By Radu Marinas
SCHITU, Romania, Nov 17 (Reuters) - Romania's presidential election may decide whether the European Union's second poorest state will embark on real reforms and could shake up a political class whose bickering has stalled progress and hurt the economy.
If opinion polls prove correct, tough-talking incumbent Traian Basescu will get another try at building political support for combating pervasive corruption and fraud when Romanians go to the polls in a first round on Sunday.
But to succeed, the former sea captain may have to change his confrontational governing style that has alienated politicians across the spectrum during his five-year mandate.
After sweeping into power in 2004 on a promise to reform a democracy steeped in interest-based politics, Basescu has seen his public support crumble to around 35 percent, from 50 percent at its peak, as voters grew angry over slow progress.
A foreign shipping official under communism and former Bucharest mayor, Basescu stormed onto the national scene as a hard-talking opposition figure who promised to jail 'big fish' politicians suspected of enriching themselves through graft.
But corruption is still widespread three years after the country of 22 million joined the European Union, and parliament is actively blocking efforts to investigate senior politicians.
Some commentators warn Basescu's main election rivals, leftist Mircea Geoana and centrist Crin Antonescu offer few convincing solutions to political reform.
Geoana, who heads the ex-communist Social Democrat Party mired in sleaze scandals, is trailing Basescu in close second, winning voters' hearts by promising social protection in the face of a deep economic contraction.
'Basescu's popularity is down (in part due to his) lack of social skills. He is perceived as a troublemaker,' said Laura Stefan of the Romanian Academic Society.
'But in all honesty I believe his line you can't do reforms without kicking and screaming.'
Analysts hope the winner of the election, likely to be chosen in a Dec. 6 runoff if someone does not win 50 percent of the vote, can name a new head of government and end a political crisis that began when opposition parties ousted the Basescu-allied Democrat-Liberal cabinet in October.
The political standoff, stemming from inter-party conflict during Basescu's rule that toppled two of his cabinets, has stalled reforms and delayed payments of aid from Romania's 20 billion-euro, International Monetary Fund-led rescue package.
Coming off 7.1 percent growth in 2008, the economy is now expecting a drop of up to 8 percent this year.
Graft is a major problem. Romania was ranked at the bottom of the EU on corruption perceptions by Transparency International in 2009, along with Bulgaria and Greece.
'I feel cheated. I've seen only unfulfiled promises,' said Dumitra Chivulescu, a 76-year-old farmer in Schitu, a muddy farming village 80 km south of Bucharest.
Basescu hopes to address the issue with a referendum tacked on to the Nov. 22 first round by taking on what he says is the biggest roadblock -- elected officials hampering policy-making.
If passed, it would eliminate one of parliament's two chambers, which he says could break a struggle in the ruling elite over money and influence and jumpstart stalled reforms.
But commentators also say it can fan distrust in politicians and fuel voter apathy, giving politicians a free run. Low turnout could scupper the plebiscite, which needs at least 50 percent of voters to take part to be valid.
'Young people are deeply disillusioned,' said Bruno Stefan, of pollster BCS. 'Romania has managed to remain a state where (ex-)communist cliques seem to control the economy. It would be probably too optimistic to see turnout exceeding 40 percent.'
Since taking power, 58-year-old Basescu has endorsed criminal probes against top officials, including former premier Adrian Nastase and other ministers.
But some say he was doomed to fail. Opposition parties have blocked prosecutors' efforts to investigate top officials and tried to impeach Basescu in 2007, saying he was abusing power.
He has been praised for condemning communism, and he opened the files of the feared communist-era Securitate secret police in an effort to clean up the political classes.
But he is no stranger to scandal. Opponents have criticised him for racial slurs and insults against journalists, as well as nepotism after his daughter rose quickly through the political class to become an EU parliamentarian.
He was filmed driving after drinking alcohol, and, under pressure from media, asked his brother Mircea to give up his shareholder position in a military hardware firm after reports said it was seeking state contracts.
'Basescu has been seen as a strong father figure,' said Alina Inayeh, director of the Black Sea Trust for Regional Cooperation. 'But I don't think he's perceived as a good father anymore. The fact is that he refuses to answer legitimate questions in the end, which has shaken his image.'
For his opponents, Antonescu's Liberal Party has warred with Romania's European Commission-backed anti-graft prosecutor and Geoana suggests cutting red tape is the best way to fight corruption, which analysts say may signal a softer approach.
But Basescu's patchy record remains the linchpin of the election, analysts say. He has polarised Romanian society after thousands put their hope in him for genuine reforms.
'Basescu has been too tough,' said Ioan Panait, an 81-year-old farmer in Schitu. 'I don't want to say he has been a dictator, but we need a reconciler.'
(Writing by Justyna Pawlak; Editing by Michael Winfrey and Sonya Hepinstall)