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Last Updated: Friday, 26 November, 2004, 11:39 GMT
Close race for Romania poll rivals
By Gabriel Partos
BBC News South-East Europe analyst

The people of Romania go to the polls on Sunday in parliamentary and presidential elections, with the two main political blocs and their presidential candidates running neck-and-neck in opinion polls.

Election posters for Bucharest Mayor Traian Basescu
Opinion polls suggest the election will be a cliffhanger
If economic growth was the only arbiter of voting intentions, the Social Democrats should be heading for an easy victory. During their four-year term in office, Romania's GDP has increased by nearly a quarter - the best sustained performance in living memory.

Romania is now among Europe's fastest-growing economies.

But the benefits of growth are nowhere near evenly-distributed, and there is still widespread poverty.

Besides, corruption invades all aspects of public life - from business to administration. The Truth and Justice (DA) Alliance, which brings together the National Liberal Party and the Democratic Party, has been making much of its determination to deal with corruption if it gains power.

That promise and resentment of what many people see as the government's arrogance, gives the opposition a firm basis from which to challenge the Social Democrats, who are in coalition with the small Humanist Party.

Centrist alternative

Opinion polls suggest a cliffhanger election in the contest for seats in the bicameral parliament.

In the presidential race a second round of voting is expected, with outgoing Social Democrat Prime Minister Adrian Nastase and Bucharest Mayor Traian Basescu of the DA Alliance, are seen as the two leading candidates.

The current line-up of forces could hardly be more different from the one at the last elections four years ago. Then, Romanians faced a stark choice.

Following the general convergence in Romanian politics, there's not a huge difference between the two main political blocs
The outgoing centre-right coalition, which included the members of the current DA Alliance, had lost most of its public support after a substantial drop in GDP during its turbulent term in office.

So the choice for most people was either to return the Social Democrats to power or to back the ultra-nationalist Greater Romania Party and its populist leader, Corneliu Vadim Tudor.

In the end, the Social Democrats - with many of their political roots going back to the communist era - regained office; and their veteran candidate, Ion Iliescu, won another presidential term.

Since then the centrist parties linked in the DA Alliance have re-emerged as the alternative to the Social Democrats, who have themselves become much more pro-Western than they were during their previous stint in power in the first half of the 1990s.

Hungarian support

Indeed, Romania joined Nato in the spring of this year.

Following the general convergence in Romanian politics, there is not a huge difference between the two main political blocs. Both see membership of the European Union, tentatively scheduled for 2007, as the key foreign policy objective.

Beggar in Bucharest
Romania's economy is growing fast, but poverty is widespread
However, the DA Alliance is projecting a more business-friendly image; and its policy includes the introduction of a flat-rate corporation and income tax at 16%.

Given the expected close result, whichever side comes out on top will almost certainly need support from other parties.

The main ethnic Hungarian party, the Democratic Union of Hungarians, previously backed the centre-right coalition in the late 1990s and then the Social Democrats over the past four years.

As a result, it has gained much in terms of improved rights for Romania's ethnic Hungarians. And it has already said it is willing to support whichever alliance is entrusted with forming a new government.

But there is a more intriguing prospect, if Mr Tudor's Greater Romania Party, though much weakened, emerges in a position to hold the balance of power.

Mr Tudor has gone out of his way for over a year now to shed his xenophobic image, primarily by taking pro-Jewish and pro-Israeli initiatives.

All the same, he remains a somewhat unpredictable political force. The main parties have said they will not form a coalition with him because that might set Romania's EU prospects back quite seriously.

But he could still play an important role behind the scenes.

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