By Luiza Ilie
BUCHAREST (Reuters) - When Nicusor Dan, a quiet mathematician with almost no political experience, addresses voters ahead of Romania's Dec. 11 parliamentary election, he makes no promises of public sector wage hikes or grand infrastructure works.
In a country where populist rhetoric during election campaigns is the norm, that may be a risky strategy. But Dan, 46, has succeeded in building a political party in under six months which may hold the balance of power after the election.
Promising an overhaul of public services, the former civic activist appears to have attracted younger, educated voters tired of unfinished reforms, graft and cronyism rife in Romania since the fall of communism in 1989.
"There is a (group) of people aware of the damage inflicted by the former political class and they are instinctively coming to the USR," Dan said, speaking from his tiny party headquarters in an apartment building.
Surveys show his Save Romania Union (USR) winning between eight and 19 percent of votes, potentially enough to build a center-right coalition anchored around outgoing technocrat Prime Minister Dacian Ciolos, and defeat leftists now in the lead.
But the fresh nature of the USR can also be a weakness.
"The USR's qualities stem from ... the lack of image problems, its association with anti-corruption and protecting patrimony," said Sergiu Miscoiu, associate professor of political science at Babes-Bolyai University in Cluj.
"Its main flaws are its all but total absence from villages, the fact its leaders are little known and a perception of its intellectual elitist superiority and the lack of a unifying ideology."
While the leftist Social Democrats (PSD) top opinion polls with roughly 40 percent of public support, without an outright majority they may lose its chance to form a government if a stronger coalition emerges. The main center-right grouping, the PNL, scores some 18-27 percent in opinion polls.
International economists warn a PSD government, which has tapped into mounting public anger over austerity introduced in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis, could cause friction with the European Union over budget spending.
Dan, who holds a doctorate in mathematics from a French university, shot into the spotlight as a campaigner to preserve historic buildings and green spaces in Bucharest, after winning dozens of lawsuits against officials and property developers.
Once a quietly elegant capital, with tree-lined boulevards and discreet villas designed by progressive Modernist architects in the 1920s and 30s, the city is now riddled with free-for-all construction.
Many buildings fail to meet fire and other regulations, with the blame put often on corruption in local administration.
Among them, a nightclub caught fire a year ago, killing 64 people, because it was filled beyond capacity, lacked emergency exits and fire safety permits.
The fire triggered some of Romania's biggest protests in years against corruption, lack of accountability and a politicized public administration and led to the collapse of the leftist government.
A caretaker cabinet of technocrats installed afterwards for one year has had some success in improving public transparency but many Romanians feel corruption and neglect still undermine prospects for meaningful improvement.
"I will vote for the young people, those willing to do something to keep us in the country and offer us as many possibilities to work and raise families here," said Sorina Stuparu, a Bucharest doctor.
(Editing by Justyna Pawlak and Ralph Boulton)