Romania's leftist PM launches candidacy in presidential election

BUCHAREST Tue Jul 29, 2014 3:22pm EDT

1 of 2. Victor Ponta, Romania's Prime Minister and leader of Social Democrat ruling party, addresses his party National Council in Craiova July 29, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/Bogdan Cristel

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BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Romania's ruling leftist alliance endorsed Prime Minister Victor Ponta's candidacy in a Nov. 2 presidential election on Tuesday, with opinion polls showing him leading but not by enough to avoid a runoff ballot.

Ponta, 41, the leader of the leftist Social Democrat Party, came to power in May 2012 in an alliance with the Liberal Party, toppling a center-right government that undertook painful wage cuts and tax hikes at the height of the financial crisis.

His liberal allies split from the coalition earlier this year to support their own presidential candidate. They then decided to merge with the Democrat Liberals, another center-right opposition party.

Analysts widely believe Liberal Party head Klaus Iohannis, 55, an ethnic German mayor of the Transylvanian city of Sibiu will emerge as the right's candidate to face off with Ponta on Nov. 2.

A survey by pollster INSCOP ordered by daily Adevarul earlier this month, showed Ponta had 43.6 percent support, leading Iohannis by more than 12 points. But neither contender would garner enough votes to avoid a Nov. 16 runoff ballot.

"I am convinced that come November we will win," Ponta told thousands of party members gathered in the southern Romanian city of Craiova on Tuesday, after they had voted to back his candidacy. Ponta also visited nearby villages hit by floods this week.

"I am also convinced that my presidential mandate will resemble today, with me standing by people in trouble, with problems." Beethoven's Ode to Joy marked the ceremony.

Helped by successive IMF-backed aid deals since 2009 and by austerity policies, Romania has slowly emerged from recession to record one of the highest economic growth rates in the region.

Since 2012, Ponta's government has reversed wage cuts and undone various austerity measures. It now aims to cut a social security tax that will leave a gap in the budget, and the International Monetary Fund has postponed a review of a precautionary aid deal pending the election, which has raised concerns about fiscal discipline.

The government is also struggling to benefit from higher economic growth, with tax evasion reaching 16.2 percent of GDP last year.

Ponta, a former prosecutor and amateur motor rally driver, has been hit by calls to resign after charges of plagiarism surfaced, which he refused to do, and by the jailing of former Prime Minister Adrian Nastase, his mentor, for corruption.

In 2012, he received a severe dressing down from the European Union over his efforts to ensure President Traian Basescu, a political rival, was impeached in a national referendum, a row which raised concerns over the rule of law.

The next president will play a pivotal role in appointing a new prime minister and a government line-up to oversee IMF-backed reforms under the standby 4 billion euro aid deal it secured last year.

(Editing by Susan Fenton)

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