Romanian Prime Minister Adrian Nastase and his left-wing party faced a tough challenge from the centrist opposition in presidential and parliamentary elections yesterday.
Polls opened at 7am and were scheduled to close at 9pm, with official results expected by Tuesday. Nearly 18 million people were eligible to vote.
The 54-year-old Nastase heads the ruling Social Democratic Party, seen by many to be the successor to the Communist Party.
Despite being regarded as the embodiment of the country's communist past, Nastase says he's the best candidate to take Romania into the European Union because he has personal ties to foreign leaders and has helped lead the country during four years of economic growth.
"I voted today for a very simple idea -- a Romania without poverty. The rest is just details," said Nastase after voting.
His main challenger is Bucharest mayor Traian Basescu, an inexperienced but outspoken and popular politician who rose to national fame by launching scathing attacks against the ruling party, which he accuses of fostering corruption and damaging democracy.
Basescu, a former ship's captain, promises a Western-leaning future and has vowed to take Romania into the EU "with dignity," by implementing needed reforms to ready the country for membership.
He also says Romania should continue to fight alongside the US against terrorism and in Iraq, where Romania has about 700 soldiers.
Romania hopes to join the EU by 2007, but has been told to clean up endemic corruption and improve press freedom. The government has tight control over most television media, as stations owe millions of dollars in unpaid tax debts and depend on government handouts for survival.
"The Alliance will take Romania out of the hands of the Mafia [that runs the country] and place it in the hands of Romanians," said Basescu in English after voting. He said if elected president he would be a "strong president who loves his people."
In the capital, a retiree said he voted for the ruling party and Nastase.
"At the moment in my opinion they are the most solid political option," said Paul Cocoveanu, 73.
Another senior said she had voted for change. "I've voted for the Alliance because they seem more credible," said Maria Timotin, 60.
Ten other candidates are running for the presidency, but are not credited by polls with real chances of success.
A first round winner is unlikely because a candidate would need to secure more than 50 percent of the vote. A runoff is expected Dec. 12.
The winner will replace President Ion Iliescu, who is stepping down after serving three terms. He will run as a Senate candidate for the ruling party.
Running third in the presidential race is nationalist leader Corneliu Vadim Tudor, a poet-turned-politician. Polls give him about 13 percent of the vote, far less than Nastase and Basescu, who have 35 to 40 percent.
Tudor abandoned his usual nationalist rhetoric and ran on a virulent anti-corruption message, promising to arrest "the entire mafia" in 48 hours after coming to power.
He is not expected to repeat his 2000 election performance, when he came in second, but Tudor could have a potentially decisive influence in a possible runoff between Nastase and Basescu.
In the parliamentary races, 314 seats in the Deputies Chamber and 134 seats in the Senate will be allocated proportionally to parties that win more than 5 percent of the vote, the ceiling for entering Parliament.