Page last updated at 14:04 GMT, Monday, 23 November 2009

Romania election's strange enigma

By Nick Thorpe
BBC News, Calarasi

Composite image of Mircea Geoana, left, and Traian Basescu
Both the Basescu and Geoana camps claimed victory after the polls

The Basescu camp were all smiles, Mr Geoana's team looked calm and determined. The photographs of the victory celebrations splashed across Romanian newspapers' front-pages reflect the strange enigma of this presidential election - the top three candidates all claimed victory.

Traian Basescu won 32.8%, according to partial official results. It is a big fall from his former position as the darling of the majority of Romanians, but a good enough result to make him confident for the run-off on 6 December.

The result of the referendum held at the same time as the presidential vote was also a boost for Mr Basescu.

Around 80% voted in favour of his proposal to axe the Senate, the upper chamber of the Romanian Parliament, and reduce the lower house from 471 to 300 seats.

Mr Basescu presents himself as the champion of the people against what he calls the corrupt political elite, and that message is popular, even with those who don't trust him anymore. His critics say he is part of that elite, simply with different backers.

Too many enemies

Mircea Geoana won 29.8% and radiates stern confidence. A former foreign minister and seasoned diplomat who finds it hard to laugh and kiss babies on the campaign-trail, he edged aside more powerful figures in his Social Democratic party.

There is no real debate about how the economy should function, the damage done by inflation, and the need for budgetary caution
Christian Mititelu
Political commentator

If he wins the run-off, it will be because Traian Basescu has made too many enemies, especially in the pro-Socialist part of the media, which attacks him from morning to night.

If he loses, it will be because he lacks Mr Basescu's human touch, and because doubts remain over his ability to control the "red barons" in his own party.

Crin Antonescu of the National Liberals scored 20.3%, and was the first choice of all those who are fed up with Basescu, but could not bring themselves to vote Socialist. His voters hold the key to victory on 6 December.

They appear reluctant to hand it to either Mr Basescu or Mr Geoana.

Better vision?

In the city of Calarasi, 130 km south-east of Bucharest, the sun shone warmly on election day, and parents and grandparents dawdled with their children in a playground on the shore of the River Danube, on their way home from voting.

Ion Vilcea and his grand-daughter Georgia-Aurel
Ion Vilcea said Geoana had a better vision than the other candidates

"I voted for Geoana," said Ion Vilcea. "He's more educated than the others, he has a better vision... one I can relate to.

"He's something of a gentleman, he doesn't attack the other," added Mr Vilcea, as his grand-daughter Georgia-Aurel shot past on her scooter.

On the far side of the playground, Alina Cristaki said she had not voted yet, but was going to pick Traian Basescu.

"He hasn't done everything he said he would in the past five years," she admitted. "But he deserves another chance."

What would she actually want from her next president?

"A lot of things," she said, laughing, as her two children Angelika and Robert played in the sand. "Better child allowance from the state, for a start."

Bad habits

A Basescu election poster beside the road carried the text: "They cannot avoid what they are afraid of" - a reference to the parliamentary deputies on whom the president has declared war, who might lose their seats if parliament is reduced in size.

Romanian nuns voting
More than 18 million people were eligible to vote in the polls

"Members of parliament in Romania, once elected have few links with their own constituencies," said Christian Mititelu, a political commentator in Bucharest. "That is partly due to the voting system, but it is also a bad political habit.

"What is worse, there is no real debate about how the economy should function, the damage done by inflation, and the need for budgetary caution. The public are not sufficiently aware of it, and the politicians do not appear to have the communication skills to make people feel more involved in the decisions of the government."

The winter sun slipped swiftly down into the Danube, behind the trees on the far bank in Bulgaria.

A young couple watched it from the foot of a metal sculpture jutting out into the water.

Leaving Calarasi, to reach the motorway to Bucharest, the steel-works which Nicolae Ceausescu built up here rose like a separate city, its chimneys and factory halls floating against the sunset.

From such a distance, no-one would guess that it is just a shadow of its former self, a rusting hulk sinking into the ploughed fields.

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