New Romanian President Vows To Crack Down On Corruption

Dec 19, 2014
Originally published on December 19, 2014 6:58 pm
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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

On Sunday, Romania will swear in a new president, the first to hail from Romania's German minority. Klaus Iohannis was a little-known regional mayor before he scored a surprise win last month over the current prime minister. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson sent this report.

KLAUS IOHANNIS: (Speaking foreign language).

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Hundreds of people in the historic Romanian town of Alba Iulia wait patiently in freezing temperatures to see their president-elect on Great Union Day. It's a holiday that commemorates the joining of Transylvania and Romania.

(APPLAUSE)

NELSON: They cheer with delight when Klaus Iohannis finally appears. A tall man, he towers over officials on the stage for which he waves at the crowd, braving the cold with them as Christian-Orthodox priests hold a short ceremony. The 55-year-old, who heads the center-right National Liberal Party, stands with his arms at his sides while the rest of the crowd crosses themselves during a religious service. It's a reminder that he, unlike the overwhelming majority of Romanians, is a Lutheran of German descent. But when Iohannis speaks, it's about togetherness, not differences.

IOHANNIS: (Speaking foreign language).

NELSON: He says we are a nation that has shown the world that we embrace democratic values, that we have courage and that we want change. As your new president, I propose that we join together to discover our national unity.

But his political rivals have other worries. They are in scramble mode after a devastating loss that torpedoed the ambitions of Prime Minister Victor Ponta. His defeat in the runoff vote is linked to the problems expatriate Romanians had casting ballots outside the country during the first round. TV images of thousands of Romanians lining up for hours to vote and being unable to do so, whether by design or incompetence, struck a deep chord at home, says the president-elect's creative director, Ioan Dan Niculescu.

IOAN DAN NICULESCU: I don't think that it made a big difference what people in the diaspora were doing, but their families back in Romania reacted. And the effect was Mr. Iohannis winning the elections beyond any kind of expectations, beyond our wildest dreams.

NELSON: He adds Iohannis, with his plans to crack down on corruption and improve Romanian ties to the West, has people here feeling hopeful about the future for the first time in a long time. But political veterans say Iohannis has a tight window to turn his words into action.

Monica Macovei is one who says she will hold his feet to the fire. She's a Romanian member of the European Parliament and ran as an Independent against Iohannis in the first round. Macovei threw her votes his way after he signed a ten-step agreement on making the Romanian government and political parties more accountable.

MONICA MACOVEI: I have some worries deep inside, but I don't want to discourage him or anyone else. I just wish him to be strong and not to listen to those in the parties, so I wish him not to listen to these voices coming from a dark past.

NELSON: In Sibiu, many believe he will succeed. The 14-year mayor who used to teach high school physics has one of the few homes here outfitted with solar panels and is credited with turning Sibiu into a popular tourist destination. His clean-up and renovation of the historic downtown helped his city win the title of European Capital of Culture in 2007. The president-elect's pastor is Kilian Doerr.

KILIAN DOERR: (Speaking German) Als Freunde mit dem Taxi...

NELSON: He says when Iohannis was first elected as mayor, a local taxi driver commented now we can leave all the doors open here. No one will steal anything anymore. Doerr adds that if anyone can tackle corruption in the capital, it's Iohannis. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.