Romania presidential election too close to call

Romania presidential election too close to call

Sunday, November 16, 2014 10:02 pm

Romanian Prime Minister and presidential candidate Victor Ponta (R) and his wife Daciana Sarbu (L), flanked by their children, vote at a polling station in Bucharest city . AFP

Romanian Prime Minister and presidential candidate Victor Ponta (R) and his wife Daciana Sarbu (L), flanked by their children, vote at a polling station in Bucharest city . AFP

Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta and his conservative opponent Klaus Iohannis were neck-and-neck in an unexpectedly close presidential runoff vote, exit polls showed Sunday.

Ponta, who had been the overwhelming favourite to win the race, was slightly ahead according to two exit polls which gave him 50.7 percent and 50.9 percent of the vote. Three other surveys put Iohannis narrowly in the lead.

Both candidates urged their supporters to wait for the final results before claiming victory.

The exit polls do not take into account the votes cast in the second-round runoff by Romanians abroad, where a large turnout could threaten a Ponta victory.

The election is seen as pivotal for one of the poorest countries in Europe which has struggled to combat an entrenched culture of corruption.

A victory for Ponta, 42, would make him Romania’s youngest ever president and cement his Social Democrat party’s hold on power in the former communist state.

“I voted so that our parents can live in a better country and our children have a future here in Romania,” Ponta said as he cast his vote, with his wife and two children in tow.

Opposition's presidential candidate Klaus Iohannis

Opposition’s presidential candidate Klaus Iohannis

In the first round on November 2, Ponta took 40 percent of the vote against 30 percent for Iohannis.

But 46 percent of the ballots cast abroad were for Iohannis compared to just 16 percent for Ponta.

Turnout about two hours before polls closed at 1900 GMT was just over 58 percent of more than 18 million registered voters, higher than the turnout at the last election in 2009.

First official results are expected overnight from the seventh presidential election since the fall of dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu 25 years ago.

“The vote has been phenomenal. The turnout was huge,” Iohannis told supporters at his campaign headquarters.

Ponta has support from the hugely influential Romanian Orthodox Church, as well as his party’s traditional electorate of the rural population, small business employees and the elderly and has been able to count on generally steady economic progress.

However, the economy fell into recession in the second quarter of 2014, although the government is forecasting 2.2 percent growth over the year.

Iohannis, 55, from Romania’s ethnic German minority, seems uncomfortable in front of the cameras and has faced accusations he is a not a “real Romanian”.

Rodica Avram, a 56-year-old teacher, said after casting her ballot in Bucharest that she had voted for change.

“For the past 25 years we have heard nothing but lies and promises that weren’t kept,” she said. “I hope we’ll finally have a president who respects people and does what he promises.”

– Diaspora vote seen as key –

Experts said a high turnout could well tilt the balance in Iohannis’s favour.

“The key of the second round is getting out the vote,” said Christian Ghinea of the Romanian Centre for European Politics.

“If the voters in the big cities, who tend to favour the opposition, are mobilised, Iohannis has a chance,” Ghinea told AFP.

Another great unknown is the vote of the diaspora, which numbers about three million.

Only 160,000 were able to cast their ballots in the first round, due to an insufficient number of polling stations in countries including France, Germany and Britain.

On Sunday, long queues of people snaked outside polling stations in Paris, London and several other European cities, according to pictures shown by Romanian television.

Despite progress in reforming the justice system — which has even seen a former minister jailed for corruption — many fear a backlash is coming.

Although Ponta has vowed to keep the justice system independent, his frequent accusations that the prosecution authority known as DNA is biased has stirred trouble.

On what was dubbed “Black Tuesday” in December last year, Ponta’s government passed a series of new laws granting immunity to elected officials.

The changes were ultimately blocked but Ponta’s critics said the episode served as a wake-up call.

Iohannis has centred his campaign on the fight against corruption and pledges of economic reform in the country of 20 million people.

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