Vintilă Mihăilescu: Santa Klaus: Presidential elections and moral revolt in Romania

On 20 December 2014, Romania got its new president: Klaus Iohannis. The processes surrounding this election deserve mention and anthropological scrutiny. Almost exactly twenty-five years after the execution of the Ceausescu couple on Christmas Day 1989, Romania is celebrating a brand new sort of President: a “Santa Klaus.”

There were fourteen candidates running for president in Romania. All the opinion polls presented the socialist and incumbent Prime Minister Victor Ponta as the prospective winner. In the first round he gained 40.44 percent of the votes, well ahead of his main competitor, Klaus Iohannis, who gathered 30 percent. During the two weeks between the first and the second round, nothing “really” happened, not even one public confrontation of the two candidates. However, actual voter participation increased totally unexpectedly by more than 10 percentage points, from 53 percent to 64 percent. This helped to increase the support for Iohannis to 54.43 percent. In absolute terms: one million votes more than Ponta. It also turned around the long and seemingly structural downward trend in voter participation in Romania (see below; as in many other postsocialist countries) and produced a massive wave of voter enthusiasm.1

Year Voter participation Winner’s score (first round) Loser’s score (first round) Winner’s score (second round)
1990 86.19% 99.10%
1992 76.29% 47.34% 31.24% 61.43%
1996 75.90% 28.22% 32.25% 54.41%
2000 57.50% 36.35% 28.34% 66.83%*
2004 55.20% 33.92% 40.97% 51.23%
2009 58.02% 32.44% 31.15% 50.34%
2014 64.10%** 30.37% 40.44% 54.43%***

* Incumbent President Ion Iliescu ran against the extreme right leader Vadim Tudor and won by means of a huge negative vote.
** 53.17% in the first round
*** 89.73% among the diaspora

The search for explanations ran high already during election night. In the emotionally charged context of political surprise, the first popular explanation was that the elections had been “emotional,” putting the explanandum in the place of the explanans. Others made a point of emphasizing that this was not just a victory, it was a victory of the Right. But then again, what Right? There are hardly any distinctions between left and right in present Romania. Some had already during the elections pointed out that it was the “anticommunist Right.” By presenting Ponta and his party as the embodiment of the old “specter of communism,” vocal “anticommunists” produced a moral panic by mobilizing an imagined middle class against the imaginary risk of “communist restoration.” This has been a recurrent theme of the Right in Romania, especially of a conservative intellectual elite (see Poenaru 2013), and it has generally been dressed in the language of elitist contempt for the backwardness of “stupid people” or masses. Or as Horia Roman Patapievici, one of its key promulgators, once wrote, “Modern incivility [the original says “mitocanie,” meaning boorishness] bears a name: the revolt of the masses” (Patapievici 2002). In his turn, Vladimir Tismăneanu, commenting on the elections from the United States, thought that Ponta was “a small Kim,” and at another occasion he claimed that Ponta was more obedient to Putin than interested in “Europe” (Tismăneanu 2014). For him and many other “anticommunists,” the reign of the socialists was equivalent to an authoritarian restoration of a Russian/Asiatic type of communism.

Others emphasized that it was not the Right that had won but the Left that had lost. The vote had been a protest vote, a rejection of Ponta and the Social Democratic Party (PSD). To some extent, that was correct. In spite of the populist measures promoted in the last months by his government (“electoral dotes” for poor families, mothers with many children, pensioners but also for the Church), the protest vote was enhanced by Ponta and his staff’s self-sufficiency and the arrogant way they tried to block the traditionally “anticommunist” diaspora vote (see below). But if the PSD had been responsible for angering the population, then Iohannis, a German speaker from Transylvania as quiet and bleak as a white wall on which one can project anything, stood for hope almost without being aware of it. Refusing—or in fact even being unable—to present himself as a political actor, he posed as a moral person: “I’d sooner lose the elections than be a boor!” he stated, thereby portraying himself as an immaculate potential savior. Beyond his right-wing supporters, it was just the message a majority wanted to hear: we want somebody new, unspoiled by politics! What’s more, the hybrid liberal party that supported him, made up of the same figures that have dominated Romanian politics for the past decade, remained entirely on the backstage and played in the offside, allowing the PSD to publicly play “the boor.” In a paradoxical and symptomatic way, it was his image of political nonexistence that helped Iohannis to occupy major political terrain.

