By Daniel Stroe – Bucharest
Already six days into the electoral campaign for the second round of the presidential elections, the two competitors left in the race – social-democrat prime-minister Victor Ponta and his liberal rival Klaus Iohannis, an ethnic German mayor of Sibiu, a medieval city in central Romania, are still looking for each other across the country to put together the first electoral debate in this campaign. Each refuses the other’s challenge to the voters’ dismay, already furious at apparent deliberate set hurdles in the diaspora in the first round.
The campaign before the first round, when 14 raced for the top job in the country, ended with no public debate. In return in swarmed with cheap topics with little relevance to the public, such as undercover agents and stakeout operations in Paris to trace a candidate. When the country is in technical recession, foreign investments are on the wane, large scale infrastructure projects are trudging and EU funds absorption is minimal, voters wanted to hear about economic projects and job creating ideas, but nothing happened.
The scenario seems to be repeating before the second round. The two contenders challenge each other to an electoral debate but each is setting his own conditions. For instance, Victor Ponta refused to attend an electoral debate at the Western University in Timisoara, the city where the anti-communist revolution started in December 1989, following a challenge launched by his rival in the second round of presidential elections, Klaus Iohannis. The latter said he had accepted a proposal coming from the rector of the Western University in Timisoara and challenged social-democrat Victor Ponta to join the debate. But Ponta, who had refused to attend similar events over the electoral campaign during the first round, said No.
Why did Ponta refuse a challenge which doesn’t stand out as an abnormal duel? He argues the debates have to take place on a TV set and be moderated by journalists. “But just because we cannot go anywhere, we can accept that the media is that global institution that can bring the necessary meeting between the presidential candidates in every Romanian household, Timisoara, Covasna, Bucharest and Suceava, be them professors, miners, students and pensioners”, he added. The prime-minister said he had accepted invitations from four TV stations which he says “cover a wide spectrum of political orientations and an extremely diverse public”.
In his turn, Iohannis argued he wanted a debate in neutral and balanced environment and within a format which is not pre-established by the campaign teams. The mayor of Sibiu thus implied Ponta may be favored by TV stations moderators, especially since the PM is a common guest of two of these stations owned by his political allies, which is in reality true. Ponta is widely favored by at least two news stations and this has proved an enormous asset for the PM, with other stations slowly leaning towards him. So, from a neutral standpoint, Iohannis is right, challenging Ponta to a debate on neutral ground. “Mr. Ponta, who doesn’t want to meet me, I do not know why, goes all over the place and says I don’t want to meet him. Mr. Ponta doesn’t want to meet me, but I want to look into his eyes. Just as I am meeting you now, I would like to look into his eyes and tell him: Mr. Ponta, you have no idea how to govern a country, how do you hope to become a president?” Iohannis told an audience in Braila.
With the public losing patience over the two’s to and fro discussions, the campaign teams finally met yesterday to try to find common ground in this prolonged debate, with no decision made yet.
Iohannis is heading into the second round with public support expressed by the two ladies in the first round, Monica Macovei and Elena Udrea, who together got almost 10 per cent of the votes. Ponta is publicly endorsed by far right leader Corneliu Vadim Tudor and populist Dan Diaconescu, but failed to gain crucial votes from the Hungarian community. Kelemen Hunor, the leader of the main Hungarian ethnic party in Romania – UDMR – refused to endorse Ponta after the latter shook hands with Tudor who has a sharp anti-Hungarian speech.
As the political games ahead of the second round are still in the making, Romania is leaving the impression it wants to mend errors, which many say were deliberate, that marred the first round of voting at sections abroad, where tens of thousands of Romanians couldn’t vote because of very poor organizations. Traditionally, the diaspora largely votes against social-democrats and results of the first round supported this conclusion and hence accusations Ponta attempted to hinder voters from reaching polling stations. The voting process was impeded by the obligation to fill in a form which couldn’t be downloaded from the Internet, few election officials, booths and stamps. Raged voters, many travelling hundreds of kilometers, in Paris, London, Munchen, Torino and elsewhere across Europe asked for explanations and in many cases police had to intervene to rein furious Romanians who were still in line after polls closed at 9 PM. The international media and even Western officials, like German MP Gunther Krichbaum, denounced what they called intentional mistakes designed to prevent voting.
Romanian officials vowed to correct mistakes and allow easy access to the voting in the runoff. But analysts say many voters abroad, humiliated in the first round, will refuse to vote on 16 November, which authorities in Bucharest may have counted on in the first place. Though the voting form for the diaspora can now be downloaded from the Internet, many say more polling stations have to be set up to allow the about 3 million Romanians living abroad to vote. The Romanian Government says the law doesn’t allow it to do so and only acted to set up more booths. But yesterday, the Central Electoral Bureau clearly said the government can open new sections abroad based on a decision the bureau passed on 4 November, two days after the first round. So the law is there, but the Romanian government is only reluctant to apply it. Like in 2009, the diaspora could again tip the electoral balance in the second round and Victor Ponta is well aware of that.