ELECTIONS are nearing and Romanian politics is heating up. On October 17th the ruling Social-Liberal coalition (USL) gathered 70,000 people from all over the country to launch their parliamentary candidates for the December 9th vote. Some participants from remote villages admitted to reporters they had taken the free bus trip to see Bucharest and the new football stadium where the rally was taking place.
But most polls give the Social-Democrat leader and Prime Minister Victor Ponta every reason to enjoy the cheering crowds. With a rating of 54.5% he is the country's most popular politician and over half of those polled say they will vote for the USL. Barely 20% prefer the centre-right coalition that was in government until spring this year. President Traian Băsescu, the champion of the centre-right, enjoys plaudits from foreign counterparts such as the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who visited Bucharest last week. But his domestic popularity is only 19.3%.
The 40-year-old Mr Ponta's main campaign message continues to be "Down with Băsescu". In overheated rhetoric all too characteristic of Romania's political culture, he labelled him "the last Communist of Europe, the last Securitate member". (The Securitate was the old regime's secret police. Many believe its members retain sinister influence two decades after its supposed demise.)
Some see pots and kettles in the USL's approach. Its leading members include senior apparatchiks of the Communist regime, including Dan Voiculescu, once in charge its foreign trade. His ardently pro-Ponta TV stations are the most popular in Romania. He himself has battled allegations of Securitate ties.
Presidential elections are due only next year. So months of acrimony loom. Mr Ponta's attempt to impeach and oust Mr Băsescufrom office this summer failed. Now he wants to change the constitution and limit the powers of the country's top court, which had decided in August that the turnout was insufficient to validate the referendum aimed at ousting Mr Băsescu.
"We started together on this road, I am not abandoning my travel partners," Mr Ponta said in an attempt to dispel rumours that he may consider a grand coalition with Mr Băsescu's centre-right party (PDL) if elections prove inconclusive. It would not be for the first time, the PDL governed with the Social-Democrats until 2009, also under Mr Băsescu's presidency. Mr Băsescu himself had offered this some time ago in return for his resignation and early presidential elections, but the plans have been abandoned after the impeachment attempt.
The USL's man for the top job is Crin Antonescu, who served briefly as president during Mr Basescu's suspension. He did not cover himself in glory, making some notable gaffes and anti-European remarks. During the Wednesday rally, Mr Antonescu claimed that the European centre-right leaders gathering in Bucharest were discussing plans for the "federalisation" of Romania with Mr Basescu as an accessory.
"Romania is and remains a model in treating minorities, but will always be a single national state," he said in a speech abounding in nationalistic jibes. "We, who will run Romania, shall be the partners, not the servants of EU institutions," he promised. Anti-European sentiments, even if low by British or Greek standards, have however grown in recent years in Romania. The EU was popular among 65% of citizens in 2007, when the country joined the club; now only 48% still trust it and 43% do not, according to the European Commission's latest Eurobarometer biannual survey.
The political squabbles would matter less if the economy were solid and public administration working properly. A condition of a €3.2 billion ($4.14 billion) precautionary loan from the International Monetary Fund was that Romania had to privatise some failing state companies. It has failed to do so. It must also meet a deficit target of 3% of GDP this year. But failure to spend EU funds properly (not least because of fraud) means that Romania has to pay penalties that could mean it misses that target. On Friday, Mr Pontasaid he was trying to convince the EU commission to postpone the fines until next year But that would also hold up other EU funds.
Public administration remains cumbersome and oldfashioned. Mr Ponta makes a youthful impression, but shows no sign of modernising zeal. Cristian Hostiuc, editor-in-chief ofZiarul Financiar, an economics newspaper, says Mr Ponta "owes his generation a change in administration, transforming Romania into a digital economy and finally, saying where he wants to lead the country and in what state he will leave it in four years." That, rather than empty sloganising, would be a suitable discussion for an election campaign.