Romanians went to the polls Sunday to vote in local elections in what is seen as a dress rehearsal for parliamentary elections in December.
The minority Liberal government which is consistently ahead in poll will test the real level of support for the centrist party.
Originally scheduled for June, the elections were postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Eyes are on Bucharest where it is a tight race between the incumbent, Gabriela Firea, from the opposition Social Democratic Party and Nicusor Dan, a former civic activist and mathematician who is supported by a center-right coalition.
A win for Ms Firea, 48, would be a boost for the Social Democrats who have slumped in opinion polls this year after they were dismissed in a vote of no-confidence in October 2019.
The entry of former President Traian Basescu, a centrist, to the race in Bucharest however, has upped Ms Firea’s chances as he will take away votes from Mr. Dan, 50, who needs a strong turnout to be assured of victory.
After seven hours of voting, which is the midway point, turnout was 23.71%, less than it was in the 2016 general elections when one-fourth of the electorate had cast their ballots at the same time.
In Bucharest, some 18.4% of the voters had cast their ballot, more than two percentage points more than at the same hour in the last elections. Unusually, younger people went to the polls in the early hours.
Prime Minister Ludovic Orban, who is also Liberal Party chairman said he „voted for an improvement in the level of civilization.”
„Our concept was clear, to develop local communities through investment, jobs and infrastructure leading to a higher level of civilization,” he said.
Ms Firea cast her ballot as polls opened and said she voted „thinking about all children, young people and adults in Bucharest… People should come first.”
In a combative tone, she later said: „The horses don’t die when the dogs want them to,” a Romanian expression meaning she was not about to lose regardless of what her rivals want.
The elections were originally planned for June but were delayed due to the health crisis. Some 18.2 million voters will elect mayors and other officials for 40,000 local positions.
Schools were shut across the country around the vote. Many double as polling stations and they were closed to allow authorities time to prepare them with restrictions which are in place during the pandemic.
Beyond the immediate outcome of Sunday’s vote, the elections will give all parties an idea of where they stand ahead of Dec. 6 general elections.
The Social Democrats have a majority in parliament with their allies and recently approved a 40% pension hike, even as the economy is forecast to shrink by 4.7% in 2020.
The increase, which is popular with the Social Democrats’ voters, would leave a budget gap of 8.3%.