Romania's opposition Social Democrats are set for victory in the country's parliamentary elections, though without an absolute majority, according to exit polls.
Romania's Social Democrats are expected to get the most votes
The Social Democrats were ahead with about 36 percent of the vote, according to polls by two institutes. The opposition right-wing Liberal Democrats, close to President Traian Basescu, were second with around 30 percent.
Prime Minister Calin Tariceanu's ruling Liberals finished as expected in third place with both institutes giving them just over 20 percent.
"The Social Democrats won the elections and will lead the next government," party leader Mircea Geoana said after the exit polls were published. "There is no reason to ignore the voters' will, which was clearly expressed."
He also invited "all the political parties and President Traian Basescu to an open dialogue" over the formation of the new government.
But with no party expected to win an outright majority, the next governing coalition for the EU and NATO member nation is hard to predict.
Dire times ahead
Romanian President Traian Basescu
Whoever ends up governing the country of 21 million has to confront fallout from the global economic crisis, which will slash Romania's expansion next year after an eight-year economic boom.
Romania is forecast to post growth of about 9 percent this year, the EU's highest. But signs of trouble are growing in the south-east European nation between the Danube and the Black Sea.
Foreign companies like carmaker Renault SA and steel giant ArcelorMittal, attracted to Romania by low wages and taxes, are closing plants.
The government estimates that the world crisis will cost 30,000 jobs in Romania by the end of the year.
Economists from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank visited Romania in early November to discuss the country's financial stability.
No bail-out needed?
Orthodox nuns as they cast their votes Sunday
At the time, Basescu and the central bank insisted that Romania would not need a bail-out like neighbouring Hungary, which the IMF and the EU saved from possible default with emergency loans in October.
Under IMF pressure to watch the nation's finances, Tariceanu's government postponed until April a 50-percent pay hike for teachers planned for October.
Romania's central bank has lowered its 2009 economic growth forecast to 4.6 percent from 6 percent, and some economists believe the figure will be even lower as exports -- mainly to richer
European countries -- and credit falter.
Corruption has been a near-constant theme with voters since Romania emerged into democracy after the Dec. 25, 1989, execution of communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.
Despite pressure from EU officials in Brussels, Romania has struggled to investigate graft allegations against senior politicians, leading to public cynicism.
In a prominent case, parliament in August voted against allowing the prosecution of former prime minister Adrian Nastase, a leading PSD politician, on charges brought by anti-corruption prosecutors.
A July report by the European Commission, the EU's executive arm, said "Romania can show few tangible results in its fight against high-level corruption" and that "decisions on corruption are highly politicized.