Friday, September 5, 2014

The Economist: Ponta v the liberals and the ladies

Victor Ponta is running against four centre-right candidates
Sep 6th 2014 | BUCHAREST | From the print edition

ROMANIA’S centre-left prime minister, Victor Ponta, is feeling very confident in the run-up to the presidential election that he is contesting. With a comfortable lead, and around 40% in opinion polls, Mr Ponta said that he will “sit back with a bag of popcorn” in the first round of the election on November 2nd and watch his challengers debate.

He later apologised for this “bad joke”, which reflects the divisions of the centre-right opposition. With the popular but polarising president, Traian Basescu, unable to run for a third term, the centre-right failed to rally behind a single candidate to succeed him. Instead four politicians hope to challenge Mr Ponta in the second round on November 16th.

A liberal, Klaus Iohannis, the German-speaking mayor of Sibiu, a Transylvanian town popular with German investors and tourists, has the best chance. Mr Iohannis was put forward by Mr Ponta and his allies in 2009 as candidate for prime minister, but Mr Basescu preferred to appoint someone from his own political camp.

Mr Iohannis hopes to translate his local success to the national level and promises “less talk, more things done” than his ally-turned-foe, Mr Ponta. But questions about how he acquired several houses in the centre of Sibiu and a pending case against him on alleged conflicts of interest could still thwart his candidacy. Another liberal, Calin Popescu-Tariceanu, has also announced his intention to stand and is forecast to get around 10% of the vote.

The novelty of this campaign is that two women are in the running, both from the Basescu camp. One is Monica Macovei, a former justice minister who pushed through reforms when Romania’s European Union membership was threatened by rampant corruption. Ms Macovei, who is still a member of the European Parliament, is running as an independent. She is a candidate, she says, “because the political establishment has become a cross-party business which I am ashamed of, because my country is still struggling with corruption and economic underperformance, competition is distorted and honest business and people suffer.” A poll in August, a week after Ms Macovei announced her bid, put her at just 2% percent.

The other female candidate is the fiercely ambitious former tourism minister, Elena Udrea. Earlier this year Ms Udrea formed her own party, the Popular Movement, which won 6.21% of the vote in the European elections in May.

The economy, back in recession, is likely to dominate the campaign. The more the candidates can distance themselves from the established parties, the more chance they will have with voters, predicts Barbu Mateescu, a sociologist. “There is no significant party with a clean image; every party has had several figures behind bars,” he says. The two women, one an independent and the other leading a new party, may yet confound expectations.

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