Romania's municipal election seen as test for December vote

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Photo credit A woman wearing a face mask for protection against COVID-19 infection, passes by religious themed works by children on her way to cast her vote in local elections at a school in Bucharest, Romania, Sunday, Sept. 27, 2020. Polls have opened in Romania’s municipal election, which is being seen as a test of how the next general election on Dec. 6 will unfold for the country’s minority-led government. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

BUCHAREST, Romania (AP) — Voters in Romania were casting ballots Sunday in municipal elections, which are being viewed as a test of how the next general election on Dec. 6 will unfold for the country’s minority-led government.

About 19 million registered voters were choosing local officials, council presidents and mayors to fill more than 43,000 positions across the European Union nation. The election should reveal the strength of the center-right National Liberal Party, or NLP, which has controlled Romania’s minority government since the fall from power last year of the Social Democrat Party, known as PSD.

The left-leaning PSD remains the strongest party in Romania’s parliament, despite losing its governing majority. It has been in power until last October when its government, led by Prime Minister Viorica Dancila, lost a confidence vote in the parliament amid massive popular protests at home and heavy criticism from Brussels over its attacks on the judiciary and widespread graft.

Next, in the country’s presidential election last November, Dancila suffered a crushing defeat to the NLP’s former leader. Klaus Iohannis.

However, the PSD has recently appeared to be winning back some of the lost popular support as the minority government has been struggling to contain the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic by curbing social spending.

Even before the pandemic, Romania has been plagued by widespread poverty with over 25% of population living on less than $5.50 a day. In August, its state budget deficit reached 4.7% of gross domestic product compared to 1.71% in the same period of last year.

Still, last week, the PSD managed to push through the parliament a motion to raise all state pensions by 40%, ignoring the warnings by the country’s central bank that it was unfeasible.

The most closely-watched race Sunday will be for the next mayor of the capital, Bucharest, between the incumbent, Gabriela Firea of the PSD, and NLP challenger Nicusor Dan.

After casting her ballot in the capital, Firea appeared to tout her party’s populist message.

“We all need investment in infrastructure, in fighting pollution, in hospitals … schools,” she said.

For his part, upon voting, Dan implied Fiera was a part of the PSD’s corruption-prone network, or, as he said: “the octopus of self-serving relatives, friends and friends of friends.”

“They were unable to solve the hot water supply problems in Bucharest, not to even mention the problems with traffic congestion and pollution,” he added.

In the town of Sulina, the easternmost point of the country about 360 kilometers (225 miles) northeast of Bucharest, many voters said they wanted to see their community governed by a party that will put ordinary people’s interests first.

“We vote for a better town, wishing for cleaner streets, no stray dogs, cows and horses in the street and no more garbage in town,” Sulina resident Eugenia Radu said.

The picturesque town in the Danube Delta, whose once mighty fishing industry has almost collapsed in recent years, currently has a PSD mayor.

“We are hoping for better and giving them a chance,” said Paula Rugina, another Sulina voter. “If nothing good happens (after the election), we will vote against them the next time."

Like other countries in Europe, Romania has been registering a spike in the number of new coronavirus cases over the last couple of weeks. To date, it has confirmed more than 122,500 virus cases, with over 4,700 deaths.