BUCHAREST, Romania — The third-place candidate in Romania's presidential election threw his support Monday behind the Western-backed socialist who faces the centrist president in a runoff seen as key to the country's emergence from political and economic crisis.
Neither former Foreign Minister Mircea Geoana nor President Traian Basescu took enough of the vote to win outright in a Sunday election. Basescu received 32.5 percent while Geoana won 30.7 percent, election authorities said after about 96 percent of the vote was counted.
Geoana, a former ambassador to Washington, enjoys support among many Western diplomats and officials as the figure who can end weeks of political instability that led to a euro1.5 billion ($2.2 billion) IMF loan being suspended until Romania has a government and a budget for 2010.
Unemployment in Romania, one of Europe's poorest countries, stands at 7.1 percent, up 3 percentage points in the last year. The economy is expected to shrink about 8.5 percent this year.
Basescu says he supports lower taxes and has called for unspecified reforms to modernize Romania. Geoana promises political stability and greater welfare for the poor and retired.
The government collapsed last month amid squabbling between the coalition of the Democratic Liberal party, which supports the president, and Geoana's Social Democrats over the dismissal of the interior minister, who oversees the elections.
The dismissed minister was loyal to Geoana, who said that Basescu wanted a loyalist in the position to cover up possible fraud.
It would be difficult for either man to win the runoff without the support of voters loyal to conservative opposition leader Crin Antonescu, who came in third.
Antonescu, whose Liberals favor lower taxes and support for private business, said at a news conference that the president was a "demagogue and a populist" and vowed to support Geoana, whom he called "the lesser of two evils" in the Dec. 6 runoff.
Geoana immediately agreed to Antonescu's request to name the mayor of the city of Sibiu as prime minister, who has won respect for his managerial skills, if he wins.
The president is key to reviving the government because he nominates a prime minister, who Parliament must then approve and who would be responsible for forming a new coalition. Basescu and Geoana called the election one of the most important votes in Romania since 1989 and the fall of communism.
Romania's Electoral Committee said more than 479,000 people, far more than normal, cast ballots at 3,500 special voting centers that were set up for Romanians who need to vote outside their area of residence because they are traveling.
Witnesses claimed some were being bused there after already having cast ballots elsewhere.
Vadim Zhdanovich, who headed the election observers for the Organization for Security and Cooperation, called the elections "generally fair" but flawed. There has been no serious move for a recount.