Economic crisis top issue in Romanian elections

Romanians fearful that the global economic crisis will bring layoffs and painful belt-tightening went to the polls on Sunday to elect a new parliament, a vote expected to deliver a rebuke to pro-Western leaders many see as out of touch.

Romanian Gypsy voting 248 ap (photo credit: AP)
Romanian Gypsy voting 248 ap
(photo credit: AP)
Just a few weeks ago, Prime Minister Calin Popescu Tariceanu suggested publicly that the nation of 22 million was somehow immune to the meltdown gripping the faltering world economy. But a string of grim economic news stories punctured that optimism and has given the left-wing Social Democrats their best chance in years of winning this weekend's elections. Tariceanu's center-right Liberal Party has lagged far behind in recent polls with about 20 percent support. Polls opened at 7 a.m. (0500 GMT) and will close at 9 p.m. (1900 GMT). For the first time, Romanians were choosing from among individual candidates instead of party lists as they fill seats in the 452-member parliament. "I voted for certainty and a better future," said Transportation Minister Ludovic Orban after he cast his ballot in Bucharest. Turnout was expected to be low due to widespread distrust in politicians perhaps the lowest since a bloody revolt toppled communism in 1989. "We hope for the better to eliminate the daily stress of not knowing what the future holds," one voter, Musca Augustin, said on the eve of the election. President Traian Basescu said he hoped the new voting system would result in a Parliament of "those with experience who have already been in power, and the courage and cleanness of those coming behind them, the young generation." Critics of Tariceanu's minority government contend it has exposed Romania to financial disaster through the same free-market policies that helped bring it into the European Union in 2007. Mircea Geoana, the leader of the Social Democrats which includes former Communist Party leaders has capitalized on fears that years of unprecedented economic growth are giving way to job losses and austerity measures. At least one poll showed Geoana's party surging ahead of President Traian Basescu's centrist Democratic Liberal Party. It appeared unlikely, however, that the bloc would get enough votes to form a majority, meaning another coalition government is likely. The current government had been buoyed in recent years by an economic boom that saw inflation drop to an annual 7 percent after more than a decade of double- and even triple-digit misery. In the past three years, Romania's economy has grown by a robust 8 percent a year. Wages also have increased, partly due to a flat tax of 16 percent on both personal and corporate income that Tariceanu's Liberals introduced in 2005 to help attract foreign investment. The burgeoning economy was boosted by the estimated 2 million Romanians working abroad in menial jobs, particularly in Italy and Spain, who sent home an estimated €7 billion ($9 billion) in remittances last year alone. But now, thousands of jobs are in jeopardy as the global crisis increasingly is felt. Last week, French-Romanian carmaker Renault Dacia halted production until Dec. 7 after sales dropped 30 percent in October compared with a year earlier. Steelmaker Arcelor Mittal, meanwhile, announced it will temporarily shutter a factory in western Romania following an international drop in demand for steel, triggering wage cuts for 1,300 workers. Geoana advocates spreading wealth to poorer people in villages and small towns, where agriculture hasn't changed since the 19th century. He believes in taxing the rich though he offers no specifics and in doubling the minimum wage. Regardless of the outcome of Sunday's election, Basescu will remain in power as president until his term ends in 2009. He will name the prime minister.