Friday, June 8, 2012

Romanian voters ready to snub austerity


By Sam Cage

LEORDENI, Romania | Thu Jun 7, 2012 5:20am EDT

(Reuters) - Voters who have had enough of poverty and austerity will almost certainly give Romania's new leftist government a ringing endorsement in local elections this weekend and set it up for a comfortable parliamentary majority.

The Social Liberal Union (USL) alliance took power last month, toppling the centre-right Democrat-Liberal Party (PDL), which suffered the same fate as other European governments that pushed through painful cuts to maintain investor confidence.

USL Prime Minister Victor Ponta has been a vocal opponent of austerity measures and pledged to restore wages and cut some taxes, while sticking to an International Monetary Fund-led aid deal. He also plans an electoral reform that should further entrench his position.

But more than 20 years after the violent overthrow of communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, Romania is still the second-poorest European Union member and struggles to provide running water to many of its 19 million people.

"How is the situation in our country now? It's very bad. We don't believe in any politician anymore," said pensioner Radu Dumitru, chatting with friends outside his house in the village of Leordeni, about an hour northwest of the capital Bucharest.
"It was better with Ceausescu than with these guys."

With opinion poll ratings above 50 percent, Ponta's main challenge may prove to be keeping together his alliance of leftists, centrists and rightists - whose main rallying point was opposition to the previous government - now it is in power.

The PDL cut public salaries and raised sales tax in 2010 and has been so badly damaged that it is struggling to hold on to second place ahead of the populist Dan Diaconescu, whose new party wants steep tax cuts and higher wages and pensions.

FRUSTRATION

Sunday's votes for councils and mayors have no direct impact on the approaching national election but will give a clear sign of parties' support for the first time since the new government took over in May.

The winners of local votes also can have more influence over future ballots, for example by launching high-profile projects or backing a specific candidate. The parliamentary election is due late this year.

"The current climate of insecurity, poverty and frustration will dominate both the local and parliamentary elections this year," said independent political analyst Cristian Patrasconiu.

Though the USL dominates opinion polls, many voters have had enough of Romania's whole political class, saying they are only interested in lining their own pockets and have failed to deliver on promises to catch up with richer European countries.

Across the country in villages such as Leordeni, where chickens wander on the grassy verge of a main road, many people supplement meager wages and pensions by farming their own land and still use a horse-drawn cart.

The average wage is 350 euros ($440), less than a quarter of France's minimum, and pensions can be just 78 euros per month.

Ponta - who is 39 and represents a change of guard for his party, the successor to Romania's communists - has acknowledged this dissatisfaction but the USL's opposition to austerity has put it in pole position, regardless.

Leordeni's 6,000 inhabitants have voted for Ponta's Social Democrat Party (PSD), the main grouping in the USL, for the past 12 years and will probably do so again. Residents may be unhappy with the political class but prefer to stick with what they know - and promises to finally install a sewerage system.

"They are riding the back of the people and we don't have anything at home. We don't have money, so we have to leave," said veterinary technician Adriana Niculescu, who left Romania three times in search of a better life but kept returning to her family. ($1 = 0.8023 euros)



(Additional reporting by Radu Marinas in Bucharest; Editing by Alison Williams)

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