By Sam Cage and Andreea Birsan
BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Romanians are losing patience with politicians who seem more interested in arguing with each other than addressing problems that beset the European Union's second poorest member.
That may push voters in a parliamentary election that is only five months away towards populist parties or fringe members of mainstream parties who pursue more extreme policies, as it has in Greece or neighboring Hungary.
Victor Ponta, Romania's third prime minister in five months, took power in May and is already under pressure over plagiarism charges. He is keen to present himself as a champion for change.
"We are in the first line of the war with the system that governed Romania in the last years - and it governed Romania through blackmail, threat and calumny," Ponta told his cabinet after the plagiarism accusations in scientific magazine Nature.
Many people also see party leaders as still benefitting from a political system that allowed former communists to retain control while corruption and a climate of impunity flourished. Some MPs and former ministers have been convicted of corruption but many remain free on appeal or with suspended sentences.
While Romanians scrape by on an average wage of 350 euros ($440) a month and do daily battle with bureaucracy and petty officialdom, their leaders enjoy expensive cars, flamboyant villas and generous expense accounts. In country towns, the largest and most ostentatious residence is normally the mayor's.
Last week in particular was a public relations disaster for Ponta's leftist Social Liberal Union (USL). Former Prime Minister Adrian Nastase, who supervised Ponta's disputed doctorate, lost an appeal against a conviction in a separate corruption case then tried to kill himself when police took him to jail.
"When it comes to politics and politicians, my faith in the system is gone. Countless scandals and 22 years of proof that we are dealing with incompetents made me believe that democracy in Romania has failed," said 32-year-old project manager Robert Cojocaru, walking on Bucharest's main avenue Calea Victoriei.
When he took power, Ponta quickly committed to work with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to reassure investors then embarked on a series of confrontational policies.
The government passed a law changing the electoral system, switching to first-past-the-post ballot which analysts say will give the USL an even heftier majority in November's election.
The prime minister is also embroiled in an unseemly row with President Traian Basescu, who influenced the previous government despite his ceremonial role, over who will represent Romania at the Council of Europe. A visibly angry Basescu waved a copy of the constitution as he declaimed Ponta's tactics.
Ponta is trying to make it easier to impeach Basescu, whom he says orchestrated the plagiarism charges because of their argument, and appeared to blame the president for what he says is a politically motivated conviction of Nastase. Basescu's office has declined to comment.
There are early signs that this fighting may be changing results at the ballot box.
Independent Nicusor Dan polled close to 10 percent in Bucharest and populist Dan Diaconescu, whose new party wants steep tax cuts, was third in nationwide local votes this month. A USL mayor won 86 percent, the biggest share of the vote in the country, thanks to his Roma relocation policies.
"The game has changed," said Sergiu Miscoiu of the CESPRI centre for political studies in the city of Cluj.
"We're now in the motions of a populist discourse, fuelled mostly by poverty, disillusionment with the political class and helplessness after austerity," he said.
Ponta's biggest battle may be to hold together the USL - an eclectic political group from across the political spectrum, dominated by his Social Democrat Party (PSD) - that has already shown strains.
"It's going to be a very uncomfortable alliance," said Guy Burrow, a partner at consultancy Candole in Bucharest.
Between these unseemly squabbles, the traditional holiday during Bucharest's scorching summer and campaigning for the November election, there is little time or desire left for important economic reforms.
These include privatizations of Romania's inefficient state industries - listing a hydro power company is already on hold after it declared insolvency - improvements to the outdated and corrupt health system and liberalizing energy prices.
The leu remains near lows - painful for the two-thirds of borrowers who have foreign currency loans - and government borrowing costs are rising. With a struggling economy, Ponta also has to bring the budget gap below 3 percent of gross domestic product to avoid EU penalties.
"I think the fiscal's (economic situation) going to be worse than they think. What are they going to do about that?" said Barclays Capital analyst Daniel Hewitt. "This is (Basescu's) idea - get them in power and let some of the shine come off."
Ponta's PSD is the successor to Nicolae Ceausescu's communists, having taken power after a violent 1989 revolution under Moscow-educated Ion Iliescu, still an influential figure and accused of allowing corruption and a sense of politicians' impunity to flourish.
Romania sought International Monetary Fund (IMF) help in 2009 to shore up its economy, and austerity cuts to public sector wages and raised sales tax hit poorer Romanians hard as well as sharpening the sense of alienation from politicians.
"Nothing interesting will happen in this country until the Ceausescu generation has gone," said Madalin Munteanu, a 27-year-old web designer.
Centre-right Prime Minister Emil Boc brought in the austerity measures and resigned in February after protests. His successor, Mihai Razvan Ungureanu, kept Boc's policies and coalition and left after losing a no-confidence vote last month.
That initially translated into wide support for the USL, which swept local polls in early June but whose authority is now undermined, and the questions over Ponta raise doubts over political stability and hence adherence to its IMF deal.
Ponta, 39 and a keen rally driver, was presented as a change of guard for the party but now has to defend himself against the plagiarism charges and says he will not step down.
"It's possible Ponta (will resign) - it depends on how blatant it is," said Barclay's Hewitt.
But one of his nominations for education minister stepped down due to inaccuracies on her resume, and a second followed after plagiarism charges. The political climate over plagiarism has clearly shifted elsewhere in Europe and similar charges felled Hungary's president and a German defense minister once tipped as a possible successor to Chancellor Angela Merkel.
"He is not credible, neither at home nor abroad," said European MP Monica Macovei, a former justice minister from the opposition Democrat Liberal Party (PDL). "Ponta must resign because we are all ashamed." (Additional reporting by Radu Marinas; Editing by Louise Ireland)