Romania heads to the polls on Sunday for a second round of presidential elections seen as key for democracy and state of law in the SE European country. After one of the dirtiest electoral campaign in Romania's 25 year post-communist history, some 18 million people have to choose between current Social Democratic prime minister Victor Ponta, who has run a populist, nationalistic campaign appealing to the poorer segments of the population, and Klaus Iohannis, the ethnic German, popular mayor of Sibiu city, who has little to no experience in national or international politics.

Klaus Iohannis and Victor Ponta during a televised debateFoto: Screen capture - Realitatea TV

They are vying for the seat currently held by President Traian Basescu, whose 10 year rule divided Romania profoundly.

The past two weeks of electoral campaign were one of the more sinister periods in the country's recent history. And they ended on Friday with demonstrations - not the usual demonstrations of support for one candidate or another, but protests against the government and the bad organisation of voting abroad.

The first round of elections on November 2 was won by Victor Ponta with 40% to Klaus Iohannis to 30%. Several major scandals erupted in the wake of that poll, most important of which are:

  • thousands of Romanians abroad - who usually vote against the Social Democrats - could not cast their vote because of major problems with the organisation of voting stations in European cities. Organising the vote abroad is largely the duty of the Foreign Ministry, which answers to PM Ponta. The issue prompted major protests in Romania and in European capitals last weekend. This Friday, 10.000 people in Cluj city, 5.000 in Bucharest and many more thousands in other Romanian cities took the streets again to protest the bad organisation of voting abroad and the government of Victor Ponta.
  • a very large number of votes registered domestically were recorded on so-called "supplementary lists" - lists of people voting away from their home towns. The suspicious phenomenon took place mostly in regions such as South Romania or the Moldova in the East, regions which are tightly controlled by Victor Ponta's Social Democratic Party with a firm hold on the local administration. In some of these regions, voting on supplementary lists claimed up to a third of the total votes.

Video - Protests against Victor Ponta in Bucharest on Friday, November 14:

Neither of these two issues was responded properly by the government or by local authorities:

  • Nobody provided a proper explanation of massive voting on supplementary lists - with one newspaper publishing an incognito investigation showing that local mayors in one of the suspect regions were ready for a repeat of irregularities in second round.
  • And despite massive protests and domestic and foreign pressure, the government decided not to supplement the number of voting sections abroad. The Foreign minister resigned earlier this week and was replaced by a former head of Romania's Foreign Intelligence Service, who received the promise of support from Ponta should he win the elections. The new Foreign minister decided that several supplementary organisational facilities were enough for the poll to go on without extra stations.

Victor Ponta's all-in campaign

These two issues were not the only ones to raise question marks about the fairness of the campaign.

With opinion polls showing a narrower and narrower distance between favorite Victor Ponta and challenger Klaus Iohannis, the governing PSD appeared to dodge any prejudice in securing the victory in the second round.

Victor Ponta's government has decided all sorts of bonus payments for state sector workers over the past months - some of them in the very days before the runoff poll. And on Friday before the poll the National Statistics Institute - the current head of which had been named by Victor Ponta in controversial circumstances a while ago - surprised all economists by announcing a 1.9% economic growth in Q3 compared to Q2 2014 and positively revising previous data that had shown Romania had entered technical recession.

Video - The launch of Ponta's presidential campaign was a massive event rich in nationalist symbols:

Ponta's campaign dug up dormant hostilities between Romania's ethnic and faith groups by calling people to vote for "an orthodox Romanian" - as compared to Iohannis, who is an ethnic German of another faith and who has been called "a stranger". Ponta's people even drew representatives of the influential Orthodox Church into this game, with recordings being published in the media of Orthodox priests urging their followers to vote for a Romanian, orthodox candidate like them.

And Ponta made alliances with far right and populist leaders - forcing Hungarian Democrats, a party that is part of the current government coalition - to declare its neutrality in the second round of elections.

Iohannis - inexperienced but challenging

His rival, Klaus Iohannis, who has served as popular mayor of Sibiu, Central Romania for the past 14 years, joined national politics this year when he took over the leadership of the Liberals, following their breakup with their former PSD allies. He has mostly attracted support by standing against Ponta, as he has delivered little proof that he has what it takes to be a president so far.

In the 2009 elections, incumbent Traian Basescu managed to win the presidency despite being the challenger against his PSD opponent at the time, Mircea Geoana. Before the second round of those polls, Basescu was credited with about 45-47% of the votes to Geoana's 53-55% - yet, he managed to win it.

The same balance appears to happen again, with Iohannis claiming 45-47% in opinion polls. But he faced an even more uphill battle, with the most influential TV news channels - holding a strong influence among media consumers - showing extreme bias towards Ponta. While they launched repeated dirty attacks on Iohannis, they broadcast odes to the prime minister and provided him with way more coverage given his being a candidate and the head of government. And two of these stations - politically controlled leading news channel Antena 3 and populist news channel Romania TV - completely ignored the protests that drew thousands of people to the streets across Romania on Friday.

The stakes of this battle are huge for Romania in the current domestic and international framework.

  • The elections put an end to Basescu's ten years in office, a period of huge political strife. Basescu made a name for himself with his support for the independence of justice, leading to a situation where dozens of high profile politicians and businessmen were investigated, retained or even sentenced for corruption. He was also appreciated for his performance on the international stage. But his actions and his adversarial attitude caused major political crises throughout the years and has lost most of his appeal more recently with his apparently blind support for a politician with a poor reputation and debatable record, Elena Udrea.
  • Should Ponta become President, PSD will hold all the reins of power - the Presidency, the Parliament and the Government, with strong tools to influence the independence of justice. One significant fear voiced by Ponta's opponents was that he as president would have no trouble passing quickly an amnesty and pardon bill that would clean up many PSD politicians and allies who have been sentenced under corruption charges.
  • International and domestic observers have pointed out that Romania - a reliable NATO ally and EU member where the US is deploying parts of its missile defense - is currently seen as a "battleground state" in the troubled relations between Russia and the West, caught between countries seen as strongly influenced by Russia in one way or another: Ukraine, Hungary, Bulgaria. Ponta has voiced his commitment to Western values and alliances repeatedly, but he has also shown receptiveness to stronger economic ties with countries like China. And Romania's democratic record is strongly monitored given Russia's increased influence in less democratic states across the region.