BUCHAREST, Romania — On the surface, the presidential election on Sunday is a contest between two political veterans who agree on most of the important issues, from battling endemic corruption to continuing Romania’s fervent embrace of the European Union and the United States.
The real battle, political analysts believe, is over who can convince the voters that he can be trusted to follow through, rather than mimicking neighboring Hungary by weakening democratic institutions, hobbling independent watchdogs and centralizing power around a single party.
“I do not like to criticize one of my neighbors, but I can assure that I am a social democrat,” said Victor Ponta, the 42-year-old, left-leaning prime minister who won the largest number of votes in the first round of voting two weeks ago. “I am a pro-European and a pro-American prime minister, so Romania will be on this path in the future.”
His opponent, Klaus Johannis, the right-leaning mayor of the Transylvanian city of Sibiu, is just as vociferous.
“My orientation is West,” said Mr. Johannis, 55. “What is happening in Hungary now, that is not democracy going in the right direction.”
Certainly, no Romanian leader is likely to compare himself to Hungary’s political strongman, Viktor Orban. The two countries have a fractious relationship, driven by tensions over Romania’s sizable Hungarian ethnic minority. Neither is a Romanian politician likely, as Mr. Orban has done, to advocate closer ties with Russia, which remains hugely unpopular here.
But many political analysts — and Mr. Johannis— wonder whether Mr. Ponta, despite his disclaimers, might increase government control of formerly independent institutions, like the courts, built around an aggressive brand of nationalistic populism.
“I don’t trust him,” Mr. Johannis said flatly. “I just don’t trust him, especially when it comes to the administration of justice and the status of the law.”
Mr. Ponta says such mistrust is misplaced, and blames political opponents for trying to blemish his reputation with the European Union in Brussels, and in Washington.
“It is just a lie,” he said. “It is a campaign trick.”
Mr. Ponta led a field of 14 candidates in the first round of voting on Nov. 2 with 40 percent, drawing most of his support from rural areas in eastern and southern Romania, but also winning Bucharest, the capital. Mr. Johannis, whose support was largely in the more prosperous Transylvanian region in the west, was second with 30 percent.
For a decade, one of the central political battles in Romania has been over the establishment of independent prosecutors capable of uprooting corruption, said Sorin Ionita, chairman of the Expert Forum, a public policy research group in Bucharest. More than 1,000 public officials, including former Prime Minister Adrian Nastase, one of Mr. Ponta’s mentors, have been convicted of corruption in recent years.
Mr. Ponta vows to continue the anticorruption campaign, which he credits with helping Romania overcome its budget deficit by cracking down on tax cheats. But analysts worry that, despite his promises, he will slowly chip away at the system.
“They don’t need to do it right away,” Mr. Ionita said. The first order of business will be to reassure Brussels and Washington, he said, and hope that international pressure eases.
“Then, appointing chief prosecutors who are less independent, a few at a time, you can slowly erode the effectiveness of the institutions,” Mr. Ionita said.
Mr. Ponta’s political orientation is neither East nor West, said Adrian Moraru, deputy director at the Institute for Public Policy in Bucharest, and recent overtures the prime minister has made toward China may be calculated simply to keep his options open with Brussels.
“He is a pragmatist,” Mr. Moraru said. “If he ever has his back to the wall and needs to turn to China or Russia, I don’t think he will have a second thought.”
But while analysts worry that Mr. Ponta will lead Romania along a less transparent path, they stop short of comparing him to Mr. Orban.
“Orban is an ideologue,” said Cristian Ghinea, director of the Romanian Center for European Policies. “He is convinced that liberal democracy is hurting Hungary, and when he is criticized by Brussels, he is happy. Ponta is not like that. He is opportunistic. He grabs as much power as he can and, when he meets resistance, he stops.”
The crucial question for Romania, should Mr. Ponta win on Sunday, as widely expected, will be whether the West continues to put pressure on him to maintain the independence of the courts and continue to pursue corrupt officials, Mr. Ghinea said.
Otherwise, the temptation to copy Mr. Orban’s model may be too much to resist, analysts say.
“That has been a very good lesson for everyone in the region,” Mr. Ionita said. “This drift toward a weaker democracy. They see Mr. Orban as a pioneer who got away with it.”
The question worrying Europe and Washington is whether other incipient authoritarians will mimic Mr. Orban.
“We see a decrease in the quality of democracy in the entire region,” Mr. Ghinea said. “And I think Hungary and Romania are the main challenges to the core values of the European Union in this region.”