It was the alchemy of these two elements that mobilized voters. Here are some more arguments that were heard:

      1. It was the “hard-working” Romanians. The maps broadcast by the media showed two colors: Transylvania—closer to the European Union (EU), historically part of the Habsburg Empire, located in the West of the country—was blue (liberal). The two historical Romanian regions, Moldova and Wallachia—decidedly poorer and less developed—were red (“communist”). The idea of the culturally divided country was coming back once again.
      2. The mobilization of the diaspora made the difference. This was the first time it made itself visible on Romania’s political scene, and it made an impression on everyone.
      3. It was the Internet generation. However, this didn’t function in the first round, and we know from many other instances that what we’ve come to name “clicktivism” is not the same thing as a real-life mobilization.

Sociologist Dumitru Sandu came with some more exact statistical data:

      1. The most significant factor for Iohannis was the “modernity” and “development” of a location: approximately 27 percent of the votes cast for him came from what are seen as less backward and “more modern” localities all over the country.
      2. Ethnic-regional votes (which contributed at least 15 percent): Romanians might be proud of the results of the elections, but the votes from regions inhabited by ethnic minorities were important (Hungarian-speaking Transylvania and the Dobrogea).
      3. The mass rejection of Victor Ponta contributed almost 15 percent of the Iohannis vote.
      4. The community’s experience of migration (3 percent): the role of the diaspora was “significant, but not determinant,” Sandu concludes. The problem was that the PSD had refused to think about ongoing social changes even in their own backyard (underdeveloped countrysides in the southern and eastern provinces, with high rates of out-migration), thus failing to relate to its own voters.

Finally, let us not be naïve: even though it goes unmeasured, in the recent geopolitical context of Russian expansionism, the power of the symbol of “Europe” was surely not to be neglected! Merkel was supporting Iohannis openly.

To my mind, there is still one fundamental question to be answered: if all these seem to be the main social structures where mobilization occurred, how did this shift actually occur, and why? Factor analysis will only disclose that the mobilization for the vote occurred in areas with a potential for change and can tell us which these are. Still, the way they mobilized remains a mystery. We are dealing not just with structures of possibility, but also with actual popular energies. There was the strong feeling of a veritable electoral revolt, a general sense of rebellion. Therefore, privileging the question who won the elections might be misleading. Popular political rejectionism may have been by far the more central fact.

My claim is that this was more a movement than a routine electoral event. My guess is that what triggered these last days of the huge mobilization of the Romanian electorate could be better understood if we were also looking in this direction. It is in this sense that I would like to sketch here what I prefer to call a “moral revolt,” inspired by (not rooted in) the idea of “moral economy.” Moral economy as presented in the classical books of E. P. Thompson (1963) and James Scott (1976), for instance, offers an account of the agency of peasants as being rooted in a kind of “subsistence ethics”: the social ties of the peasantry are cooperative rather than competitive, so as to prevent the economic actors in traditional societies from maximizing personal profit; or, in Scott’s terms, everyone in the community has a right to a minimum level of subsistence, and elites have a duty to support this right. Consequently, moral economy is (also) a legitimating deep belief in a certain system of social equity that cannot—or should not—be undermined by the state or the market if rebellion is to be avoided. Mutatis mutandis, we can also say that everyone in a society has a right to a minimum level of dignity or moral capital, and the powers that be are seen as having a duty to support this, a minimal granted reciprocity pact. This could all be summed up, if you will, by the dynamics of dignity and indignation: a perceived affront to my dignity will make me feel rejected and opens the possibility of revolt in order to restore a meaningful sense of fairness and belonging.

What happened then, from this perspective, in these elections? President Basescu’s “Right” and Prime Minister Ponta’s “Left” competed in putting the blame on each other while equally expressing their contempt for the “stupid people” out there. Ponta’s campaign slogan, “proud to be Romanian,” was consequently turned on its head by many citizens, as “proud to be proud.” And the way the PSD dealt with the elections abroad—by refusing to open enough polling stations, causing people to queue for hours, sometimes without even making it to the ballots before closing time—was the final straw. These images of Romanian voters from the diaspora being humiliated by Romanian authorities were the breaking news on most TV channels between the two rounds, producing mass anger reactions both in Romania and abroad. This is why everyone was there, the diaspora and the peasants, the hipsters and the punks: it was a mass rejection. Paradoxically, if there were any aggregate subject of revolt, it was popular sovereignty itself.

