Monday, December 10, 2012

Romania PM’s alliance wins poll landslide

The Financial Times
By Neil Buckley, East Europe Editor

The centre-left alliance of Romania’s prime minister Victor Ponta has won a landslide victory in Sunday’s parliamentary elections, setting up an awkward period of cohabitation with the centre-right president, Traian Basescu.

With 81.5 per cent of votes counted on Monday morning, Mr Ponta’s USL liberal-social democrat alliance had won 58.6 per cent of the vote for the lower house, and 60 per cent for the senate.

The centre-right ARD alliance, aligned with Mr Basescu, trailed on 16.7 per cent of lower house votes, and 16.95 per cent for the senate. Turnout was 41.6 per cent, higher than the last election in 2008, despite heavy snow and rain.

USL’s share of the vote could translate into more than 60 per cent of seats in the parliament – making it almost impossible for Mr Basescu not to nominate Mr Ponta as premier, though the president had hinted he might attempt to appoint someone else.

The two men have been bitter rivals since the USL government attempted in summer to impeach the president for allegedly overstepping his powers, in a move that was sharply criticised by EU leaders.

“The election score is very clear, an absolute majority admitted by our opponents,” Mr Ponta said. “I hope this day puts an end to a civil war that has been tearing Romanians apart for several years”.

The size of USL’s victory may reduce the chance of short-term political uncertainty resulting from an attempt by Mr Basescu to nominate an alternative prime minister.

But with the next presidential election not due until 2014, a period of tricky cohabitation between the two men beckons.

Some analysts have speculated that the government, now backed by a strong popular mandate, could within months make a renewed attempt to topple the president, though Mr Ponta has denied that he intends to do so.

Mr Ponta on Sunday night said he had proposed negotiations with the UDMR Hungarian minority party, which won just over 5 per cent of the vote. That could potentially give his USL alliance a two-thirds majority needed to amend the constitution, and strengthen the premier’s powers.

Mr Ponta was asked by Mr Basescu to form a government in April after two previous centre-right governments collapsed within months following street protests by Romanians in January.

Romania pushed through one of the toughest austerity programmes in Europe after receiving a €20bn bailout in 2009 from the International Monetary Fund and the EU.

During what was seen as a lacklustre campaign from all sides, Mr Ponta’s party pledged to reverse wage cuts and tax increases passed as part of the austerity programme, to boost the largely stagnant economy. Economists say it is not clear how he will be able to afford to.

Though the president has limited economic powers under Romania’s constitution and is required to be politically neutral, Mr Basescu was heavily associated with the austerity measures, one of the factors behind the attempted impeachment in July.

Almost four-fifths of voters in the impeachment referendum voted to remove Mr Basescu. But the vote was invalid after less than the required 50 per cent of registered voters turned out – partly because of a boycott of the referendum by Mr Basescu’s supporters.

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