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Romanians vote leftists back into power, a year after chasing them out

BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Romania’s leftist Social Democrats have won parliamentary elections with more than 45 percent of the vote, a year after protesters drove them from office in a spasm of anger over corruption and lack of accountability.

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Partial results on Monday showed the leftist PSD party and its junior ally ALDE, on just under 6 percent, will command an outright majority after an election that underscores the growing divide between older voters tired of austerity and the mostly urban young, who are losing trust in the prospect for reforms.

The result is a triumph for PSD leader Liviu Dragnea, who has remained in his post despite being found guilty of electoral fraud earlier this year and receiving a two-year suspended sentence.

The new government’s progress will be closely watched by Romania’s European Union peers because of the PSD’s softer stance against chronic corruption and its propensity for higher public spending, which could risk breaching EU budget limits.

The party campaigned on a promise to cut taxes and raise spending on public wages and pensions, in the hope of winning the support of the mostly poor rural electorate. Turnout figures suggested many younger people had not bothered to vote.

Dragnea had told reporters in June that Romanians must choose between “better bread or handcuffs”, implying that anti-corruption drives could not co-exist with higher wages, development and better living conditions. Prosecutors have gone after lawmakers and ministers across all parties.

The PSD was forced from power in November 2015 when a deadly fire in a nightclub that lacked emergency exits and safety permits sparked nationwide anger over politicians’ failure to stamp out abuses. Many saw it as emblematic of a climate of impunity in Romania, a former communist country that has been dogged by corruption for decades.

For the past year, the country has been run by a technocrat government of experts.

The Central Electoral Bureau said results from more than 80 percent of polling stations showed the centre-right National Liberal Party, the main centrist grouping, was trailing the PSD on about 20 percent.

Newcomer and anti-graft party Save Romania Union got just over 9 percent.

Once official results are finalised and the new parliament is sworn in, President Klaus Iohannis will likely call parties for consultations before nominating a prime minister. Commentators expect this to happen around Dec. 20.

Several leading leftists including the powerful mayor of the capital Bucharest said party leader Dragnea should be the next prime minister. Iohannis has said he will not nominate any politician who has been convicted.

“The result confirms the exit polls and gives the PSD huge negotiation powers, while the powers of the president (Iohannis) have sunk given the Liberals’ very poor performance,” said political commentator Cristian Patrasconiu.

Reporting by Radu Marinas and Luiza Ilie; editing by Justyna Pawlak and Mark Trevelyan