President of Romania refuses to concede defeat


ROMANIAN PRESIDENT Traian Basescu has refused to concede defeat after exit polls gave his socialist challenger, Mircea Geoana, a narrow presidential election victory.

The polls gave PSD party leader Mr Geoana 51 to 52 per cent of votes against 48 to 49 per cent for Mr Basescu, with the first official results expected today. The closeness of the race, amid accusations of vote-rigging from both sides, suggests Romania’s erstwhile political deadlock could last for some time.

Mr Basescu narrowly beat Mr Geoana in the first round of the election two weeks ago, but was undermined by the decision of the third-place candidate – who took about 20 per cent of votes – to support the PSD leader in the second round.

Mr Basescu was also damaged by the emergence of video footage that appeared to show him hitting a young boy at a campaign rally in 2004. Mr Basescu said the tape was a fake.

“Together, we won,” Mr Geoana proclaimed last night. “This is a beautiful night for Romanian democracy.”

Mr Basescu insisted that, “when votes are counted correctly”, he would be shown to have won a second term in office.

The next president will face a daunting array of tasks. He will first have to nominate a new prime minister who is capable of forming a government that could win approval from a deeply divided parliament.

He will then be expected to help that government push through a programme that will not only maintain social programmes and stimulate a struggling economy, but cut state spending far enough to convince the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to resume payment of an emergency loan.

The IMF postponed payment of the latest tranche of the €20 billion aid package after the PSD quit the coalition government in October, when prime minister Emil Boc sacked a PSD minister who accused allies of Mr Basescu of planning to rig the vote in his favour.

Romania’s economy has slumped following years of rapid growth fuelled by cheap credit, strong foreign investment and optimism surrounding its entry into the EU in 2007. The economy of the country of 21.5 million people is expected to shrink by 8 per cent this year.

The new head of state will also be expected to set the tone for Romania’s fight against rampant corruption, which drains funds from state coffers, worries foreign investors, blights small and medium-sized businesses and jeopardises its access to vital EU funds.

Mr Basescu has repeatedly attacked the corruption record of Mr Geoana and the PSD, a party which acquired a reputation for cronyism and graft following the 1989 revolution, when it rose from the wreckage of the Communist Party to dominate Romanian politics for 15 years.

Critics of Mr Geoana pointed out the grim irony of his potential victory and the PSD’s improving fortunes, just as Romania marks 20 years since a revolution which ended communist rule and culminated in the execution of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.

Analysts said victory for Mr Geoana would be a mixed blessing. He would have a better chance of forming a new government than the abrasive Mr Basescu, while the PSD and another major opposition party agree on a candidate for prime minister – Klaus Johannis, the well-regarded mayor of the Transylvanian city of Sibiu.

However, much of the popularity of Mr Geoana and the PSD is based on their reluctance to make the painful spending cuts that most financial experts and the IMF insist Romania needs to stabilise its economy.

His party also has a dismal record on corruption and has blocked legislation that would make it easier to investigate powerful politicians for graft.

Mr Basescu has made much of his own drive to stem corruption and blames opponents for hampering his efforts; they say he has only attacked his critics and turned a blind eye to the dubious practices of allies.

Mr Geoana, a former foreign minister and ambassador to Washington, is a more polished yet blander figure than Mr Basescu, a Soviet-era ship’s captain and former Bucharest mayor who depicts himself as a straight-talking man of the people.

As president, he has been accused of causing deep rifts in the nation, which Mr Geoana has pledged to heal.