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Hot Battle For Second In Romania As Incumbent Holds Big Lead In Presidential Election

Romanian President Klaus Iohannis has been widely tipped for reelection, (file photo)

Pundits following Romania's presidential election say it's a foregone conclusion that the incumbent candidate, Klaus Iohannis, will easily win the first-round vote on November 10.

But polls say he's unlikely to reach the 50 percent needed to avoid a runoff, and the battle for second looks to be a close race.

Iohannis's candidacy is supported by the National Liberal Party (PNL) that he once headed and which now leads Romania's newly installed minority government of Prime Minister Ludovic Orban.

Recent opinion polls suggest Iohannis has support from about 40 percent of eligible voters after recent victories in a long political battle against his rivals in Romania's Social Democratic Party (PSD).

Backing from 40 percent of voters would be a strong showing for Iohannis -- about twice as many votes as those expected for his closest rivals -- considering the PNL is only the second-largest political party in Romania.

But that result would still fall short of the 50 percent mark Iohannis needs to be reelected outright to a second presidential term in the first round.

Iohannis says he wants to modernize Romania's state institutions to prevent the kind of corruption scandals the country has faced for years.

He has vowed to continue strengthening the rule of law and to support anti-corruption measures.

"It's absolutely necessary that we revise legislation in the field of justice in order to eliminate the toxic interventions of the past years," Iohannis says.

He has also called for a new "national defense strategy" and legislation aimed at reviving Romania's defense industry.

"All state institutions will have to go through a modernization process," he has said. "The budget system cannot be treated as a refuge for incompetence and political clientele."

The incumbent candidate also says he intends to further develop a "strategic partnership" that would help neighboring Moldova's aspirations to integrate with the European Union.

PSD Corruption Scandals, Infighting

Of the 13 other presidential candidates on the November 10 ballot, three are seen as the leading contenders for a second-place finish that would advance them to the anticipated November 24 runoff vote.

Polling strongest among Iohannis's rivals has been the recently ousted prime minister, Viorica Dancila.

She is the current leader of the PSD -- a party that had been in power since 2016 but was plagued by years of corruption cases involving thousands of politicians, judges, prosecutors, and Romanian business figures.

PSD-legislation proposed under the guise of "judicial reform" has been portrayed by the party's rivals -- including Iohannis and the PNL -- as a cynical attempt to shield PSD politicians from prosecution and reduce the prison sentences of PSD officials already convicted of corruption.

In the midst of that political firestorm, following the resignation from the prime minister's post by then-PSD member Mihai Tudose, Dancila became prime minister in January 2018.

Viorica Dancila (file photo)
Viorica Dancila (file photo)

Dancila inherited the PSD leadership in May from the party's previous head, Liviu Dragnea, after he lost his appeal against a corruption conviction and began a 3 1/2 year prison sentence.

Before that court ruling, Dragnea had been widely seen as the most powerful figure in Romanian politics.

Corruption cases continued to haunt the PSD through the summer under Dancila's leadership and she lost her parliamentary majority in August.

On October 10, just a month before the first round presidential vote, Dancila and her cabinet were ousted from power as a result of a no-confidence vote in parliament.

Dancila continued to head a caretaker government until November 4, just six days before the first-round presidential vote, when parliament approved Orban's new PNL-led minority government.

The dust still has not settled within the PSD over Dancila's ability to continue leading the party in the aftermath of her short reign as prime minister.

Although she could benefit from the strong base the PSD has as Romania's largest political party, Dancila's presidential candidacy could also suffer from internal PSD battles over the party's future leadership.

Recent opinion polls showed Dancila with support from about 22 percent of eligible voters.

Center-Right Rival

Parliamentary deputy Dan Barna is seen as Dancila's closest rival in the race for second place in the November 10 vote.

The 44-year-old Barna is a lawyer who heads the third-largest party in Romania's parliament -- the center-right Save Romania Union (USR).

Barna and his allies are pro-EU politicians who'd been in the opposition against the PSD-led government until Dancila's recent ouster.

Dan Barna (file photo)
Dan Barna (file photo)

Barna's USR has formed an electoral alliance with Romania's centrist Liberty, Unity, and Solidarity Party (PLUS), which was founded in 2018 by former Prime Minister Dacian Ciolos.

Opinion polls suggest Barna has support from about 19 percent of eligible voters.

Barna has proposed constitutional reforms that would expand presidential powers in Romania -- not only giving the president a say on defense and national security policies, but allowing him or her to lead government meetings that focus on the state budget.

He says those constitutional reforms would be his "first priorities" as president. Other projects he highlights as part of his campaign platform focus on health care, education, environmental policies, improving infrastructure, and social and economic measures.

Independent Actor

Opinion polls suggest the independent candidate Mircea Diaconu, a well-known Romanian actor, is likely to finish in fourth place in the November 10 vote with support from about 8 percent of voters.

That's enough to earn Diaconu the status of a contender, but he remains a long shot in terms of advancing to a second-round vote.

Diaconu was a participant in Romania's revolution against dictator Nicolae Ceausescu's regime. He and his thespian colleagues organized students to go to factories and urge workers to declare an immediate strike following Ceausescu's final public speech on December 21, 1989.

His career as a politician began in 2008 when he was elected as a lawmaker from the PNL.

Mircea Diaconu (file photo)
Mircea Diaconu (file photo)

Diaconu broke away from the PNL and became an independent politician in 2014 when the party failed to include him on its list of candidates for the European Parliamentary election.

His departure from the PNL is thought to have eroded nationwide support for the party.

Although Diaconu does not currently have any official party affiliation, his candidacy is supported by the so-called One Man electoral alliance -- which groups together members of social-liberal PRO Romania political party and the liberal Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (ALDE).

ALDE had been a coalition partner of Dancila's PSD government but withdrew its support in August, paving the way for the ouster of her administration in October

With reporting by RFE/RL's Romanian Service