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The only surprise in the congress of liberals was seeing Klaus Johannis propelled to the second position in the party, with the purpose declared by Crin Antonescu to leave him the party as inheritance.
The political ambitions of the Sibiu mayor are nothing new. In 2009, after a year of joint governance, Mircea Geoana, pressed by electoral priorities, tore an alliance while betting on another. At that time, Johannis played the role of binder between the new partners, as well as that of electoral agent. He missed by inches the role of premier. Now he returns, also in the context of an electoral confrontation. Only the data of the problem have changed. There is a premier, whose position is strong, for the time being. Crin Antonescu rejects the idea that he brought him to PNL in order to be premier, but to succeed him after he will win the presidential elections. This is a worrying statement for a party that is so closely united around his present leader. Are his lieutenants mere puppets, as he insinuates Emil Boc was for Traian Basescu? Was an outsider necessary to keep the party from disintegrating after Antonescu goes to Cotroceni?
It is hard to believe that the Liberal president feared having the same fate as Ion Iliescu, who was deprived of his party by Petre Roman – the premier he had forced to resign (with support from the miners). Tariceanu or Orban could not have taken over the party when Antonescu reached the peaks of power. This is more than unlikely. So, it is not a heir that Antonescu needed, but an ally.
For now, the Liberal president has but one strong political friend: Victor Ponta. Without his support, the opposition inside PNL would not be so anemic. But one cannot rely forever on the leader of another party. However, Antonescu could have chosen a second-in-command within his own party. One that would represent many others. But most of them are vulnerable and risk being too unconvincing.
On the other hand, Klaus Johannis has the advantage of a good image. He is at his fourth mandate of mayor and could, in principles, remain the mayor of Sibiu until the retirement age, given the very high popularity he enjoys. He represents a respected minority, did not make politics in any ruling party, which would have inevitably be soiled by corruption rows. He represents a good example of successful administrator, without the bad image of local potentates that defied the laws. Klaus Johannis is no Radu Mazare or Dumitru Sechelariu. And he has another rare quality: he is German. He speaks the same language as Angela Merkel.
If there is someone who bars Crin Antonescu’s way to glory, this is not Traian Basescu, now at the dusk of his career, but the German chancellor, the main artisan of the failure of last summer’s referendum. And Johannis could become the guarantor of an ideological mutation with clear strategic valences: the migration towards the EPP, a project announced by Crin Antonescu at a certain moment of the past. But the Liberal mayor also has another asset than the foreign one. This is not the first time when PNL tries to gain new life force with an outsider at its helm. It did it in the past, under Theodor Stolojan, who attempted a small revolution in the party and was about to win the presidency, had the cunning Basescu not convinced him to switch places with himself. As he came from outside the party, Stolojan found no trouble in leaving it when the time came.
But Johannis seems a more exotic acquisition than Stolojan (who had been minister and premier years ago). To what extent will he be able to gain precedence in the party life? Let’s recollect the examples of Andrei Marga at the Christian-Democrats, president for few months, and Baconschi or Ungureanu, who were quasi-engrafted on PDL.
Of course, Johannis is good even as a mascot in a party that lost its polish among its old fans. It entered an alliance with the left, although it considered itself the standard-bearer of the right. It supports, through its ministers, measures that can hardly be called liberal. It marginalised the most successful politician so far, the former premier Tariceanu, the main artisan, through governance (with undisputable results) in spite of President Basescu – the traitor ally. He brought in the party the rude loudmouth Gigi Becali, who treated the Liberal seniors as ‘gramps’. He resorted to anti-west rhetoric in a context that has the EU as the main political and economic support. And, above all, he became excessively associated with a party – the Social Democrats – that was labelled as ‘the party of corrupts’ for too long time.
But, no matter how disciplined PNL is now under Crin Antonescu, the Johannis implant can be rejected in time. With all his aura of efficient and irreproachable technocrat, Johannis must pass the test of party life. Otherwise, he will remain just an artificial experiment, like others of this kind, with unconvincing and disappointing results.