BUCHAREST Promises of higher wages and pensions swept Romania's leftist Social Democrats to a convincing win in Sunday's parliamentary election, a year after they were driven from office by protesters angry at corruption and abuse of power.
Official results on Monday showed the leftist PSD party won more than 45 percent of the vote and its junior ally ALDE took around 6 percent, securing a combined outright majority.
The PSD's promises to put more money in people's pockets proved more appealing to voters than its rivals' pledges to root out corruption. PSD leader Liviu Dragnea had told reporters in June that Romanians faced a choice between "better bread or handcuffs".
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 risks breaching EU budget limits.
The result is a triumph for Dragnea, 54, who has remained in his post despite being found guilty of electoral fraud earlier this year and receiving a two-year suspended jail sentence. It was unclear whether the PSD would now nominate him for prime minister, as advocated by several leading leftists.
President Klaus Iohannis, a liberal, has said he will refuse to accept any candidate with a criminal past. The PSD might therefore opt for a less divisive figure, leaving Dragnea to wield influence behind the scenes.
The election underscored the divide between older rural voters, tired of austerity, and younger city-dwellers whose confidence in the prospect of reforms is waning.
The PSD had appealed to the former, campaigning on a promise to cut taxes and raise spending on public wages and pensions. Turnout figures suggested many younger people had not bothered to vote.
Capitalising on the fears among many poor Romanians that reforms come at a cost, the PSD has held power for about 17 years out of the 27 that have passed since communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu was toppled and shot in 1989.
"I was really scared of the prospect of not having my small pension increased or that it could be cut," said Ioana Mocanu, a 65-year-old former milk factory worker from Bucharest.
"I had a stroke a couple of years ago and have to spend half of my pension on medication now," said the pensioner, whose monthly pay amounts to 700 lei ($165), slightly below the average national pension.
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. Corruption is a crucial reason why the country has been outpaced by its former communist peers in the drive to modernise and bring living standards closer to the West.
For the past year, the country has been run by a technocrat government of experts who have succeeded in accelerating anti-corruption reforms, drawing praise from Brussels.
But liberal observers said a PSD government would likely seek to blunt the impact of legislation in hopes that EU officials will be too focused on the bloc's internal problems to intervene.
The Central Electoral Bureau said results from 96 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 (USR)won around 9 percent.
Once the new parliament is sworn in, the president will likely call parties for consultations before nominating a prime minister. Commentators expect this to happen around Dec. 20.
"A prime minister with a criminal conviction would lead our western partners to isolate Romania," USR leader Nicusor Dan said, referring to Dragnea.
But he also acknowledged the factors that had pushed voters to choose the PSD. "Romanians have voted for a better life, higher wages, smaller taxes. They felt that the parties they voted for would be capable of meeting these expectations."($1 = 4.2428 lei)
(Reporting by Radu Marinas and Luiza Ilie; editing by Justyna Pawlak and Mark Trevelyan)