still in the country has a friend, relative, colleague or current or former treasured contact of some sort now living abroad, and when those 170 or 180 thousand of them who tried to vote on November 2 had to queue for several hours, in part because of the additional hoops some new regulations passed by the PSD government forced them to go through, and some ten to 20 thousand of them were in the end turned away because they didn’t manage to vote by the closing time of 9 PM and the hours weren’t extended, and in a couple of cases our ambassadors called local police to get our citizens, whom they are there to represent, out of our embassies, so out of what international law calls our territory on foreign soil, people were understandably furious.
So what did PSD do? They eventually made the Minister of Foreign Affairs step down, as it was his head the protesters asked for first, replacing him with the former head of our Foreign Intelligence Agency (SIE), Teodor Melescanu, who had resigned from that position to also run on November 2, obtaining 1.10% of votes. They also allowed the statement voters voting abroad need to fill to be written beforehand and only signed inside the voting station and claimed to ensure that all voting stations will have the maximum staff and stamps. However, they flatly refused opening new voting stations, first claiming the other countries won’t allow it, which was quickly proven false, then claiming the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MAE) can’t do this because only the Electoral Bureau (BEC) can, then when BEC said it is in fact the Government’s job, they came back on the statement yet again and said the Constitutional Court won’t allow it, though the precedent they were referring to dealt with a different matter. Sounds like running out of excuses before finding one that’d stick, doesn’t it?
So on comes November 16, when people were already riled up, those living abroad had organized themselves to come very early, some starting to form the lines hours before the voting stations opened, some coming from hundreds of kilometers away, and independent observers inside the country had increased in number and were paying even more attention, trying to stop what tricks they could and report the rest in detail. However, with four different polls offering Ponta rather comfortable margins, listing him at between 53.5% and 55%, and with leaked early exit polls showing him at over 60% in the first hours of voting, it seemed to be a tight call in the best of cases. PSD’s voters are known to come early and votes from abroad can’t be included in exit polls, but that was a large margin to recover.
However, everything PSD tried simply exploded in their faces. They kept trying to pull their usual stunts in rural areas, but the independent observers documented them and posted everything on-line. The television stations owned by their members or allies kept trying to persuade people that the whole story about what’s happening abroad is a ruse orchestrated by ACL and everything’s just fine, but we could all see pictures, video and live streams of people spending five, seven, nine hours to vote, and that’s if they were lucky, because some spent even 11 hours waiting and were in the end turned away, or had to be carried away after getting sick. And to make matters worse, Melescanu said about those queuing in Paris that if they really wanted to vote they could head over to Nancy since it’s a superb city and there’s no queue there, ignoring the fact that Nancy is nearly 300 kilometers away from Paris in a straight line and nearly 400 on the road. In addition, people standing in line in Vienna received fliers advising them to vote in Slovakia or the Czech Republic since there are no queues there and PSD spokesperson Gabriela Firea posted pictures of the admittedly quite empty Liverpool voting station claiming it was near London and that those who queue at the London voting stations refuse to go there. Well, I’m guessing that might have been because there are nearly 300 kilometers between London and Liverpool in a straight line and over 350 on the road…
In other words, PSD missed the fact that the Internet makes such brazen lies far less likely to fool people, and definitely underestimated how fed up people were of being pissed on. As such, the more the situation continued, the more people mobilized, both here and abroad, and the more they rushed to vote for Iohannis. Or, of course, not exactly for Iohannis, but against Ponta, against PSD. The number of people who voted abroad was more than twice the previous record, and keep in mind that some were yet again turned away, even being tear gassed or injured in the process, and the turnout inside the country was the highest for a presidential runoff since 1996, though it was slightly lower than that seen in the first round in 2000.
The end result? With thousands, which soon became tens of thousands, of people on the streets in several cities in Romania, showing solidarity with those trying to vote abroad and demanding that the current government pay for what they did, results started trickling in. At first partial exit polls, announced at 9 PM as per the law and showing the situation at 7 PM, which revealed a battle that was still rather tight, then the full exit polls and partial parallel counts, showing a rather comfortable victory for Iohannis, which Ponta finally conceded in the only brief statement he made that night, slightly after 11 PM, as he walked out of the PSD headquarters. In the end, Iohannis obtained 54.43% of votes, which is a higher percentage than that obtained by any president in Romania’s admittedly brief democratic history except Ion Iliescu.
So PSD had a 10% lead in the first round, they still had most of it days before the runoff, they had this huge well-oiled apparatus set on using all the tricks in the book to extend that advantage even further, and yet they were trashed. They took that 7% to 10% lead and turned it into a 9% defeat simply because the failed to realize that even that large mass of Romanians who usually stay quiet and accept whatever’s thrown at them as their lot in life get fed up of being shat on sooner or later. Or, of course, only some of them do, but this time they were enough to matter.
But, of course, our job has only just begun. With PSD obtaining the presidency when they already have the Government, the Parliament and most local authorities throughout the country, our situation would have been pretty much hopeless and that absolutely needed to be avoided. Since it was, we may now just have a shot at using these next few years to create the change we wish to see here, and we’d better take it. The worst possible thing would be to cheer this day as a victory and lay down our “weapons” instead of recognizing it as merely avoiding a defeat and a sign to press any advantage we may have even further now, when Iohannis and those behind him are all too aware that they owe what I’m sure is a quite surprising victory even for them to the people, and to those of us who have been protesting against them just as much as against PSD over the past few years in particular. As one protest chant goes, “do not celebrate, because you’ll be next”. Unless, of course, they’ll do something right for once.