Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Populist Romanian tilts at PM with promise of better times

By Luiza Ilie

TARGU JIU, Romania | Tue Nov 27, 2012

(Reuters) - The lanky man rode into town in a white Rolls Royce, his promise of better economic times attracting a fervent audience and spelling trouble for Romania's prime minister at next month's election.
Dan Diaconescu is standing in the seat of leftist PM Victor Ponta and his campaign depicts the media entrepreneur as the last hope of a people betrayed by the political class.
Few voters in this depressed southwestern region will be ignorant of his populist agenda by election day on December 9.

The 44-year-old has attended weddings and funerals, gone canvassing door to door and even promised to build indoor bathrooms for local families who lack plumbing.

In warm sunshine, Diaconescu shook hands and autographed posters and wrists at a rally in Targu Jiu, a town with little industry at the heart of a struggling coal-mining area.

"The battle is very tight. If we win here, we will push Victor Ponta out and automatically shake up the system he represents," Diaconescu told Reuters as the crowd strained to touch him.

Diaconescu is campaigning on the promise of more jobs and deep tax cuts, and doubts over an International Monetary Fund bailout.

It is unlikely he will win, analysts say, but he could push Ponta's share of the vote below 50 percent, which would undermine Ponta's claim to be the Social Liberal Union's (USL) prime minister in a new government.

Ponta is popular but his credibility was hit when the EU criticised USL for undermining the rule of law in an effort to oust President Traian Basescu, his bitter rival, who appoints prime ministers.

In more than 20 years since the fall of communism, Romania has made progress but remains the second-poorest European Union member and struggles to provide citizens with basic services like road links and reliable electricity and water supplies.

Roughly 3,500 Romanians gathered at Diaconescu's rally on Sunday in a field within walking distance of works by modernist sculptor Constantin Brancusi.

"He gives us hope," said Ion Dumitrescu, a 59-year-old lawyer, at the rally. "The other parties have been lying to us for 22 years. If he fails us, then we can stop voting because there is nobody else."

Diaconescu is under investigation in two separate cases, for allegedly trying to blackmail a mayor to stop him airing damaging information, and for fraud in a failed privatisation. He said charges were the system's attack on an outsider.

His party, which he founded in 2010, wants to raise wages and pensions, cut sales tax to 10 percent from 24 and pay budding entrepreneurs 20,000 euros ($26,000) for starting a new business.

Opinion polls put Diaconescu's party third, benefiting from widespread discontent with austerity and mainstream politicians, and it may hold the balance of power after the election.

Ponta's USL has support levels of around 50 percent and is favourite to win the election. The prime minister has said he is confident he will prevail in Targu Jiu and the townspeople were "not fans of the circus".

Constituencies won with less than 50 percent by individual candidates are redistributed based on party results, meaning Ponta could even lose his seat if Diaconescu wins enough votes.

"Targu Jiu is the only constituency in the country where we have two powerful figures fighting it out in this election," said political commentator Mircea Marian.

"Diaconescu cannot win, but if he pushes Ponta below 50 percent this may give the president arguments in favour of appointing a different prime minister."

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