Romanian presidential runoff sets pugnacious PM against 'civilized' Transylvanian mayor

Romania's presidential runoff sees Prime Minister Victor Ponta facing off against Klaus Iohannis, the ethnic German mayor of the Transylvanian city of Sibiu. Ponta, a former prosecutor, led Iohannis by 10 points in the first-round voting on Nov. 2, and polls indicate Ponta is likely to win, despite corruption probes and convictions of some of Ponta's senior aides.

Here is a brief rundown of the people and issues involved in Sunday's vote.


"Pugnacious" Ponta, 42, became Europe's youngest prime minister in May 2012 just before he turned 40. An amateur rally driver, Ponta married the daughter of a bigwig in the powerful Social Democratic Party and his career has mostly been plain sailing since. He's been accused of plagiarizing his doctoral thesis and of being an undercover spy by outgoing President Traian Basescu — allegations he denies — but since taking office he has overseen economic growth and political stability. He says Romania will remain a U.S. ally and rejects claims he'll cozy up to Russian President Vladimir. Critics say as president Ponta could grant an amnesty to political allies imprisoned for corruption, and that his party would have far too much power.

"Civilized" Iohannis

In an interview with The Associated Press on Thursday, the ethnic German mayor proudly said that German Chancellor Angela Merkel has written him a letter wishing him success in the runoff. The authenticity of the letter, written on the letterhead of Merkel's Christian Democrats Union, could not immediately be confirmed. Iohannis also said he would be best suited to continue Romania's battle against corruption and its goal of improving the independence of its justice system. "Ponta is a candidate of the system, a candidate who is manipulated by local (political) barons," the mayor told the AP. "People want something else. People want change." The 55-year-old physics teacher has run Sibiu, a town of 155,000 in Transylvania, since 2000. He's seen as a gentleman in the rough and tumble of Romanian politics, but some supporters have criticized his hesitation to ruthlessly exploit Ponta's weaknesses.


Ponta has played the nationalist card by advertising himself as a proud Romanian Orthodox believer. The influential church promised an internal inquiry after some priests were filmed telling believers to vote for Ponta. Corruption should be an issue in one of the European Union's poorest nations, but Romanians appear to be overlooking those allegations, attracted by Ponta's hard-charging style.

The race has featured plenty of mud-slinging, with Ponta aides accusing Iohannis of wanting to separate Transylvania from the rest of Romania. Ponta supporters dumped dozens of hens — some dead — inside Iohannis' party headquarters, calling him a coward.


Ponta says about 3 million Romanians live abroad. Neither he nor his center-left party are popular with expats. Less than 200,000 voted in the first round Nov. 2, and there were angry protests in London, Paris, Munich and Vienna as thousands said they couldn't vote. Romanian law does not allow for postal or online voting.