Plummeting temperatures have exacerbated Romania's chilly political climate as public dissatisfaction with austerity measures mounts. Even the prosecution of a corrupt former premier has failed to improve the mood.
Romania's highest court sentenced former prime minister Adrian Nastase to two years prison earlier this week. It was the first time a leader has been convicted of corruption since the nation's Communist regime collapsed in 1989.
The 61-year-old social democrat was found guilty of siphoning 1.7 million euros ($2.2 million) away from a state construction agency to illegally finance his 2004 presidential campaign. He lost the election to Traian Basescu, who is still Romania's president.
Nastase said he would appeal the verdict, arguing that the judge had clearly been put under "political pressure."
The guilty verdict is a milestone for Romania, which is regularly criticized for justice deficits - despite joining the European Union just five years ago.
Brussels has scolded Bucharest for doing too little to clamp down on public-sector corruption on numerous occasions, citing the lack of political will to delay Romania's accession to the borderless Schengen zone.
Under normal circumstances, Nastase's conviction would have made a much bigger splash in the capital. But many voters have become disillusioned with party politics in the face of the financial crisis.
An increasing number of Romanians want President Basescu and his conservative government to step down. His hard line of public austerity - praised by the International Monetary Fund - has seen thousands of demonstrators take to the streets in recent weeks.
Prime Minister Emil Boc, from the Democratic Liberal Party (PDL), tried to calm the situation by firing his foreign minister for making derogatory comments about protesters, but public dissatisfaction is growing.
Eager to capitalize on the situation, oppositions leaders are calling for the president to step down and announce early elections.
The alliance known as the Social-Liberal Union (USL) –-comprised of the PSD social democrats and the PNL national liberals - has said it would boycott parliament. Some lawmakers have also given up their mandates in an attempt to force dissolution.
Latest polls show that President Basescu and Prime Minister Boc would only win 8 and 7 percent of voters' support to finish fifth and sixth respectively in an early election, while ultranationalist MEP Corneliu Vadim Tudor would come in fourth.
The two co-chairs of the USL, Victor Ponta (PSD) and Crin Antonescu (PNL), would fare much better, capturing 25 and 22 percent of votes. But the real winner would be Romania's king, Michael I. The 90-year-old has an estimated approval rating of 37 percent -a clear snub to the nation's political establishment.
For many Romanians, the former monarch is the leader most capable of uniting the nation struggling to move forward, even 22 years after the bloody overthrow of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.
They see the post-Communist political class as not only corrupt, but also as incapable of resolving the nation's economic and social problems.
Political commentators have already started asking whether a constitutional monarchy - such as the British and Swedish systems - might serve Romania better than the current parliamentary-presidential hybrid republic.
Although a shake-up of that magnitude is unlikely to find majority support in Romania, voters are hungry for a change that will end the current political stand-off and ease the pain caused by President Basescu's draconian spending cuts.
Author: Robert Schwartz / sje
Editor: Joanna Impey
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