Romanians vote in local elections amid virus surge

Bucharest (AFP) –


Romanians go to the polls on Sunday to choose mayors and local councillors, but a coronavirus surge threatens to hit the first electoral test after years of political turbulence with a high abstention rate.

Nationwide, the east European country of almost 19 million people has 43,000 seats to fill in the single-round election seen as a test ahead of national polls in December.

One of the EU's poorest members, Romania has seen Covid infections rise rapidly since lifting a strict lockdown earlier this year.

The deeply-entrenched Social Democrats (PSD) -- unseated from government in 2019 in a parliamentary no-confidence vote after two years of anti-corruption protests -- have blamed the current liberal minority administration for mismanaging the pandemic.

But it remains unclear to what extent the health crisis will outweigh other concerns, with the National Liberal Party (PNL) still ahead of the PSD in recent surveys by a slim margin.

Politicians and observers worry about a traditionally low turnout dipping even further. Only 48 percent of those eligible to vote took part in the last local elections four years ago.

- Disinfectant at polling stations -

Amid an atypical campaign that has seen parties mostly beat the drum online, President Klaus Iohannis has assured the electorate that going to vote involves "almost no risk" and "is not more dangerous than going shopping".

Masks will be mandatory and disinfectant will be provided at every polling station. Romania so far has reported more than 121,000 coronavirus cases and nearly 4,700 deaths.

Though some hospitals have been struggling with the numbers of virus patients, the PNL-led government has so far ruled out re-imposing severe restrictions and strangling the poor country's economy.

On Sunday, all eyes will be on capital Bucharest, whose three million inhabitants are currently governed by the Social Democrats.

PSD were unseated nationally last year after their attempts to push through controversial justice reforms -- despite warnings from Brussels -- saw massive street protests.

Even so, the party, which has dominated the political landscape since the end of communism 30 years ago, maintains a strong presence in the countryside.

It relies on a disciplined electorate, often at the beck-and-call of "local barons" -- politicians who have controlled certain regions for decades.

- 'Uneven development' -

Daniel David of Babes-Bolyai University in Cluj said young people were less and less inclined to vote in municipal elections, underestimating the polls' impact on their lives.

"If localities develop unevenly, it is because the local authorities make the difference," he said.

While European cohesion funds -- of which Romania has absorbed 58 billion euros ($67 billion) since joining the EU in 2007 -- have enabled many municipalities to flourish, development gaps remain significant.

Millions have emigrated to look for better opportunities elsewhere in the EU.

"I pay my taxes on time so in turn I expect the mayor to do his job, but after four years nothing has changed," said Mirela Toader, a resident of Arges in central Romania who is still waiting for her house perched on a hill to be connected to electricity and running water.