BY VALENTINA POP
BRUSSELS - Romanians head to the polling stations on Sunday (16 November) to choose between Socialist prime minister Victor Ponta and Klaus Iohannis, a Liberal mayor of German ethnicity, with questions raised about the fate of democracy in the country.
It is an uneven fight.
"You have huge Ponta billboards everywhere. And then, here and there, a small poster with Iohannis," a Nordic traveller who visited Bucharest last week told this website.
Ponta's official campaign kicked off mid-September, in a huge display of power, with 70,000 people bussed from all over Romania to a football stadium in Bucharest.
He promised a "great unification" of Romania, an end to the divisive politics of outgoing president Traian Basescu, as well as a political project of reuniting with Moldova in five years, "within the European Union."
Ponta's campaign slogan "proud to be Romanians" degenerated into slander against his contender's ethnic background: "Mr Iohannis is a thing, I am Romanian," said Ponta earlier this month.
On Tuesday, unidentified persons threw live and dead chickens at Iohannis' campaign headquarters, with the message "I am Iohannis" and "I am afraid of a [TV] debate", as Iohannis had not yet confirmed his participation to a TV clash with Ponta.
Iohannis did go to the TV debate in the end and said the chicken episode reminded him of death threats made by Nazis.
In Nazi Germany, if someone threw a decapitated chicken onto a person's property, it meant the security services were about to execute them.
"This is by far the most wretched campaign since 1990 and this symbol, probably you don't know, is a direct death threat. The last time someone used these symbols was in the 40s and they were used by the Nazis. I never thought we would reach this level in Romania," he said in a press conference.
Throughout the campaign, Iohannis sought to portray himself as a sensible, decent politician who managed to revamp his town, Sibiu and to attract German investors.
In a second TV debate with Ponta on Wednesday, Iohannis put the prime minister in the spotlight for: having backed corrupt party members; having plagiarised his PhD thesis; and for having hampered thousands of Romanians abroad from casting their vote in the first round of elections earlier this month.
After solidarity protests with Romanians abroad in Bucharest and other Romanian cities, the foreign minister, Titus Corlatean, resigned over the affair.
The new foreign minister, Theodor Melescanu, has said more polling stations abroad "could be opened in theory", but added that the current law does not allow it.
"The problems with the vote abroad have shown serious shortcomings with the rule of law in Romania. We have a weak state with fragile institutions," Laura Stefan from Expert Forum, a Bucharest-based think tank, told this website.
She said the stakes of these elections are particularly high because Russia's influence is growing in neighbouring Bulgaria and Hungary and because a weak administration would be more vulnerable to Moscow's influence.
"I am very worried if Ponta wins, that there will be a concentration of power in the hands of one party," Stefan said, noting that a recent law allows mayors and local officials to migrate to the Socialist party, meaning that in some parts of Romania "there is literally no opposition anymore."
Ponta's chances for a win are high, with recent polls putting him 9 to 10 percent ahead of Iohannis.
Barbu Mateescu, a Bucharest-based sociologist, told EUobserver the result might still be "tight" if there is a higher turnout than in the first round.
"A much higher turnout compared to first round will spell trouble for Ponta, because it is more likely for people who didn't vote at all in the first round to mobilise for Iohannis," he noted.
He added that for the party structure behind Ponta it is "inconceivable" to lose the vote.
"Thousands, maybe tens of thousands rely financially and personally on Ponta, if he goes down, they go down".