Romanians are going to the polls in a tight presidential election amid skepticism that it will resolve months of political crisis, stalled reforms and persuade international lenders to resume aid.
Campaign posters in Bucharest, Romania's capital
Pre-election surveys showed centrist President Traian Basescu of the Democratic Liberal Party (PDL) leading slightly with 33 percent approval. He is seeking a second term. His main rival and former foreign minister, Mircea Geoana of the opposition ex-communist Social Democrats (PSD), follows with 30 percent. Crin Antonescu, who is the head of the National Liberal Party (PNL) was polled at a 18 percent approval rating, just ahead of the vote.
In total, 12 candidates are running in the election. If no one wins an absolute majority, a second presidential round is to be held on December 6. Analysts say the winner could play a key role in finding a new prime minister to overhaul Romania's debt-laden public finances and tackle corruption.
EU member Romania - poor and corruption-prone
Traian Basescu is seeking a second term
Romania, which has a population of 22 million and has been an EU member state since 2007, rid itself of Communist rule under dictator Nicolae Ceausescu two decades ago. It remains one of Europe's poorest countries and ranks as one of the continent's most corruption-prone countries, according to Transparency International. Basescu swept into office in 2004 on promises to make reforms but analysts say slow progress has eroded voter confidence.
Late last year, the Basescu-allied Democratic Liberals and Social Democrats formed a coalition government. But it did not last long as the global economic crisis robbed Romania of nine years of economic growth and left it with one of Europe's deepest recessions. The monthly average salary is only 320 euros. Registered unemployment stands at 6.6 percent.
Mircea Geoana, head of Romania's opposition Social Democrats
Further feuding led last month to the collapse of a replacement minority government, leaving center-right prime minister and Basescu ally Emil Boc only as a caretaker premier and Romania without a draft budget for 2010.
Two alternative politicians nominated by Basescu for the post of premier were blocked by parliament's majority Social Democrat-led opposition.
Crisis holding up IMF aid
Analysts say whoever wins the presidential race will face the task of winning back the trust of potential investors and international lenders, such as the International Monetary Fund, which recently froze funding for intended loans. Third-placed Antonescu has demanded that Romania's past deal with the IMF be renegotiated.
A parliamentarian from Romania's German minority community, Ovidiu Gant, told Deutsche Welle that young voters, especially, who are turned off by watching politicians' wrangling on television, are dubious about voting. Reforms will take a lot of patience, he said.
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Journalist Costi Rogozanu said while established parties would mobilize about 30 percent of voters, many other disenchanted Romanians display little direct interest. In last year's parliamentary election hardly 40 percent of eligible voters participated.
And, Jon Levy of the Eurasia Group think tank told Reuters that international investors are nervous to see whether Sunday's presidential election will result in a viable government and budget.
In a parallel referendum on Sunday, 18 million Romanian voters can also decide on whether to down-size the Romanian parliament.
Romania borders the Black Sea and counts Hungary, Serbia and Bulgaria and Moldova among its neighbors. Its population includes 25 ethnic groups, with six percent of Hungarian and 2.5 percent of Roma descent.
Editor: Rick Demarest