Romanian prime minister Victor Ponta enters the presidential run-off on November 16 as the favourite against his opponent, Sibiu mayor Klaus Iohannis, after avoiding any major setbacks in two televised debates this week.
Social-democrat leader Ponta won the first round of elections by 10 points – scoring 40.3 per cent versus 30.4 per cent for Iohannis – and is backed by a well-oiled party apparatus, while his critics accused him of using government resources to promote his campaign.
A win for Ponta would put all the main offices of state in the hands of the social-democrats, but while such a scenario would put an end to the constant institutional infighting that marked the two terms of incumbent Traian Basescu, some observers fear that it could also harm the judiciary’s independence and set back the fight against high-level corruption.
In recent years, prosecutors have pursued investigations against dozens of senior politicians in all political parties, but it is the social-democrats that have been affected the worst. When the issue came up during the debates against Iohannis, Ponta focused on the politicians targeted by prosecutors from the centre-right parties backing his opponent, rather than those in the ranks of his own party.
Ponta has almost no power base of his own inside the party and such evasive manoeuvres are necessary to keep the heavyweights – including the influential local party leaders, often referred to as “local barons” by the media, who control the get-out-and-vote effort – on his side, his critics say.
Although he has faced no formal leadership challenge, there has been grumbling in the ranks and Ponta’s run at the presidency is seen as the way to avoid any damaging infighting – should he win, he would vacate the leadership seat because the law requires it and in case of a defeat, he would step down as other party leaders have done in similar circumstances before, according to local observers.
The campaign appeared to confirm this interpretation that Ponta is fighting to salvage his political career, with the social-democrat leader adopting an aggressive style early on, which included personal attacks against Iohannis (such as the implication that Iohannis should not be elected president because of his German ethnicity).
Ponta has also avoided any face-to-face debates before the first round was over and appeared have prepared better than his rival at the two debates this week. Local commentators said that Iohannis might have hurt his own chances with a stilted performance in the first head-to-head showdown against Ponta and, despite doing better in the second, failed to land a knock-out punch.
(Romanian prime minister Victor Ponta. Photo: Social-Democrat Party/flickr.com)