Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta, now tipped for the presidency, is an ambitious, confrontational politician who has risen rapidly in the post-communist era.
Polls suggest the 42-year-old boyish-looking prime minister should easily win the first round of presidential elections on Sunday, and go on to beat centre-right leader Klaus Iohannis in the second round on November 16.
These are the seventh elections in the poor, ex-communist country since the fall of dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu 25 years ago.
Social Democrat Ponta — whose political role model is former British prime minister Tony Blair — was so confident of victory that he said he would sit back and watch the first round results on television “with a packet of popcorn”.
Ponta made several stormy declarations during the campaign, including comparing the 10 years in power of conservative President Traian Basescu, his arch rival, to the Nazi regime.
The president, who cannot run for a third term, responded by accusing him of being a former spy.
– ‘Targeted campaigns’ –
Numerous criminal charges or corruption probes concerning his allies in the ex-communist Social Democrat Party have not affected Ponta’s poll ratings.
Although he says he respects the independence of the justice system, his frequent criticism of the anti-corruption prosecutor (DNA), who he considers to be biased, has raised doubts.
Ponta’s coalition government tried to pass new laws granting super-immunity to elected officials in December 2013 on a day dubbed “Black Tuesday” by his critics.
The former prosecutor entered politics in 2001, and quickly climbed the ranks of his party, under the wing of Adrian Nastase, a prime minister from 2000 to 2004 who was jailed eight years later for corruption.
Ponta was appointed premier for the first time in May 2012 by Basescu, after a centre-right cabinet was toppled by a no-confidence vote.
Just two months later he spearheaded an ultimately failed bid to impeach Basescu — a move sharply criticised by the European Union and the United States.
Shortly after his appointment as prime minister, Ponta came under fire from academics who accused him of having plagiarised large parts of his 2003 PhD thesis.
Ponta’s popularity has not suffered at home, helped improvements in the economy and a drop in government debt.
Omnipresent on some TV channels, Ponta gained popularity with “targeted and constant campaigns”, sometimes in the style of communist progaganda, said Corina Rebegea, from the Centre for European Policy Analysis in Washington.
But the strained relations with Basescu have delayed much-needed reforms, including of the health and education systems and the public administration, and the economy has once again fallen into recession.
A fan of rally driving and an admirer of Che Guevara in his youth, Ponta draws support from his party’s traditional electorate — mainly rural people, small business employees and the elderly.