By Mihaela Rodina (AFP)
BUCHAREST — Both candidates in Romania's presidential run-off vote claimed victory on Sunday, although most exit polls put Social-Democrat Mircea Geoana ahead of incumbent Traian Basescu.
Romanians went to the ballot box hoping for an end to a political standoff that has held up crucial international aid for the recession-wracked European Union member.
"Our victory, my victory is a victory for all Romanians who want a better life," Geoana said in a speech to supporters just after polling stations closed.
But Basescu insisted he was the winner, telling his supporters: "I have won. I assure you that the correct polls show that I have beaten Mircea Geoana."
Initial exit polls carried out by the Insomar institute put Geoana's victory at 51.6 percent while another poll by the Curs institute showed Geoana with 50.8 percent.
But later polls for Insomar gave Geoana a narrower 51.2 percent and a CSOP poll even gave Basescu victory with 50.4 percent.
The first official results are not expected before Monday 06H00 GMT.
Romania's farmers hope new president will end rural neglect
Basescu claimed that the vote of tens of thousands of Romanians living abroad could change the results and called on his supporters to remain "calm" until final results are released.
Geoana called on Basescu to overcome "this moment of bitterness" in order to ease the transfer of power.
Basescu, a former sea captain promising tough state reforms, and Geoana, an ex-diplomat who pledged to maintain jobs and "reunite Romania" after years of political squabbling finished almost neck-and-neck in the first round of voting two weeks ago, with Basescu winning 32.4 percent of ballots and Geoana 31 percent.
But Geoana won the support of the PNL liberal party, Romania's third main political force.
Turnout was 57 percent, slightly higher than the first round's 54 percent, for a poll that had been billed as the most important since the fall of Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu 20 years ago.
Florica Marinescu, a Bucharest pensioner, said she voted in the hope that "someone new will emerge in five years' time because we are fed up with always seeing the same politicians".
But in the countryside, people were more worried about their day-to-day life.
"We are still using mules to plough the land, its unbelievable," said 63-year-old Valentin Ghetea in Udeni, a town 30 kilometres (19 miles) west of Bucharest.
"Life has always been like that. People who are born in the countryside have fewer chances to succeed than those born in the city," said Dumitru, 52, a farmer who added he was pessimistic about the future.
Whoever wins will have no time to lose in appointing a prime minister, with Romania stuck in one of the European Union's worst recessions. The country has been led by a caretaker government since October.
The International Monetary Fund, the European Union and the World Bank, which in March agreed on a 20-billion-euro bailout plan, expect immediate steps to cut public spending after the economy shrank by 7.4 percent in the first nine months of 2009.
Geoana said on Sunday that he would keep his promise of a new government before the end of the year, to be led by independent Klaus Iohannis, an ethnic German who is mayor of the Transylvanian town of Sibiu.
His government would be able to count on the support of a majority of the parties in parliament.