BUCHAREST: Romania's new prime minister Mihai Razvan Ungureanu won parliamentary approval on Thursday for a government that offers little political change but might ease some austerity measures as an election nears.
Four days after Emil Boc resigned as premier following weeks of unrest against an IMF-approved regime of spending cuts and tax increases, Ungureanu and the president, Traian Basescu, have nine months at most to reverse the fortunes of the centrist Democrat-Liberal Party (PDL).
Ungureanu, the 43-year-old former foreign intelligence chief to whom Basescu turned to when Boc bowed to popular anger, has reshuffled the cabinet. The ruling coalition remains, with a narrow majority of 237 votes in the 463-seat parliament.
The leftist opposition Social Liberal Alliance (USL), led by Victor Ponta, boycotted the vote. It has been pushing for the parliamentary election to be held earlier than its November deadline to capitalize on its strong showing in opinion polls.
"I ask you not to continue the policies of the previous government," Ponta told Ungureanu in parliament.
The new premier, a technocrat backed by a PDL that is languishing at less than 20 percent support in polls, made clear he would not abandon the austerity drive which has secured an International Monetary Fund bailout but has driven Romanians onto the streets in anger in the depths of winter.
"I don't come before you in these hard times to make unrealistic promises. An era of prosperity will not start tomorrow," he said before the vote. "We have a long way to go."
The advent of a spy chief to run a country mired in poverty and still traumatized by the old communist regime's Securitate secret police has troubled some.
But Ungureanu has raised the possibility of some limited increase in pensions and wages if the economy allows, and some Romanians see hope that the new prime minister, backed by President Basescu, may answer their demands for relief as he tries to rescue the PDL's standing before the election.
"I don't care what secrets he might know from the intelligence service he headed," said Stefan Cojocaru, 47, a mechanic who said he had to sell his car to help support his family after public spending cuts and tax increases in 2010.
"But does the prime minister know the most important thing? That Romanians are suffering? Because that's not a secret. If he doesn't change this then he's no different than anyone before him."
Romania has seen its worst unrest in more than a decade, sometimes erupting into violence between protesters and police.
Demonstrators gathered again on Thursday amid snowdrifts on the capital's University Square and in other cities, calling for the resignation of Basescu, but their numbers have fallen in recent days because of freezing temperatures.
Under Boc, public sector redundancies and wage cuts, as well as a hike in sales tax, helped rebalance the economy. But they bit deep in the European Union's second-poorest state, where the horse-drawn cart is still a common mode of transport in the countryside and some areas have no running water or electricity.
Basescu, whose term expires in 2014, fulfills notionally figurehead duties but has made clear he is a political force to be reckoned with and is keen for the PDL - from which he had formally to resign on becoming head of state - to regain enough ground that he does not have to cohabit with Ponta's USL.
"Your appointment is the strongest signal that the time of change for the political class has come," Basescu told Ungureanu's cabinet after it was sworn in on Thursday.
The USL has committed itself to working with the IMF, but has a track record of clashing with Basescu that could mean policy paralysis if it were to win the forthcoming election.
Financial markets have shrugged off the political tension, as all major parties have promised to work with the IMF. The leu remains close to an all-time low, however.