Romanian Elections 248.88 .
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Romanians were voting for a new president on Sunday in an election that could help end a leadership crisis that has threatened an international loan aimed at stopping the country's painful recession.
President Traian Basescu, who represents Romania's political center, has lost some public support during a first five-year term characterized by a stormy relationship with parliament and a deep economic crisis. His main rival is former Foreign Minister Mircea Geoana, who heads the leftist Social Democrats and is head of the Senate.
More than 18 million Romanians are eligible to vote, but none of the dozen candidates is expected to get more than 50 percent in the first round, and polls show Basescu with only a slight lead over his main rival. That means a runoff election is likely on Dec. 6.
Romania slipped into political turmoil when Parliament dismissed the two-party government of Prime Minister Emil Boc on Oct. 13 after a dispute between the coalition partners over control of the Interior Ministry, which oversees the presidential vote.
The Social Democrats said the Liberal Democrats, who are close to Basescu, wanted to run the ministry so they could control the presidential vote and allow election fraud. Parliament then failed to vote on another government, and Boc has run a caretaker government with limited powers since October.
Romania's economy, already in a deep recession, is expected to shrink some 8.5 percent this year. The International Monetary Fund blocked a euro1.5 billion (US$2.22 billion) loan because Romania does not have a government or 2010 budget.
Romania needs the loan to pay state sector salaries and pensions, but is unlikely to get it before the new year. Some 1.3 million state workers will be forced to take eight days of unpaid leave by the end of 2009.
Basescu called it "one of the most important votes we've had," he said before about 100 cheering supporters.
Basescu has also called a separate referendum for Sunday to reduce the number of lawmakers and remove one parliamentary chamber, a move that many see as retaliation for parliament's attempt to impeach him in 2005.
Basescu wants a one-chamber parliament with a maximum of 300 lawmakers, down from the current 471. Critics say a smaller parliament would lead to the president having too much power, and harm democracy.
Opposition leader Geoana cast his ballot, and urged state instiutions to report fraud.
The election is "the most important we've had since we've had democracy," with the fall of communism in 1989, he said. He said the president Romanians elected in 2009 and the referendum would affect the course of the country for the next 20 years.
Basescu, 58, styles himself a patriot with a deep respect for Romanian traditions and awareness of the concerns of average voters. Though the former ship captain has seen his popularity drop this year due to the economic downturn and political feuding, he still enjoys wide support, especially in rural areas.
He takes credit for raising Romania's international profile by leading into the European Union on Jan. 1, 2007, and hosting a major NATO summit in 2008 - the high point of his presidency.
However, he is blamed by his critics for stirring political unrest and associating with allegedly corrupt business people. He survived as president after Romanians voted not to remove him from office in a referendum.
Geoana, 51, who served as Romania's ambassador to the U.S. and then as foreign minister, lacks Basescu's popular appeal but is seen as a clever negotiator in Romanian politics. His Social Democratic Party, the successor to the Communist Party that ruled Romania for more than 40 years, has a strong grass-roots organization in both rural areas and cities.
Recent opinion polls have given Basescu about one-third of the vote, a slight edge over Geoana. A third candidate, who has made strides in recent weeks, is Liberal Party leader Crin Antonescu, a skillful debater.
More than 1,000 Romanian and foreign observers will monitor the elections amid concerns that voter fraud would be hard to detect because the presidential ballot and the referendum are taking place at the same time.
Polls opened at 7 a.m. (0500 GMT) and will close at 9 p.m. (1900 GMT).