Romanians vote in tight presidential election
Bucharest — Romanians voted on Sunday in a tight presidential election seen as a chance to resolve a political crisis that has hindered the recent EU member’s bid to recover from a deep recession.
Twelve candidates are running, but polls have shown the incumbent centre-right President Traian Basescu and his Social Democrat rival Mircea Geoana are likely to face each other in a run-off set for December 6.
The winner will be pressed to name a new prime minister, with the country in the hands of a caretaker government for the last six weeks, a situation that has put reforms eagerly awaited by financial institutions on hold.
It is the first election of a head of state since Romania entered the European Union in January 2007 and comes after the collapse of prime minister Emil Boc’s centre-right government in October.
Basescu, a 58-year-old former sea captain who has been in office since 2004, voted in Bucharest accompanied by his wife and two daughters.
"It is one of the most important polls" in the last 20 years, he told reporters.
He pointed out that Romanians were also voting on a referendum to decide if the number of lawmakers should be reduced from the current 471 to 300, in a unicameral chamber.
Geoana, 51, was an ambassador to the United States in the late 1990s and foreign affairs minister between 2000 and 2004.
He also voted with his wife and children in the capital, and partially in reference to the economic crisis said "after five years of scandals, Romanians have the chance to decide the way to go."
Polls have shown both are likely to garner between 30 and 33 percent of the vote in the first round.
But despite the election’s high stakes, observers were predicting low turnout, with many Romanians seen as disillusioned with politics.
Since the fall of communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu 20 years ago, voter participation has continually declined, from 86 percent in 1990 to 58.93 percent in the last presidential election in 2004.
At 1:00 pm (1100 GMT), six hours after polls opened, participation was 20.96 percent, election officials said.
Geoana has proposed a "vigorous anti-crisis plan" while Basescu has positioned himself as a "fighter" against those "opposed to reforms," including the Social Democrats, whom he accuses of serving their business interests.
There is much work to be done to repair the economy, with Romanian GDP expected to shrink by eight percent in 2009. But the country’s unsettled political situation has done it no favours.
A third installment of a 20-billion-euro (29.7-billion-dollar) aid package by the International Monetary Fund, the EU and the World Bank has been postponed until a new government is formed.
More than 18 million people out of the population of 21.5 million were eligible to vote in more than 21,400 polling stations around the country.
Some 300 have also been opened abroad, especially in Italy and Spain, where there are strong communities of Romanian immigrants.
"I am voting today in the hope that the health and education systems will be improved. I hope that the future president will be able to find ways to get us out of the economic crisis," Rodica Anca Popescu, a pensioner from Bucharest, told AFP.
Polls were due to close at 1900 GMT, with initial exit polls expected shortly afterward. Official results were expected on Monday morning.
Several parties on Sunday made allegations of irregularities in certain districts.
The vote was being observed by monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and several NGOs.
"Despite measures to prevent multiple voting, including monitoring cameras at special polling stations, several interlocutors have raised their concerns that such irregularities may nonetheless occur," the OSCE said last week in its preliminary report.