Romanians have voted in parliamentary elections that appears to see the corruption-tainted left stage a remarkable comeback, a year after a deadly nightclub fire forced them from office.
Exit polls put the Social Democrats (PSD) in first place in Sunday's election with about 46 percent. The rival centre-right National Liberal Party (PNL) are projected to have received about 21 percent, while their allies the Save Romania Union (USR) are seen garnering nine percent.
Liviu Dragnea, the PSD leader, already said he will start talks to form a parliamentary majority with its long-time ally, the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (ALDE), that is projected to have received about six percent.
"In the coming days, PSD and ALDE will begin discussions in order to form a new majority in parliament ... Today's vote clearly indicates Romanians' choice for a future government," Dragnea said in a statement in English.
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After the Bucharest disco blaze October last year, which claimed 64 lives, tens of thousands took to the streets, forcing Prime Minister Victor Ponta and his PSD-led government to resign.
A caretaker government was then installed under technocrat Prime Minister Dacian Ciolos, 47, a former European commissioner.
The PNL and the USR have said they would support Ciolos staying on. He is happy to do so, but wants to remain an independent, vowing continued budgetary discipline.
But the PSD wants Ciolos gone and instead, to install party head Liviu Dragnea, 54, as prime minister.
However, Dragnea is serving a suspended sentence for electoral fraud, and a 2001 law prevents anyone convicted of a crime becoming a minister.
Moreover, President Klaus Iohannis, 57, has refused to appoint anyone with legal problems as prime minister.
This would also exclude a comeback by Ponta, 44, currently on trial, in fact he was already in the dock while prime minister, for alleged tax evasion and money laundering.
Fire blamed on corruption
The absence of fire precautions that caused the Colectiv club inferno was blamed on officials turning a blind eye.
For many Romanians, it was the final straw, and the tragedy prompted a push to clean Romania up.
"The effects of corruption were suddenly clear for all to see: 64 deaths," recalled Mihai Politeanu, the founder of an anti-corruption association, Initiativa Romania, created after the blaze.
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Romania's National Anti-Corruption Directorate (DNA) has been highly active and visible, bringing ministers, senators, lawmakers and other public officials to justice.
A recent survey suggested that 95 percent of Romanians want tackling corruption to be a priority for the next government, but there are worries this will not happen if the PSD returns to power.
The clean-up has "disproportionately hit the Romanian left," Tsveta Petrova from risk consultancy Eurasia Group told the AFP news agency.
"As a result, should a left-led coalition come to power, it will try to slow down this campaign."
But the PSD is still forecast to become the largest party, thanks to solid support among older Romanians and in rural areas of the southeastern European nation of 20 million people.
However, 27 years after the summary execution of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and the end of Communism, voter apathy is rife, with the turnout on Sunday forecast to be as low as 40 percent.
Source: News agencies