On Sunday, Romanians go to the polls to elect their next president. The second round of the election is a two-way race between Victor Ponta, the forty-two-year-old incumbent prime minister and leader of the Social Democratic Party, and Klaus Iohannis, a relatively unknown conservative candidate who is currently Mayor of Siblu and leader of the National Liberal Party. After the first round, Ponta led Iohannis by some ten points, winning over 40 percent of the vote. As Reuters recently reported, polls indicate that Prime Minister Ponta is likely win the run-off, and maintain his 10 point lead by taking the second round by 55 to 45 points.
Since becoming prime minister, Victor Ponta has campaigned tirelessly not only to transform the political economy of his country, but also to encourage a more pro-American stance on the left. Throughout the presidential campaign, and indeed during his two and a half years as prime minister, Ponta has been subjected to an onslaught of personal attacks. Most recently, the current Romanian President, the volatile Traian Basescu, had the audacity to accuse him of being a spy. Yet Ponta, a former public prosecutor turned politician, has sought to rise above this with a campaign that has called for a new era of dignity in politics and national unity. In doing so, he is seeking to change how politics is done in Romania and leave the country’s authoritarian past behind.
Victory for Ponta on Sunday will place him in the vanguard of progressive European leaders, alongside his friend and colleague, Italy’s new prime minister Matteo Renzi, who will campaign with Ponta in Bucharest on Thursday. Perhaps more importantly, in the week that marks the 25th anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall, it will constitute a changing of the guard in Romania. Ponta was just 17 when Communism collapsed. Since then, the Romanian left has often struggled in its relationship with both the market economy and the United States. Ponta, however, leads a new generation of pro-growth, pro-American progressives.
The importance of Ponta’s pro-American credentials should not be underestimated. As tensions on Europe’s Eastern border persist, and Vladimir’s aggressions continue, US media has begun to question whether we are entering a new Cold War. In the years to come, Romania will have an increasingly important role to play in global geopolitics. On earlier trips to the United States, the prime minister has been at pains to stress his support for locating US missile defenses in Romania. More recently, ahead of the NATO summit in Wales, Ponta offered unconditional support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Indeed, Ponta is one of the rare European leaders who takes his country’s NATO responsibilities seriously, already gradually increasing its defense spending, and pledging to double Romania’s defense spending by 2017.
On the economic front, Ponta’s government has thus far seemed able to thread the needle between austerity and growth. While some have questioned whether he will continue to honor Romania’s 2009 aid agreement with the International Monetary Fund, and agreement that many see as the foundation stone of investor confidence in the Romanian economy, such concerns seem misplaced. Romania’s economic performance under Ponta’s Social Democratic government is impressive. In 2013, Romania’s growth rate was 3.5 percent, according to Eurostat, the official statistics office of the European Union. That was the second best in the Union. A recent World Bank governance report also noted that government efficiency has dramatically improved, with Romania scoring its best result in 20 years.
While these results provide sound foundations for the future, tough challenges still remain.
Should Ponta become President on Sunday, his progressive partners in the European Union — such as the beleaguered French President, Francois Hollande, as well as Matteo Renzi — will be looking to enlist his political and diplomatic support in shifting the European Union’s economic agenda away from austerity and towards growth. Among Europe’s progressive political parties, there is a growing movement to recalibrate the EU’s macro-economic framework. While this general shift in framework would be beneficial to Romania, it will also be key to retain investor confidence in the country as a whole. Here, Ponta’s pledge to ease investment by providing tax exemptions for reinvested profit as well as to reduce social insurance contributions should help calm nerves. Maintaining Romania’s commitment to fiscal prudence, and narrowing the budget deficit as Ponta has pledged, will also be crucial.
If this can be done, then there is every reason to believe that the next 25 years of democracy in Romania will complete its transformation into a modern European nation.