Anti-corruption fight casts shadow over Romanian elections

In the small Romanian village of Dambu, in the foothills of the Carpathian mountains, the most pressing matters are what local businesses can get for a liter of milk, a kilogram of cheese or a locally crafted pine table.

National issues, however, are on the agenda Sunday as Romanians vote in a parliamentary election. The vote comes a year after a massive anti-corruption drive forced Prime Minister Victor Ponta from power, imprisoned media moguls and prompted a key figure in the country's second biggest party to quit over a graft probe. In all, 504 seats are up for re-election in Romania's bicameral Parliament.

This country of more than 19 million — one of the poorest in the 28-nation European Union — is also perceived as one of its most corrupt. That's despite a vaunted anti-graft campaign headed by prosecutor Laura Codruta Kovesi, which is supported by the EU and the U.S.

"Corruption exists and it will continue until (authorities) confiscate the wealth of convicted people," said Nicolae Dascalu, 58, owner of a small carpentry company in Dambu that makes doors, window frames and cupboards. "They do one or two years in prison and then they go back to their millions."

Business is bad for Dascalu, who recently returned to Romania after working for two months in France. This weekend, he's placing his vote on a junior partner of Romania's largest party, the Social Democratic Party, but is still pragmatic about corruption.

"There are corrupt politicians in every party," he said stepping away from his lathe on an icy Thursday morning. "I'm not saying everyone is corrupt."

On Sunday, the left-leaning Social Democrats hope to win enough seats together with a junior partner to form a government. The party, which emerged from the defunct Communist Party after Romania's 1989 revolution, is omnipresent and has come first in almost every parliamentary election since then, despite corruption allegations.

The leader of the Social Democratic Party, Liviu Dragnea, got a two-year suspended prison sentence for voter fraud in April for inflating voter numbers at a July 2012 referendum to impeach former President Traian Basescu.

Dragnea this time has promised an ambitious, populist agenda to raise salaries and pensions, slash taxes, build more hospitals, offer faster trains and give every village its own ambulance, and has emphasized the Romanian credentials of the party.

However, in an interview with The Associated Press Friday, Prime Minister Dacian Ciolos, who heads a government that is not officially aligned to any party, called the agenda "a superficial, electoral and therefore populist," approach," adding "economic growth does not come from the government or the Parliament but from investment."

"You need predictability... If you change economic policy from years to year this risks creating uncertainty that affects" Romania's economic development, he said.

He said the Social Democrats "nationalist discourse which creates a mood of fear and hate against foreigners will not help credibility of the government at a European and international level."

The Socialists ruled from 2012 to 2015, until Ponta, already the subject of a corruption probe, was ousted after tens of thousands protested, saying corrupt local authorities had turned a blind eye to safety standards that led to 64 people dying in an October nightclub fire.

Parliament approved a government of technocrats a month later, headed by Ciolos. The opposition center-right Liberals, the biggest party running against the Socialists, have said they will retain him as prime minister if they take power.

In rural Dambu, 80 kilometers (50 miles) north of Bucharest, Cristian Barnau, says his dairy business struggles to compete with cheaper Bulgarian cheese, which he believes has less milk and more chemical additives than the sheep and cow cheese he makes. He will vote for the Social Democrats.

"When they were in power, subsidies were paid on time," he said.

He agrees Romania has a problem with corruption, but says not all corruption is equal. He defends Dragnea, who by law cannot be appointed prime minister because he has been convicted.

"You can't say he's corrupt, all he did was bring in extra people to vote," Barnau said, as the smell of charred skin from a slaughtered pig wafted across the snow-dusted hill.

Still, the anti-corruption mood has given birth to a new party called the Save Romania Union, which promises clean government and an end to cronyism. The party, headed by mathematician Nicusor Dan, is popular with young, urban voters and people active on social media. It is expected to get enough votes to enter Parliament and could form an alliance with Liberals.

In Dambu, locals want politicians to produce concrete results.

"I want jobs, hospitals and schools," said Dascalu.