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Romanian Opposition Figure Wins Presidency in Runoff

By Mirela Roman and Radu Marinas
Tuesday, December 14, 2004; Page A24

BUCHAREST, Romania, Dec. 13 -- Romanian opposition candidate Traian Basescu scored an upset presidential victory on Monday and vowed to replace the ruling former communists with a reformist team in the run-up to the country's planned entry into the European Union in 2007.

In a victory speech, Basescu promised a strong fight against corruption in the poor Balkan country, which is still struggling to overcome its communist legacy 15 years after a bloody revolution that toppled dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.

Traian Basescu, greeting supporters in Bucharest, has pledged to bring in a reformist administration and tackle corruption in Romania.

Thousands of people danced in the main square of Bucharest to cheer the winner, who is the capital's popular mayor, and to celebrate the departure of President Ion Iliescu, who has dominated the country's political scene since 1989.

Final returns from the Sunday runoff showed that Basescu captured 51.2 percent of the vote compared with 48.8 percent for Prime Minister Adrian Nastase, an Iliescu protege and head of the ruling ex-communist Social Democratic Party.

The Social Democrats and Iliescu have ruled Romania for all but four of the post-communist years, when a weak reformist coalition failed to deliver on promises to shake the country out of its malaise.

"Voters have given Romania a second chance," Basescu, who was part of that government, told the cheering crowd in the square Monday. "I promise you this time we won't waste it."

Romania concluded membership talks with the E.U. last week. Romania agreed to a deal including strict monitoring of judicial reform, border protection, corruption and state aid to industry. The agreement is expected to be formally sealed later this week at an E.U. summit.

Nastase, who until a few weeks ago was the favorite to win the vote, conceded defeat Monday in the second recent setback for the Social Democrats. They lost control of Parliament in elections two weeks ago.

In his victory speech, Basescu, a former oil tanker captain, promised Romanians a friendly state and said he would fight rampant corruption. He also urged allies of the Social Democrats to come to his side. "The top priority is to form a majority that will allow us to march in full force towards E.U. integration," he said.

Economists and political analysts said that if Basescu succeeds in his programs, the slow reforms that characterized the Iliescu era could rapidly accelerate, enabling Romania to meet its goal of E.U. entry in 2007.

"It's the second revolution," said Stelian Tanase, a political analyst. "The Iliescu era is over."

Basescu's victory came despite rapid economic growth under Nastase and the Social Democrats, who brought the country into the NATO alliance and within sight of E.U. membership. But the Social Democrats' image has been tarnished by corruption scandals, widespread political patronage and the conspicuous display of wealth by some party members who became businessmen.

Basescu's strong anti-corruption message and promises to lower taxes and cut red tape have won over many in the budding middle class. They are impatient to complete Romania's transition from an underdeveloped communist state to a modern E.U. nation.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company