October 30, 2014 / 5:48 AM / in 3 years

Romania's Ponta heads for presidency with justice in spotlight

OPTASI-MAGURA Romania (Reuters) - Romanians are likely to move Prime Minister Victor Ponta into the presidency in elections that start on Sunday, offering one of Europe’s poorest countries political stability but raising concerns about judicial independence.

Backed by a well-oiled party machine, Ponta has led opinion polls in the run-up to the Nov. 2/16 vote, trumpeting a record of easing the painful spending cuts and tax hikes Romanians endured in a 2009-10 recession.

A Ponta win would consolidate his leftist Social Democrats’ hold on power. His combative rival, incumbent President Traian Basescu, steps down after two terms, which should end constant feuds over policy.

But Ponta’s record has raised concerns for the independence of the judiciary, prosecutors and the media. Romania joined the European Union in 2007: its judicial system is still under special supervision.

Ponta rebuffed EU criticism in 2012 that he did not appear to respect the rule of law and democratic institutions, denying allegations that he put pressure on judges.

The policy continuity offered if he wins would reassure investors, keen to see the International Monetary Fund maintain a standby deal that has been in place since 2009.

But political analyst Mircea Marian likened a Ponta presidency to Hungary under Prime Minister Viktor Orban, whom the United States and EU have accused of eroding democratic checks and harming free speech.

“He (Ponta) wants to control everything, that’s my main fear, including media,” said Marian. “I think he will go on (after) the anti-corruption prosecutors too.”

The president of the Black Sea country of 20 million people appoints the new prime minister, judges and prosecutors, and can stall government policy proposals.

In his time, Ponta, 42, has been a professor, prosecutor and amateur rally driver, and accused of being anything from a plagiarist to a spy -- allegations he denies. His rise to president would come two years after he became prime minister.

PENSIONS, BREAD AND BLANKETS

Political squabbles and widespread tax evasion have hampered any efforts to improve living standards in the 25 years since Romania emerged from Communist rule. Two years ago a failed attempt by Ponta to impeach Basescu drew a sharp rebuke from Brussels and dragged the leu currency to record lows.

Just 17 km (11 miles) from the birthplace of former dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, the Optasi-Magura commune in southern Romania offers a glimpse of what could bring Ponta victory.

Homes have no running water, horses and carts are used alongside tractors, and many among the ageing population squeeze a living from subsistence farming of wheat and maize.

It’s a ruling party stronghold: voters such as the Paun family are grateful for food and blankets the government sent after the area was flooded in July. They also welcome Ponta reversing some of austerity introduced by former center-right Prime Minister Emil Boc, a close Basescu ally.

“(Ponta) restored everything that was cut under the Basescu regime, he hiked state allowances for children to 84 lei ($24) from 42, he restored people’s pensions, he cut value added tax for bread: all these are good things,” said Ion Paun, 60.

The Pauns distrust Ponta’s main election rival Klaus Iohannis, an ethnic German mayor backed by two center-right parties and credited with helping to transform the fortunes of the Transylvanian town of Sibiu. Ponta’s party has attacked Iohannis for his wealth -- he owns six houses -- and for being childless.

Basescu has accused Ponta of having been a spy in the 1990s, an accusation Ponta’s camp rejected as a campaign smear.

Days later, prosecutors said they had begun investigating Ponta’s father-in-law, himself a powerful Social Democrat, over land seizures. Two prominent ruling party MPs are also being probed on suspicion of collaborating to weaken anti-graft laws.

“While the election of Victor Ponta as president would reduce the tensions between the two branches of the Romanian executive, it would also reinforce the Social Democrats’ grip on power and would raise questions regarding the continuation of the reform of the justice system,” said Paul Ivan, a policy analyst in Brussels at the European Policy Center (EPC).

The lower house of parliament, controlled by the Social Democrats, last year approved a bill that stipulated MPs could no longer be subject to investigation under corruption allegations linked to public office. The bill, later struck down by the Constitutional Court, triggered street protests and was sharply criticized by opposition politicians, pro-democracy groups and Western diplomats.

Ponta’s mentor, former Prime Minister Adrian Nastase, was sentenced to prison for taking bribes but has been released on parole.

Lagging far behind peers such as Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, Romania has struggled to absorb EU development funds needed for example to build a proper road network, reform state-run companies and improve healthcare.

Ponta’s government has signaled it may not renew the 4 billion euro ($5 billion) IMF deal, which expires next year. Ponta himself has questioned the need for Romania to stick to a 1.4 percent budget deficit target in 2015 mandated by an EU agreement.

Vlad Muscalu, chief economist at ING Bank Romania, cautioned that with one party in charge in Romania, the political will for reforms could be even softer than it already is.

“That’s a bit worrying, because without structural reforms, it’s hard to produce really impressive growth,” he said.

(1 US dollar = 0.7844 euro)

Editing by Ruth Pitchford

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