Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Romanian president, rival face run-off vote: polls


By Mihaela Rodina (AFP)

BUCHAREST — Romania's incumbent president and his Social-Democrat rival will face a run-off after Sunday's first round election, exit polls showed, as the country aims to recover from a political crisis and a deep recession.

Centre-right President Traian Basescu and his main rival Mircea Geoana were the two top vote-getters in Sunday's vote, two exit polls showed, putting them in line for a second round of the presidential election on December 6.

Basescu is in the lead with 33.72 percent of votes cast, according to an exit poll by the CURS Institute for public television, followed by Geoana with 31.44 percent.

Another exit poll by the Insomar Institute for a private television station, Realitatea, put Basescu at 32.8 percent and Geoana at 31.7 percent.

The winner of the run-off will be pressed to name a new prime minister, with Romania in the hands of a caretaker government for the last six weeks -- a situation that has put on hold reforms eagerly awaited by financial institutions.

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.

Official results were expected on Monday morning.

Basescu, a 58-year-old former sea captain who has been in office since 2004, said late Sunday after the exit poll results that a run-off was a "stage victory" for his right-wing politics.

"Today, I achieved a stage victory," he told supporters. He added that it was "a significant vote for the right" and that the politicians "need to take into account the opinion of the Romanian electorate in forming a government."

Geoana, 51, was an ambassador to the United States in the late 1990s and foreign affairs minister between 2000 and 2004.

He told supporters after the polls closed: "On December 6 we will win together. It is then the hardest work will begin: we need to unit the country after five years of scandals and discord."

Voter turnout stood at 53.52 percent, higher than expected, according to figures released by the national electoral commission late Sunday.

Since the fall of communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu 20 years ago, voter participation has however continually declined, from 86 percent in 1990 to 58.93 percent in the last presidential election in 2004.

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.

In third place in the first round vote was liberal candidate Crin Antonescu with around 21 percent, according to the exit polls.

"The question now is where will the liberal voters go," said political analyst Emil Hurezeanu on private television channel Realitatea TV, while another analyst Stelian Tanase predicted the run-off would amount to a vote for or against Basescu.

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.

"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.

Several parties on Sunday made allegations of irregularities in certain districts.

The vote was being observed by monitors from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and several non-governmental organisations.

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