London's Romanian Diaspora Mobilised to Stop Their Prime Minister Becoming President
Thousands queued for the chance to cast their ballot, despite the President making it more difficult for ex-pats to vote.
"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 amidst a 8000-odd crush of Romanian expats as the chant slogans, wave flags and the swamp the thin line of Police guarding the entrance to the Romanian Cultural Institute, located on London's Belgrave Square.
On Sunday the 16th Of November, Romanian diaspora flooded streets and polling stations from Acton to Australia to cast their votes in Romania's 2014 presidential elections – every single person here desperate to see centre-right candidate Klaus Iohannis elected as the country's president over his rival, Romania's current Prime Minister, Victor-Viorel Ponta.
"We are here since 7AM," 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 crush, it becomes starkly evident that many here view the country's widespread poverty 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 MPs 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 he [Klaus Iohannis] can help... I want to go back to my country and not be sad about the poverty I see."
55 year-old Klaus Iohannis is a German-born Protestant, a former physics teacher and mayor of the Romanian city of Sibiu who begun to receive widespread praise as a politician after helping elevate the city of Sibiu to the status of European Capital of Culture in 2007. And his pledge to help end the corruption and economic instability that has dogged Romania since the late eighties saw a giant groundswell of support amongst young people, working professionals and the educated classes overseas.
Ponta's pre-election tactics also played a big part in his downfall, with his communist-tied party encouraging the country's poor and old-aged to vote by promising them bigger pensions, writing pro-Ponta sermons to for church masses, and mobilising students for street canvassing by offering school holidays – these factors combining to spark huge pre-election protests against him throughout Romania.
But one of the most important factors contributing to the mass mobilisation of Iohannis' supporters was Ponta's attempt to close polling stations overseas in an attempt to block opposition votes during the first round of the elections on the 2nd of November, 2014 – offering only nine locations where London's 100,000 plus Romanian population were able to vote.
By the Sunday the 16th, 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 May 2014.
"I didn't want to vote but what happened on the 2nd of November made me." says 22-year-old student, Cosmin. "Last time in Romania, 53 percent of eligible people had voted. Today, at 19:00 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...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 since becoming Prime Minister in May 2012, 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, placing the parliamentary newspaper Monitorul Oficial under government control. But his most ambitious goal by far was the attempt to pass a bill which exemplified government officials, lawyers and politicians from corruption charges.
"In Ponta's party, everyone's corrupt – from the cleaner right to the top." Says IT professional, George, who managed to cast his vote for Iohannis after queuing 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."
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 travelling over two hundred 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 co-ordinate UK-based Romanians through their Facebook Groups, Operation 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 whilst keeping the queues fluid 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 9PM 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."