Thursday, December 10, 2009

Romania in turmoil: massive election fraud charged

By ALISON MUTLER (AP)

BUCHAREST, Romania — Many Romanians had hoped this election would lift the country out of political crisis, help it shake its reputation for corruption, and allow it to climb out of its worst recession in 20 years.

Instead, it has plunged the country into even deeper turmoil.

The opposition is charging the presidency has been stolen by fraud. A $1.5 billion international loan probably won't be delivered. And some in the business community fear the scandal will scare off the foreign investment the country so badly needs.

Results in Sunday's presidential runoff election showed that the incumbent, Traian Basescu, eked out the slimmest of victories: The Central Electoral Bureau said he took 50.33 percent of the vote to 49.66 percent for his challenger, former Foreign Minister Mircea Geoana.

Three exit polls had forecast a victory for Geoana, albeit a narrow one.

Geoana has charged he was robbed of the presidency by "deliberately organized massive fraud." He said his Social Democratic Party has evidence of ballot stuffing and multiple voting — both inside Romania and abroad, where he lost heavily to Basescu.

Thousands of fictitious personal identity numbers were created, Geoana said. He said his party has evidence that, in one instance, hundreds of voters shared one address — that of a small house in Bucharest.

Romania is one of the European Union's poorest countries, and Geoana said there is also evidence of widespread vote-buying. He is appealing the result to the country's Constitutional Court and demanding new elections.

The court is scheduled to rule this week on whether the results are valid.

The Liberal Democratic Party, which supports Basescu, denied fraud and said Geoana didn't now how to lose with grace.

Even before Sunday's runoff, the situation was chaotic.

In September, a vice prime minister charged that plans for electoral fraud were already under way. That led the prime minister, Emil Boc, to fire him in October — after which Parliament dismissed Boc himself with a vote of no confidence.

The country has been without a government since then.

Because of that, the International Monetary Fund suspended a euro1.5 billion ($2 billion) loan meant to help pull the country out of recession.

While the instability continues, the loan is unlikely to be released. The International Monetary Fund wants Romania to have a government and a 2010 budget first — and neither will happen until the election issue is resolved.

In the meantime, unemployment is 7 percent and the economy is expected to shrink 8.5 percent this year.

Romania has had a troubled history. It suffered for 24 years under the communist dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu, the self-described "Genius of the Carpathians." He and his wife were summarily tried and executed by firing squad in 1989. Accusations and recriminations regarding who did what during the communist era still resonate today.

Stratfor, an Austin, Texas-based global intelligence company, predicted there could be unrest this month surrounding the 20th anniversary of Ceausescu's execution.

As if that were not enough, some fear the charges of electoral theft will repel foreign investors.

"In the eyes of European advanced democracies, vote rigging is the ultimate in corruption, as it signals corrupt leadership from the top down," said Vivien Ashton, an adviser to the Bucharest stock exchange. "It reinforces the foreigner's view of the big business barons as having absolute control of the Romanian political base, with no regard for the direction of the economy. That is discouraging for business growth; no one wants to invest in such a climate."

Romanians who voted for Geoana say they want an investigation.

"I think the election was stolen," said Valentina Lupan, a 58-year-old architect. "Twenty years after communism ended, I pray to God that the judges at the Constitutional Court will rule correctly."

Cristian Parvulescu, who heads Pro Democracy, a non-governmental organization that monitors elections, said he could not determine whether the vote was rigged. He said, though, that there were instances of vote-buying and "electoral tourism," in which voters cast ballots in many places.

Basescu called Wednesday for reconciliation. "The time for competition has ended," he said. "It is time to come back to the country's priorities."

But Geoana said it was his duty to challenge the fraud so it does not become the standard for future elections.

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