BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Romanians gave Prime Minister Victor Ponta’s new leftist government strong backing in local elections on Sunday, sending a clear message that they had had enough of austerity.
Ponta’s Social Liberal Union (USL) alliance won up to 65 percent of votes in some areas and more than 50 percent in some big cities, exit polls showed, in the first electoral test since it came to power last month on a wave of discontent over austerity measures in the EU’s second-poorest economy.
The results put the USL on course to win a majority in a parliamentary election later this year.
Police said they were investigating a number of fraud allegations, including accusations of bribery and attempts at multiple voting.
The USL toppled the centre-right Democrat-Liberal Party (PDL) after a no-confidence vote in parliament last month. He promised to restore wages and cut some taxes, while sticking to an International Monetary Fund-led aid deal.
The PDL cut public salaries and raised sales tax in 2010 as part of an austerity program. The party was so badly damaged it has struggled to hold on to second place ahead of the populist Dan Diaconescu, whose new party wants major tax cuts.
In most areas, the PDL trailed far behind the USL - with only 13-30 percent in Bucharest - but was still ahead of Diaconescu’s party.
Ponta’s USL alliance was set to win powerful mayoral positions in a string of big cities, including Bucharest, which would help to build up his support before the parliamentary vote, expected in November.
“I voted for what I think could be honest and diligent politicians,” said 58-year-old teacher Mariana Stoiculescu at a polling station in the capital Bucharest. “We want better wages, better services and a better life for our children.”
Elena Constantinescu, 40, who works in the southwestern city of Pitesti, said: “What matters to us is to get better wages, more jobs, and ... to see the government cares more about us.”
The USL is dominated by the PSD party, the reformed heir of Romania’s pre-1989 communists, and also includes centrists and rightists in a broad coalition that many analysts say could suffer serious tensions now it is in power.
Eighteen candidates entered the race for Bucharest mayor and USL-backed Sorin Oprescu was set for re-election ahead of the PDL’s Silviu Prigoana.
Most candidates promised to tackle the city’s chronic stray dogs problem. There are up to 40,000 strays on the streets of Bucharest, a problem exacerbated by late communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu who forced thousands of people to move into apartments where they could not look after the animals.
Former Prime Minister Emil Boc, who rolled out the 2010 austerity cuts and tax hikes, is running to become mayor of the city of Cluj in Transylvania - his stronghold - and exit polls showed him neck-and-neck with the USL candidate in what was by far the PDL’s strongest showing.
The Central Electoral Bureau may release final results as early as Monday.
Additional reporting by Sam Cage; Editing by Ralph Gowling