Romanian left seeks election comeback

BUCHAREST: Romanians vote Sunday in parliamentary elections that are forecast to see the corruption-tainted left stage a remarkable comeback, a year after a deadly nightclub fire forced them from office.

Polls put the Social Democrats (PSD) in first place with around 40%. The centre-right National Liberal Party (PNL) and the Save Romania Union (USR) are seen garnering a combined 35% - 40%.

After the Bucharest disco blaze on Oct 30, 2015, which claimed 64 lives, tens of thousands took to the streets, forcing premier Victor Ponta and his PSD-led government to resign.

A caretaker government was then installed under technocrat Prime Minister Dacian Ciolos, 47, a former European commissioner.

The PNL and the USR have said they would support Ciolos staying on. He is happy to do so but wants to remain an independent, vowing continued budgetary discipline.

But the PSD, expected to form a coalition with the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (ALDE), wants Ciolos gone and instead to install party head Liviu Dragnea, 54, as premier.

However, Dragnea is serving a suspended sentence for electoral fraud, though, and a 2001 law prevents anyone convicted of a crime becoming a minister.

Moreover President Klaus Iohannis, 57, has refused to appoint anyone with legal problems as prime minister.

This would also exclude a comeback by Ponta, 44, currently on trial – in fact he was already in the dock while prime minister – for alleged tax evasion and money laundering.

Bent officials

The absence of fire precautions that caused the Colectiv club inferno was blamed on bent officials turning a blind eye.

For many Romanians it was the final straw, and the tragedy prompted a push to clean Romania up.

"The effects of corruption were suddenly clear for all to see: 64 deaths," recalled Mihai Politeanu, the founder of an anti-corruption association, Initiativa Romania, created after the blaze.

Romania's National Anti-Corruption Directorate (DNA) has been highly active and visible, bringing ministers, senators, lawmakers and other public officials to justice.

A recent survey suggested that 95% of Romanians want tackling corruption to be a priority for the next government, but there are worries this will not happen if the PSD returns to power.

The clean-up has "disproportionately hit the Romanian left," said Tsveta Petrova from risk consultancy Eurasia Group.

"As a result, should a left-led coalition come to power, it will try to slow down this campaign."

Promises, promises

But the PSD is still forecast to become the largest party, thanks to solid support among older Romanians and in rural areas of the southeastern European nation of 20 million people.

However, 27 years after the summary execution of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and the end of Communism, voter apathy is rife, with turnout on Sunday forecast to be as low as 40%.

Both sides, while trading insults and generally avoiding serious political discussion during the campaign, have pledged spectacular hikes in wages and pensions as well as tax cuts.

Such promises go down well in the European Union's second-poorest country, where more than half of rural houses have no running water and one in four people live in poverty.

"Change has to start with all of us," said voter Livia Gheorghe, a student. "So I am going to vote and I hope that my vote counts and that the political class finally changes, too." — AFP