BUCHAREST, Romania – Romania's government has collapsed and its economy is in shambles but its presidential campaign has been dominated in recent days by a video that appears to show the president striking a 10-year-old boy in the face.
The 18-second film shot in 2004 shows Traian Basescu, then Bucharest mayor, crouching at the edge of a stage at a campaign rally and talking to a visibly upset woman in the crowd. He reaches for her hand while looking away. Ten-year-old Bogdan Istratoiu reaches up and puts his hand in the president's.
Basescu then appears to strike quickly at Istratoiu with his right hand and connect with the child's face.
The footage appeared just over a week ahead of a Dec. 6 runoff vote and has been top news ever since. It's been shown dozens of times on television news channels, seen thousands of times online, debated incessantly, and become a major topic of everyday conversation.
"Someone who does this is capable of anything," said Andras Szoeke, 50, a goods transporter from the city of Cluj. "I will go and vote against him to get rid of him."
Basescu's campaign says the film is a dirty trick and the footage was "seriously altered." Spokesman Sever Voinescu introduced reporters to a film specialist, Lucian Blaga, who said the film contained "fake elements" including gaps in the sequences where Basescu's hand moves towards the boy before what appears to be the blow to the chin.
Romania's government collapsed last month amid squabbling between the two-party coalition, and the International Monetary Fund has delayed access to a euro1.5 billion ($2 billion) IMF bailout loan while the country struggles to set up a new government.
Basescu, a centrist, faces Socialist ex-Foreign Minister Mircea Geoana in the runoff.
"The two candidates do not have real solutions to Romania's problems. If they had solutions, we would have debate about these solutions. Therefore they use topics which have an emotional content which appeal to everyone," said Stelian Tanase, a political analyst. "This is the lowest level campaign we've had so far."
Basescu was first confronted with the footage Thursday evening during an interview with Realitatea TV. He initially said he did not recall the incident in the fall of 2004 before his presidential election victory. He then suggested that he might have hit the boy because the child had said something offensive. The original footage was shot by a camera operator who was at the rally and has not been publicly identified.
Hours later at his campaign headquarters, Basescu firmly denied he had ever hit any child, his daughters, or his wife. Asked about the discrepancy, he replied that in the television studio, he was wearing the wrong spectacles and was unable to see the film properly.
Istratoiu, now 15 and living in Italy, initially claimed in an interview with newspaper Observatorul Prahovean that Basescu hit him in the face. He said he had gone on stage with Basescu to take part in the election rally and due to nerves had said he supported another candidate in the presidential race. Istratoiu retracted his statement a day later, saying he did not want to be part of the controversy.
His aunt, Cecilia Gheorghe, said that the boy and his mother had been threatened and were afraid. She said she had heard about the incident in 2004 but had dismissed it as the fantasies of a 10-year-old.
Ex-Prime Minister Calin Popescu Tariceanu, a former Basescu ally, said he was at the rally near the city of Ploiesti and did not see the punch but discussed it with Basescu afterward.
Tariceanu wrote on his blog that the incident was true and added that Basescu had called it "a mistake." He said both he and Basescu were "amazed" that the story had never headlines before.