Romanians Vote as Old Guard Looks to Supplant Technocrats

  • Social Democrats have weathered graft scandals and lead polls
  • Pre-election tax cuts, wage hikes have hurt budget stability

Romania is holding a general election that could return the country’s biggest party to power a year after its leader was forced to quit as prime minister amid outrage at government corruption.

Voting runs from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday in Bucharest, followed by exit polls that will be published before initial results are announced toward midnight. Ex-Prime Minister Victor Ponta’s Social Democrats have a more than 20-point lead of over the Liberals in the race to supplant the current government of technocrats. Officials who’re being investigated for graft are still on party lists and retain voters’ backing.

A man walks next to electoral posters in Bucharest.

Photographer: Daniel Mihailescu/AFP via Getty Images

An unprecedented crackdown on corruption has failed to upend the political scene in Romania, a European Union and NATO member of 20 million people that borders Ukraine and Hungary. To curry favor with voters, members of parties engulfed by scandals have pushed through tax cuts and public-sector salary boosts that have sparked budget concern from the central bank. The populism has stopped short of the extremes seen elsewhere in Europe.

“The Social Democratic Party will win the parliamentary elections, given the popularity of its social agenda among its core group of voters,” Tsveta Petrova, a senior analyst at Eurasia Group, said by e-mail. “Whether they’ll be able to form a governing coalition remains a lot more uncertain.”

Parties say at least 60 percent of their voting lists consist of new blood, though they also contain high-profile officials who’re being probed for corruption, such as Ponta and ex-Premier Calin Popescu Tariceanu. Social Democratic leader Liviu Dragnea was handed a two-year suspended sentence this year for rigging a referendum. While all deny wrongdoing, President Klaus Iohannis says he won’t endorse a prime minister who’s been convicted or is under investigation.

The Social Democrats, who haven’t revealed a candidate for prime minister, are set to take 44 percent of the vote, a Dec. 6-7 IRES survey showed. The Liberal Party, which is rallying around Premier Dacian Ciolos and has removed most candidates who’re under investigation from its party list, will get 23 percent. The anti-graft Save Romania Union, or USR, may garner 7 percent, according to the poll, which had a margin of error of 2.9 percentage points.

With no party on track to get an absolute majority, a coalition government is the most likely outcome. Groups including USR, which promotes itself as an alternative to the current political class, could hold the balance. The party that emerged last year after the protests is seen as a more natural fit for Liberals than the Social Democrats, who’re likely to partner with Tariceanu’s ALDE, one of six parties poised to breach parliament’s 5 percent entry barrier.

‘All Corrupt’

In the meantime, the return of the old guard risks deterring many from going to the polls at all. “Deep popular disappointment with the political class is illustrated by the large percentage of undecided voters, and is likely to result in a low turnout,” Maximilien Lambertson, a London-based analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit, said by e-mail. That will benefit the Social Democrats, whose supporters are most committed, he said.

Turnout was 27 percent as of 4 p.m local time.

The Social Democrats led efforts to loosen fiscal policy, with the measures to date propelling economic growth to as much as 6 percent and more tax reductions planned for 2017. Expectations the central bank will raise interest rates in response have made the leu this year’s second-best performer against the euro in central and eastern Europe. Concern the budget deficit may swell beyond EU limits has sent bond yields higher.

“They’re all corrupt and I don’t expect major changes,” said Ionel Barcan, a 45-year-old cashier at a Bucharest hypermarket. “But I voted for the Social Democrats because they cut taxes and increased the minimum wage, so we have more money in our pockets.”

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