The Eastern European Spring

Voters Tilt Toward Pro-EU, Anti-Corruption Candidates

A man holds a sign reading "We want democracy like in EU, not like in Russia" in front of government headquarters in Bucharest, November 2014. Radu Sigheti / Courtesy Reuters

On November 16, when the Romanian people elected as president Klaus Iohannis, an ethnic German who ran a vigorous campaign against corruption, they shattered a number of illusions about politics in eastern Europe. Since the end of the Cold War, Western analysts and media have portrayed eastern Europe as a region dogged by a xenophobic nationalism, where uncivilized voters are quick to turn to ethno-nationalist parties in times of trouble. Although Hungary’s recent slide into authoritarianism conforms to this narrative, Iohannis’ victory tells another story—as do recent elections in several other postcommunist states.

In Romania, election results suggest that eastern Europeans have directed their frustrations not at ethnic minorities but at their own governments, which are riddled with corruption and inefficiencies. Iohannis’ opponent, Prime Minister Victor Ponta, ran a campaign that catered to the nationalist vote, promising to support traditional Romanian values of “the army, church, and family” and arguing that Romania should incorporate neighboring Moldova. But he was soundly defeated on polling day. Instead, voters chose a solidly pro-EU political outsider who promised good governance.

Romanians are not alone. Eastern Europeans continue to see the EU as the most credible antidote to countrywide corruption, as demonstrated by recent elections in Slovenia and Ukraine. In July, Slovenians elected Miro Cerar, a moralistic law professor who ran on an anticorruption, antiestablishment platform, to be prime minister. Cerar defeated both the center-left and the center-right by promising to restore fair governance to a country stuck in economic recession. Slovenians, tired of a political elite that grew fat on spoils as the rest of the country stagnated, turned—like the Romanians—to a pro-EU political outsider. In October, Ukraine’s parliamentary election followed a similar trajectory. The Euromaidan movement, whose parties won a majority of the vote and will form the next government, emphasized rooting out corruption and moving the country toward the rest of Europe.

Of course, electing reformers does not necessarily guarantee results. A number of antigraft parties have come to

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