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Tuesday, Nov. 25, 2014

Romanian election a stark choice between past, future

Sunday, November 28, 2004

BUCHAREST, Romania -- When Romanians pick a president today, their main choice is between the forces of the past -- flawed but comfortingly familiar -- and an inexperienced challenger promising a dynamic, Western-leaning future.

The close race reflects a nation being pulled in two directions as it elects the man who will replace longtime President Ion Iliescu and pursue Romania's cherished dream of joining the prosperous European Union in 2007.

The 53-year-old challenger is Traian Basescu, mayor of Bucharest, the capital. Basescu offers a Mr. Clean image and a record for getting things done -- in unorthodox ways if necessary.

The ruling Social Democratic Party candidate is the prime minister, Adrian Nastase. He seems the embodiment of the old-guard communist apparatus that reinvented itself as democracy's champion after the collapse of communism and 1989 execution of former dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. In contrast to Basescu, 54-year-old Nastase seems gray and aloof.

Nastase's message is that he's a strong leader best equipped to bring Romania into the EU, largely because of his close personal ties to Western leaders.

On the campaign trail he has tried to cultivate a more down-to-earth image, posing as a farmer, talking to peasants, dancing with his wife, playing the guitar on television.

Yet few are convinced he's a man of the people.

Romania's transition to democracy and free markets has been fitful, but the Social Democrats, despite their drab image and sometimes shady practices, run a formidable machine and can point to achievements that may persuade voters to think twice about change.

During the SDP's last four years in power, Romania has joined NATO, is moving toward joining EU and has registered record 8.1 percent economic growth this year. Romanians no longer need visas to travel to most of Western Europe.

Nastase's message is that he's a strong leader best equipped to bring Romania into the EU, largely because of his close personal ties to Western leaders.

But the growth has not trickled down, and poverty and corruption are the biggest clouds over the campaign. Nastase's government has been criticized by the European Union, the United States and international organizations over corruption, interference in the justice system and receding media freedoms -- three areas which can make or break Romania's candidacy for EU membership.

The underground economy is estimated to equal the legal one, with only 4 million people officially employed and 6 million retirees living on tiny pensions.

Sebastian Merisan, 71, says he's grown poorer since communism ended.

"I won't even have the money for my own funeral," he said.

Basescu offers a Mr. Clean image and a record for getting things done -- in unorthodox ways if necessary. As mayor of the capital of 2.2 million people, he has led crackdowns on stray dogs and urban eyesores. When government officials blocked his plans for a new overpass and better central heating for his city, he went over their heads and asked citizens to sign a petition, shaming the government into caving in.

The government has never concealed its dislike for Basescu. Since he became mayor in 2000 promising more reforms, lower taxes and less red tape, he has been blitzed with corruption investigations, libel suits and scurrilous reports in government-friendly media.

When the MTV affiliate in Romania gave him rare air time, it asked for his views on homosexuality. Basescu took a liberal line, whereupon his opponents spread the false notion that he had spoken out in favor of gay marriage.

The opposition and some analysts say they fear fraud both at polling stations and in exit polls in Sunday's presidential and parliamentary election. Nastase appears to have a slight lead over Basescu in opinion polls, although such surveys in Romania tend to be unreliable.

On Friday, election authorities said the would allow the opposition to make a parallel count of the votes Sunday in an effort to show transparency.

If no candidate wins outright, a runoff is likely in two weeks.

Nastase's democratic credentials suffered another blow last week when documents surfaced purporting to be transcripts of top-level ruling party meetings. They showed ministers allegedly talking about prosecuting Basescu and rigging votes in Parliament.

Nastase denied the transcripts were authentic. Two senior government members said parts of them were true and some Western diplomats said they believed the transcripts to be authentic.


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