Even so, we could not grasp what happened if we limit ourselves to hic et nunc: there is a larger context behind this phenomenon. We need to upscale the analysis and take a look at the wider context of this revolt. At the mass level, this can be best described by the general mood of Romanian society: the lowest levels of trust in political institutions, of life satisfaction and of optimism, the highest levels of fear for the future, criminality and suicide throughout the EU. As for authority, it got ahead of itself in terms of the disregard shown to the population, regardless of which party we’re talking about. On different occasions, this led to a series of protests that resemble in spirit the Occupy movement, and which ended by generating a kind of NGO-federation called Uniți salvăm! (United we save). As the Spanish indignados put it, we’re not against the system, but the system is against us; still, we learned how to become indignant

We are thus witnessing a cumulative effect, both of the disdain shown to the dignity of the citizens and of the breaking of the implicit social contract. The turn in the recent Romanian election was not “an emotional bubble,” as described by politician and sociologist Vasile Dîncu (2014), but is part of a relived memory of revolt, which probably became the most significant potential for change in Romania. For sure, the popular discontent is with “really existing local capitalism,” which is still suspected by some to be a disguised form of communism, not with the very idea of capitalism or the market. What was at stake was the hope for a better national society, a change of the national system, whatever this could mean.

Now the popular rebellion also secured the pride of success, which can be inscribed into the ascending spiral of the David and Goliath effect: mobilization becomes a challenge for an ever-wider category of “sportsmen of civic activism,” a game against the system in which the users of social networking services have a noteworthy advantage. After years of depressive defeatism, Romania showed, to itself and to the world, that it can produce change in spite of its perhaps undeserved reputation of passivity. It was not simply individuals but the nation itself that regained a sense of its hitherto taunted sense of dignity. Regardless of what will happen with Iohannis, the triumph of these elections is to be measured in the restoration of hope and potential for agency. The risk is to lose measure and slip from belief to mysticism.

Even though we’re referring to a circumscribed political event, with clear stakes, what happened on 16 November 2014 in Romania shares something of the wider phenomenon of Occupy movements. A sketchy outline would emphasize the following: a) it is global in scope, beyond its unavoidable local particulars; b) it is a mood, beyond material manifestations; c) it presupposes mass energies rather than class structures; d) it is moral beyond the narrowly political-institutional. This final point is perhaps the most significant because it explains why such movements usually lack a definite political agenda and what lies beyond this apparent lack of ideology. As suggested by Ivan Krastev, “mistrusting institutions as a rule, the protesters are plainly uninterested in taking power. The government is simply ‘them,’ regardless of who is in charge. The protesters combine a genuine longing for community with a relentless individualism…They describe their own political activism almost in religious terms, stressing how the experience of acting out on the street has inspired a revolution of the soul and a regime change of the mind” (2014). He concludes, “Perhaps for the first time after 1848, the revolt is not against a government, but against being governed.” In fact, what all these movements seem to have in common is a reframing and displacement of the very notions of politics and power, both needing an expansion beyond institutionalism.

This latter remark alludes to yet another dimension of such revolts, perhaps the most profound, albeit the least visible. Revolts against being governed (even when they are seemingly against one given government or the other) are ultimately a refusal of the very language of governance, which is to say the System. Nietzsche once said that we did not get rid of God if we still believe in grammar—a radical way of emphasizing that language is power. Indignados everywhere refuse to speak the grammar of power, therefore, and sublimate it through humor, through political Dadaism or Bakhtinian carnivalesque. What they are looking to change is the language of power, and not one of its particular discourses. The system is starting to be undermined in its very moral legitimacy and ontological composition.

Vintila Mihailescu is professor of anthropology and head of the Department of Sociology at the National School of Political Studies and Administration, Bucharest, Romania.


1. The “registered” optimism concerning the future of the country increased by more than 30 percentage points, and the trust in the presidential institution jumped from 17.8 percent before elections to 43.9 percent some days after. Iohannis also become the most “e-visited” president in Europe, with more then 1.3 million fans on Facebook, surpassing by far even Angela Merkel.


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Krastev, Ivan. 2014. “The global politics of protest.” IWMpost 113: pp. 3-4.

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Poenaru, Florin. 2013. The illusion of anticommunism. PhD diss., Central European  University.

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Thompson, E. P. [1963] 1991. The making of the English working class. Toronto: Penguin Books.

Tismăneanu, Vladimir. 2014. “Cine este Traian Basescu?,”, decembrie 20.

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Sandu, Dumitru. 2014b. “Lumile de acasă ale diasporelor româneşti de astăzi,”, noiembrie 25.

Scott, James. 1976. The moral economy of the peasant: Rebellion and subsistence in Southeast Asia. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Cite as: Mihăilescu, Vintilă. 2015. “Santa Klaus: Presidential elections and moral revolt in Romania,” FocaalBlog, January 9,