By ALISON MUTLER
BUCHAREST, Romania (AP) â¿¿ Media tycoon Dan Diaconescu drives a white Rolls Royce, looks like a used car salesman in his shiny mauve jacket, promises to create thousands of jobs and has emerged as a key player in Romania's bitterly contested parliamentary election.
The owner of two television stations, Diaconescu's populist party is running third in Sunday's vote, according to polls. The gray-haired, multimillionaire talk show host from Romania's disenfranchised south appears to be tapping into widespread discontent with traditional political parties seen as arrogant, sniping and corrupt.
"People cling to me like I'm their only hope," the lanky 44-year-old said in an interview with The Associated Press this week, after driving six hours from the poor mining town of Targu Jiu, where he is running for a seat in Parliament. "They say I'm the one who'll save them from poverty, they ascribe to me qualities that I don t really have, or they consider me some sort of Messiah, a savior of Romania."
Even by Romanian standards, politics have been tumultuous this year. The impoverished Balkan nation has seen three prime ministers and Cabinets, huge anti-austerity protests, and a government criticized by the European Union and the United States for failing to respect the rule of law during a failed bid to impeach President Traian Basescu.
Many in the country of 19 million are fed up with a bitterly personal power struggle between Basescu and Prime Minister Victor Ponta, especially as the country remains one of the poorest and most corrupt members of the EU, and endures deep austerity cuts in return for a â¿¬20-million ($26-million) bailout to help its foundering economy.
Polls give Ponta's center-left governing coalition a comfortable 57 percent of the vote. But a fresh political crisis could break out after the election if, as threatened, the center-right Basescu refuses to nominate Ponta â¿¿ whom he recently called "a pig," ''a compulsive liar" and a "little cat."