Romania Silent Leader Takes Over With Anti-Corruption Pledge

He gets things done without saying much.

That’s how many Romanians view their new president, Klaus Iohannis. Known to his peers as “The German,” as much for his sombre poise and emotionless style as his family’s Transylvania Saxon roots, the 55-year-old physics professor pulled off a shock win over Prime Minister Victor Ponta in an election runoff last month.

Iohannis, who got the right to appoint judges and set foreign policy when he was sworn in yesterday, pledged to boost economic growth, trim bureaucracy and battle corruption.

“There’s a high wave of expectations around him,” Michael Taylor, whose study area includes central Europe and the Balkans at Oxford Analytica, a strategic consulting company based in Oxford, England, said in a phone interview. “He’s the hero of the moment but his constitutional powers are limited.”

Romania’s fifth president since the fall of communism takes over after a campaign clouded by corruption scandals within Ponta’s party that followed repeated warnings from the European Union to fight graft harder. At his swearing-in ceremony yesterday, Iohannis named that battle among his priorities, along with education and health care.

Iohannis’s campaign slogan was “Doing things right in Romania.” Posters showed a clock that still works 100 years after it was built by his grandfather. The day after the election results were announced, he urged parliament to lift the immunity of lawmakers under investigation for graft. The measure was approved hours later.

Growth, Bonds

The new president takes over with economic growth exceeding estimates at 3.2 percent in the third quarter from a year earlier and the government having set a 2019 target date for euro adoption. The cabinet aims to narrow the budget deficit to 1.8 percent of economic output from an estimated 2.2 percent this year.

Iohannis had a first meeting with Ponta today, who said on his twitter account it was “a useful discussion, very serious and efficient as things are getting back to normal.”

The yield on the government’s euro-denominated bond due in 2024 was 2.572 percent today, compared with 2.971 percent for neighboring Bulgaria’s similar debt. The leu is little changed this year, compared with a 1.9 percent decline in the Polish zloty and a 5.4 percent drop in the Hungarian forint, data compiled by Bloomberg show.

‘Big Investors’

In a 14-year stint as mayor of the medieval city of Sibiu, Iohannis built a reputation for getting results, transforming the town from a decrepit, gray backwater into Europe’s 2007 Capital of Culture. That helped lure thousands of tourists, including Prince Charles, heir to the British throne. Since 2005, average wages more than doubled.

Beliefs in limited state interference in the economy, job creation and private investment helped prompt the likes of Continental AG and Japan’s Takata Corp to open plants in Sibiu, a city of 147,000. Continental now employs 1,300 people in research and development and the production of electronic components, while Takata has more than 2,000 people in a plant making airbag cushions.

“Until 2000, the town was collapsing,” Paul-Jurgen Porr, head of Romania’s ethnic German party, the Democratic Forum of Germans in Romania, told Digi24 TV. Iohannis “brought in big investors because he reduced bureaucracy and eliminated bribery at public institutions.”

Beating Odds

Sibiu also shows Iohannis’s tendency to beat the odds, winning a mayoral ballot in which he wasn’t credited with a hope of victory. The former teacher, who used to ride his bike 60 kilometers to court his future wife, overturned Ponta’s 10-point advantage from the first round to prove presidential polls wrong.

Iohannis rode a wave of public anger over the government’s mismanagement of voting procedures for citizens living abroad, with election turnout the highest in 18 years. His triumph has shaken the ruling coalition, which Ponta has since sought to reinforce by adding a new party and installing new ministers.

The two politicians have crossed paths before. Ponta’s Social Democrats backed Iohannis’s candidacy as an independent premier in 2009, though outgoing President Traian Basescu shot the idea down. While it raised his public profile, Iohannis returned to Sibiu “a bit disappointed,” according to his autobiography titled “Step by Step,” published a few days after his presidential victory.

‘Politics Differently’

Nationwide protests over austerity measures and declining living standards paved the way for Ponta to take power in 2012. Iohannis returned to the national stage the following year, taking over the reigns of the Liberal Party after its coalition with the Social Democrats crumbled.

Iohannis says he wants to bring order to politics after more than three years of fighting between Ponta and Basescu that brought the president’s suspension in 2012 and a failed referendum to oust him.

“There have been too many conflicts in the past 10 years and I want to do politics differently,” he said in his book. “Romania lacked a president with a vision to make the state function.”

While he went toe-to-toe with Ponta on the campaign trail, their views on foreign policy are similar. Both condemn Russia’s role in the Ukraine conflict, with Iohannis calling President Vladimir Putin’s nation a “threat to global stability” and urging NATO and European Union solidarity.

‘Careful, Respecting’

Vasile Blaga, a Liberal Party leader who campaigned alongside Iohannis, says the new president’s surprise success may help his party usurp Ponta’s coalition via early elections. As president, Iohannis will try to revamp the political system, according to Blaga.

“He understands public administration and I know his main interest is modernizing the Romanian state and reforming the political class,” he said. “He’ll be careful about respecting the judiciary and the rule of law.”

One thing Iohannis, the first member of an ethnic minority to be president, is often criticized for is lacking verve in his public speaking. Indeed, his response to news that he’d won the presidency fell well short of a rallying cry to his supporters: “I want to thank the people who voted for me and now I’m ready to go to work.”

Even so, his approach is a breath of fresh air to many.

“I’m tired of listening to the mumbo jumbo and the lies of the others,” Cornelia Banu, a 65-year-old retired engineer, said in Bucharest. “I like him.”

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