BUCHAREST, Romania — 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 (EURO)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 – whom he recently called "a pig," `'a compulsive liar" and a "little cat."
Diaconescu is frequently dismissed by mainstream politicians as an unsophisticated arriviste from the backward south, whose marathon talk shows on his OTV channel – with the slogan "Live Sensationally" – made him a star. But he has taken votes from both Basescu and Ponta, and will likely be a pivotal voice in the new Parliament. Basescu's allies are expected to rely on him for support.
He has earned admiration from everyday people as a sort of Romanian Oprah Winfrey, a man from a modest background who made good and hasn't forgotten his roots. Though he drives a luxury car, he has never fixed his crooked teeth and is very quiet about his personal life and assets.
"I like Diaconescu because he is pleasant and respectful to everyone whatever their class," said Lucia Popescu, who works as a security guard in Bucharest. "He thinks before he speaks, he is gentle and people have had enough of mudslinging all day long, on the TV and in the newspapers."
In a country where corruption is virtually a way of life, Diaconescu has not been immune to such allegations himself. Ponta accused Diaconescu of being a con man over his failed attempt to buy a chemical plant for (EURO)45 million ($59 million), saying the entrepreneur never had the money and that it was just a pre-election publicity stunt.
Diaconescu himself is under investigation for two fraud-related cases, for allegedly trying to blackmail a mayor to stop him airing damaging information, and for fraud in the chemical plant deal. He claims the charges were trumped up – and calls himself an outsider who understands business better than many in government.
Diaconescu, whose campaign is awash with his "lucky" color purple, promises to slash sales tax from 24 to 10 percent, create thousands of jobs and give (EURO)20,000 ($26,000) to budding entrepreneurs. He told the AP he would find the funds from public money that is currently siphoned off by corrupt officials.
"We believe that if this money is no longer stolen by our new political class, Romania would have 40 percent more, and here I' m talking about wages or pensions," he said.
His populist party, which was only created two years ago, is polling 15 percent, trailing just behind Basescu's allies, the Just Romania Alliance, a new grouping of center-right parties.
They are unpopular for past austerity measures and perceived cronyism.
"We work 15 hours a day for 1,000 lei ((EURO)225) a month, is that normal?" said Ioana Stoian, a 27-year-old vendor, wrapping a sweet cheese pastry. "Diaconescu will do something. They (politicians) do nothing apart from steal and fill their pockets."
But some wonder whether he can be anything more than a protest candidate.
Diaconescu's party emerged "due to the disappointment of the electorate and Romanian society toward unfulfilled promises made by President Basescu and governments," said Stelian Tanase. But he predicted the party might not have the staying power to last.