Exit polls showed Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta's USL social-liberal alliance won a clear victory in the parliamentary election yesterday (9 December), strengthening his position in a power struggle with the country's rightist president.
Ponta's leftist Social Liberal Union (USL) won 54-58% of votes according to three exit polls and is headed for a majority, but his opponent President Traian Băsescu has the power to ask someone else from the USL to form a government [more].
The USL alliance consists of Ponta’s Social Democratic Party (PSD, PES-affiliated) and Crin Antonescu’s National Liberal Party (PNL, ALDE-affiliated).
The future of Băsescu as head of state also appears uncertain after the election. Though his term ends in November 2014, it is widely expected that the USL coalition would try to repeat their summer effort to impeach him. Under the coalition agreement, Antonescu has been promised the presidency.
That may yet unnerve markets, as any prolonged period without a new administration in place would raise questions about how Romania would obtain a new International Monetary Fund deal once the current agreement expires in early 2013.
Ponta tried to impeach Băsescu in July, a campaign that brought harsh criticism from the European Union and United States and has left the two men in an uncomfortable power share. The president has previously said he would never appoint Ponta again, though his language has softened in the last two weeks.
"Starting tomorrow, we can talk projects for the next four years ... because we have peace and stability," Ponta, a 40-year-old lawyer, told reporters in his Tărgu Jiu constituency, a few hours from Bucharest.
The former communist country has made progress in some areas since the 1989 revolution that overthrew dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, but although it joined the European Union in 2007 it remains the bloc's second poorest member.
Heavy snow, rain and fog across the Balkan country hampered turnout, which was only 37% by early evening, but also reflected deep dissatisfaction with politicians - many of whom voters view as corrupt - among an electorate of just over 18 million. First official results are due early on Monday.
Romania lags regional peers Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic and struggles to supply running water and reliable electricity to some of its 19 million people. Long-term reforms such as privatization of inefficient state companies and an overhaul of health care have failed to materialize, and the economy is struggling to recover from a deep recession.
The exit polls put opposition Right Romania Alliance (ARD), allies of Băsescu and unpopular for pushing austerity, on 19% and populist Dan Diaconescu, who wants deep tax cuts, in third place with 10-13% of the vote.
The USL has benefited from disenchantment with Băsescu and the ARD, who pushed through salary cuts and higher sales tax before they lost power in a parliamentary confidence vote in April. But lackluster economic growth will give the next administration little room to ease cost cuts and tax rises.
"Things will remain exactly the same after this election, if not worse," said pensioner Mufide Suliman in a cold and rainy Bucharest. "I don't hold any hope for us. Maybe my grandchildren will have a better life."
Romania's complicated electoral system - combining constituencies and proportional representation - favors large parties and analysts say the USL would probably thus win even more seats than its proportion of the vote.
Ponta said he would discuss working with the ethnic Hungarian UDMR party, which exit polls put in fourth place with about 5% of votes. Two-thirds of seats are needed to change the constitution, along with backing in a referendum.
By late afternoon, the Interior Ministry had recorded 370 instances of alleged fraud in the election, which is being monitored by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
"I gave a chance to the team which is now ruling (USL)," said former textile worker Doina Isopescu at a polling station in Bucharest. "I'm fed up with cuts, cuts and again cuts."
The leu fell to a record low against the euro in August during Ponta's attempt to remove the conservative Băsescu from office, using tactics which the EU and United States said undermined the rule of law. The currency remains near lows and borrowing costs edged higher in the weeks before the election.
The focus will now be on Băsescu's comments for an indication of whom he might nominate, which he will do after full results - should be due on Wednesday - and talks with parties.
The Party of European Socialists (PES) warmly welcomed the USL victory. The result is an endorsement of the course taken by the USL coalition led by Prime Minister Victor Ponta, and reflects the strong popular support for the progressive policies of his government. After months of controversy, the success of Victor Ponta’s coalition marks a definitive end to the dispute between the Prime Minister and the Conservative President Traian Băsescu, PES says in statement.
PES President Sergei Stanishev is quoted as saying: “This victory is a well-deserved vindication of Victor Ponta and his government. Victor has had to face a lot of challenges since his appointment as Prime Minister – both political and social – and today’s results are proof that his efforts have borne fruit. The Romanian citizens are squarely and solidly behind Victor. Thanks to this strong result, the concerns and requests of the people will continue to be heard”.
Guy Verhofstadt, Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) group leader, made the following statement: "I congratulate Partidul National Liberal, member of the USL coalition, for scoring a decisive victory in the Romanian parliamentary elections. The vested trust of the Romanian citizens should be put to good use, by achieving progress in crucial areas of concern - reform of the judiciary and the fight against corruption."
Asked if the European Commission would present its report under the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism on Romania until the end of the year, Commission spokesperson Alejandro Ulzurrun said today (10 December) that for the time being, no concrete date could be specified.
The report will take into account both the way in which election has taken place and the analysis of progress since July, he explained.
Until now, the Commission had made assurances that the CVM report would be published by the end of the year.