Romanians elect new parliament as economy slides

Bucharest  - Romanians elect a new parliament Sunday amid an economic downturn that has cost thousands of jobs and could force the next government to take unpopular austerity measures.

Polls show Prime Minister Calin Popescu Tariceanu's centre-right National Liberal Party (PNL) running a distant third behind two opposition groups, President Traian Basescu's Democratic Liberal Party (PD-L) and the left-leaning Social Democrats (PSD).

With no party expected to win an outright majority, the next governing coalition for the EU and NATO member nation is hard to predict.

Turnout is tipped to be lower than for the last parliamentary elections in 2004, because feuding politicians and rampant corruption have turned off many voters.

At stake are all 315 seats in the lower house and all 137 senate seats.

Whoever ends up governing the country of 21 million has to confront fallout from the global economic crisis, which will slash Romania's expansion next year after an eight-year economic boom.

Romania is forecast to post growth of about 9 per cent this year, the EU's highest. But signs of trouble are growing in the south-east European nation between the Danube and the Black Sea.

Foreign companies like carmaker Renault SA and steel giant ArcelorMittal, attracted to Romania by low wages and taxes, are closing plants.

The government estimates that the world crisis will cost 30,000 jobs in Romania by the end of the year.

Economists from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank visited Romania in early November to discuss the country's financial stability.

At the time, Basescu and the central bank insisted that Romania would not need a bail-out like neighbouring Hungary, which the IMF and the EU saved from possible default with emergency loans in October.

Under IMF pressure to watch the nation's finances, Tariceanu's government postponed until April a 50-per-cent pay hike for teachers planned for October.

Romania's central bank has lowered its 2009 economic growth forecast to 4.6 per cent from 6 per cent, and some economists believe the figure will be even lower as exports - mainly to richer European countries - and credit falter.

Opinion polls predict the Basescu, a former Bucharest mayor and Romania's most popular politician, will lead his centre-right party to the most votes in Sunday's election.

The Social Democrats, whose ancestry traces back to the old communist party, are polling second.

Tariceanu, who fell out with his former ally Basescu in 2007, leads a minority government with an ethnic Hungarian party and tacit support from the PSD.

Corruption has been a near-constant theme with voters since Romania emerged into democracy after the December 25, 1989, execution of communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.

Despite pressure from EU officials in Brussels, Romania has struggled to investigate graft allegations against senior politicians, leading to public cynicism.

In a prominent case, parliament in August voted against allowing the prosecution of former prime minister Adrian Nastase, a leading PSD politician, on charges brought by anti-corruption prosecutors.

A July report by the European Commission, the EU's executive arm, said "Romania can show few tangible results in its fight against high-level corruption" and that "decisions on corruption are highly politicized.

In an attempt to rejuvenate Romania's political class, voters this year will vote directly for candidates for the first time, rather than for party lists of candidates from which lawmakers are drawn after the election. (dpa)