BUCHAREST - Romania's Prime Minister Victor Ponta looked set Monday for a closer-than-expected victory in the first round of the presidential election despite fears he could reverse reforms aimed at tackling rampant corruption in one of Europe's poorest countries.
The first official results showed Ponta taking 37.5 per cent of the vote with close to a fifth of ballots counted.
"I am delighted that so many Romanians have voiced confidence in my programme which aims at developing Romania and ending discord," Ponta said.
But the race is tighter than expected, with his main rival, 55-year-old liberal Klaus Iohannis from the German-speaking minority, on 30.3 per cent.
The vote is seen as a crucial test for the former communist country at a time when democracy has suffered setbacks in some neighbouring states such as Hungary, and as the Ukraine crisis has shaken relations between the European Union and Russia.
Romania's election campaign has been marred by scandal, with numerous corruption probes including some aimed at allies of the prime minister, and a settling of scores between Ponta and his long-standing rival President Traian Basescu.
The popular centre-right Basescu, who has accused Ponta of being a former spy, cannot run for a third term. He and Ponta have shared two stormy years at the top of Romanian politics.
Ponta is likely to face Iohannis in a November 16 runoff.
"I voted for a Romania of good work," said Iohannis on Sunday.
Whoever takes over the presidency will face a number of pressing issues, including recession and persistent accusations of corruption and bad governance.
Romania's head of state is responsible for foreign policy and top-level appointments such as prosecutors in the second poorest EU country after Bulgaria.
"I think these elections can be a maturity test for Romania," said Corina Rebegea from the Centre for European Policy Analysis in Washington.
The country needs "a president who can imprint a clear sense of vision about how we continue to build a democratic system of governance and rule of law, and prove that 25 years of transition are worth something."
Justice in danger?
Despite progress in reforming the justice system - which has even seen a former minister jailed for corruption - many fear a backlash is coming.
Although Ponta, 42, has vowed to keep the justice system independent, his frequent accusations that the prosecution authority known as DNA is biased has stirred trouble.
On what was dubbed "Black Tuesday" in December last year, Ponta's government passed a series of new laws granting immunity to elected officials.
The changes were ultimately blocked but the episode served as a wake-up call to Ponta's critics.
"Fighting corruption is important, but it has to lead to the confiscation of assets of people who are convicted. Nothing is being done against tax evasion," said 70-year-old retired engineer Ileana Diamantopol.
Quick reforms needed
Experts hope increased surveillance from Brussels will be a safeguard against any regression.
After two paralysing years of cohabitation, Romania needs to carry out reforms quickly, particularly in public administration.
The recession-hit economy is also desperately in need of a boost in a country where the average monthly salary is 380 euros (S$610) and more than a fifth of under-25s are unemployed.
"I hope the next president will work to give young people a chance, and to boost small businesses which are the ones carrying the heaviest burden - taxes are too much," Elena Pascu, a 57-year-old accountant voting in the centre of Bucharest, told AFP.
Foreign investment has dropped in the past five quarters, mainly due to Romania's chronic incapacity to manage investment programmes or correctly use European funds, said Gabor Hunya of the Vienna Institute for International Economic Studies.
Economic growth is expected to slow to 2.2 per cent this year from 3.5 per cent in 2013, according to government forecasts.
The turnout as of Sunday afternoon was 35 per cent, marginally higher than at the same time in the 2009 election.