Voters fear fresh Romanian poll fraud

By Christopher Condon in Bucharest

Financial Times

Published: December 13 2004

Rules imposed only last week to limit fraud in the second round of Romania's presidential election were weakened on Sunday as voters headed to the polls.

The change raised fears that widespread multiple voting, which appeared to mar the first round two weeks ago, would be repeated. Voters were to choose between Adrian Nastase, the incumbent prime minister, and Traian Basescu, the mayor of Bucharest, in a contest that will also decide which of the country's two largest parties forms the next government.

Polls showed Mr Nastase ahead by 4 to 12 percentage points going into Sunday’s vote.

Mr Nastase heads the Social Democrat party (PSD), which has been long criticised by both the European Commission and domestic opponents for its failure to limit corruption. The party is poised to form the next government after taking the largest bloc of seats in parliamentary elections on November 28.

Mr Basescu and independent monitors complained, however, that local officials from the PSD padded the party's vote by shuttling supporters to multiple polling stations.

PSD officials denied the charge before making similar claims against their opponents.

In response, election officials decided yesterday to restrict to 56 the number of polling stations that could allow voters to cast a ballot outside their home precinct.

Under previous rules voters could walk in to any of Romania's 17,000 polling stations and cast a so-called “transit” ballot. Of 9.7m votes cast on November 28, about 1.5m such transit ballots were registered.

Pro Democracy, a non-governmental group that fielded 3,300 election monitors for both the original election and yesterday's second round, reported several cases in which busloads of voters were shuttled to several polling stations in the Bucharest suburbs. The group accused local officials from the PSD of having organised most of the incidents.

Mr Basescu's party, the Justice and Truth Alliance, requested access to voter lists that could be cross-checked to reveal multiple balloting. But Ionat Monu, deputy campaign manager for the Alliance, said election officials had obstructed the effort. Several county officials, he said, claimed they had lost the original records or simply refused to hand them over.

Early in Sunday’s voting monitors reported fewer incidents of suspected multiple voting and credited the new rules. But by mid-day county electoral officials began expanding the number of stations eligible to receive transit votes. By 5pm, according to Pro Democracy, hundreds of extra stations had been authorised to accept such votes. Authorities offered no immediate explanation.

Pro Democracy also reported extremely long lines at many of the polling stations authorised to accept transit votes on Sunday.

This week EU member governments are to vote on formally closing accession talks with Romania.