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London's Romanian Diaspora Mobilized to Stop Their Prime Minister from Becoming President

Thousands of ex-pat Romanians helped Klaus Iohannis defeat incumbent Victor-Viorel Ponta in an election that centered around accusations of widespread government corruption.
November 18, 2014, 3:00pm

Photos by ​Henry Wilkins

"We need a new perspective. We need to detach ourselves from the past. This is a new chance for a new Romania. It sounds clichéd but it's the truth," says 24-year old Nastacia from inside a 8,000-odd crush of Romanian expats that's chanting slogans, waving flags, and swamping the thin line of police guarding the entrance to the Romanian Cultural Institute on London's Belgrave Square.

On Sunday November 16, the Romanian diaspora flooded streets and polling stations from Acton to Australia to cast their votes in Romania's 2014 presidential elections—and every single person here is desperate to see center-right candidate Klaus Iohannis elected as the country's president over his rival, Romania's current Prime Minister, Klaus Iohannis.

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"We are here since 7 AM," say Wembley residents Christian and Alex as they huddle from the evening rain under a sea of umbrellas. "We're trying to make things better for our relatives back home. Ponta told us many generations must be sacrificed for the good of the country. But many have sacrificed too much. Now, it's time to change things."

As we lever our way through the crowd, it becomes starkly evident that many here view the country's widespread pov​erty and corruption as the result of Ponta's party—the Romanian Social Democratic Party (PSD)—a powerful conglomerate of the country's former communist officials with ties to major businesses, regional politicians, and media networks throughout Romania.

"I voted Iohannis with all my heart," says Romanian journalist Iohanna Myron. "I want the corruption [in Romania] to be erased and I think [Iohannis] can help… I want to go back to my country and not be sad about the poverty I see."​

Fifty-five-year-old Klaus Iohannis is a German-born Protestant, a former physics teacher, and the mayor of the Romanian city of Sibiu. He began to receive widespread praise as a politician after helping elevate his city to the status of the European Capital of Culture in 2007. And his pledge to help end the corruption and economic instability that has dogged Romania since the late 80s saw a groundswell of support among young people, working professionals, and the educated classes overseas.

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Ponta's pre-election tactics also played a big part in his downfall. His communist-tied party encouraged the country's poor and elderly to vote by promising them bigger pensions, wrote pro-Ponta sermons to for church masses, and mobilized students for street canvassing by offering school holidays—all of which led to huge pre-election ​protests against him throughout Romania.

But one of the most important factors contributing to the mass mobilization of Iohannis's supporters was Ponta's attempt to clos​e polling stations overseas in an attempt to block opposition votes during the first round of the elections on November 2—offering only nine locations where London's 100,000-plus Romanian population were able to vote.

By Sunday, Ponta had reduced these locations to just three. And the response his tactics triggered was huge. It's clear that Romanians have had enough, and that the voters gathered in Belgrave Square view Ponta's tactics as an extension of his underhand political style since becoming Prime Minister in 2012.

"I didn't want to vote but what happened on November 2 made me," says Cosmin, a 22-year-old student. "Last time in Romania, 53 percent of eligible people had voted. Today, at 7 PM local time, there were 58 percent—and I don't think that extra 5 percent voted for Ponta."

"We want to change the government, change the people that have allowed this to happen. We want to have democracy, the same like Western countries, backed up by the government and sustained by it," he adds. "We are governed here [in the UK] by a proper government. We want that in Romania, too. We have families there we spend money home to. We sustain the economy."

Ironically, Ponta began his early political life as a former state prosecutor in the fight against state corruption. But after getting the country's top job he and his cabinet begun to dismantle the country's governmental frameworks, sacking and replacing officials at will, using the state budget for electoral campaigns, and placing the parliamentary newspaper Monitorul Oficial under government control. But his most ambitious goal by far was the attempt to pass a bill which exempted government officials, lawye​rs, and politicians from corruption charges.

"In Ponta's party, everyone's corrupt—from the cleaner right to the top," says George, an IT professional who managed to cast his vote for Iohannis after lining up for over eight hours. "Two weeks ago I came here, and after five hours I couldn't get in. So I came again. The right to vote is the most important. I'm not into politics, but my vote counts. So if there are 2 million more like me, we can change something."

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Whoever I talked to amongst the diaspora on Belgrave Square, the sentiments remained the same: Ponta out. Iohannis for President.

In Romania the economy is very bad," says Eugene, another Romanian expat working in London. "Some cities back home are finished. People are traveling over 200 kilometres to work, just to earn a little bit. That's the reason we're in the UK… and maybe, with his mentality [Iohannis] can change something. He needs to get rid of the rid politicians who are in charge. They're the ones taking everything. Romanians have waited 25 years and nothing has changed. Now we have the opportunity."

There were also several Romanian activist groups present, one of which was led by Sebastian Heroiu. Heroui's group helped coordinate UK-based Romanians through their Facebook page Operati​on Esc. On the day prior to the elections, Heroiu and others also attended a training day to help Romanians fill out their voting papers quickly and correctly while keeping the lines moving to ensure as many voted as possible.

"Another tactic Ponta used was to limit the amount of [rubber] stamps available for people to mark their voting papers with," explains Heroiu. "There were supposed to be seven, but there were just three for all the people voting. Really, there should have been seventy! But seeing these things give you hope for what can happen. It's good to be active and it's good that Romanian society finally woke up."

Towards the end of the night, several riot vans arrived in anticipation of the 9 PM deadline and the agitated hundreds still queuing to vote. An extra line of police bolstered the entrance to the building as a few rowdy protestors were dragged away and arrested. Eventually, the crowd dissipated, and by early Monday morning it was announced that Iohannis had won ​the race for Romania's presidency, securing 54.5 percent of the people's votes to Ponta's 45.5 percent.

As Romanians around the world ​celebrated, Iohannis remarked that "another kind of Romania is beginning." And as he issued a hurried series of press conferences to the world's media, he reiterated his wish to end the country's long history of political corruption and to establish "a new kind of politics in our country. Less show, less noise, and more concrete solutions for citizens, for Romania."

Follow James Rippingale on ​Twitter