BUCHAREST, Romania — Both candidates claimed victory in Romania’s presidential runoff Sunday, leaving the outcome uncertain in an election Romanians hope can pull the country out of its worst political and economic crisis in 20 years.
Three exit polls showed the country’s left-leaning ex-foreign minister Mircea Geoana appearing to lead incumbent Traian Basescu by a slim margin following a bitter race marked by allegations of corruption.
Geoana, an ex-foreign minister and leader of the Social Democrats who has branded himself a unifier and team builder, declared himself the winner, calling the results of the exit polls “a victory for normalcy, a victory for decency, for all citizens who want a better life.”
But Basescu claimed the exit polls were deceptive.
“You will see the manipulations on the television stations . . . Today you can trust me fully when I tell you I won,” he said.
The first official vote tallies were expected Monday.
The Insomar opinion poll put Geoana at 51.6 per cent of the vote and Basescu at 49.8 per cent, with a margin of error of 1.5 per cent. The Company for Research and Sociological Branding said Geoana won 51.6 per cent to Basescu’s 48.4 per cent. The CURS exit poll had Geoana with 50.8 per cent and Basescu with 49.2 per cent. No margins of error were available for those polls.
The Democratic Liberal party, which supports Basescu, claimed it had poll results showing him at 50.7 per cent, to Geoana’s 49.3 per cent.
Both Basescu and Geoana urged calm amid reports there would be protests in the capital of Bucharest.
Turnout was high at about 57 per cent for a vote seen as crucial to Romania. The first round of elections on Nov. 22 was marred by allegations of multiple voting and votes being bought. There were similar reports Sunday.
The country is facing skyrocketing unemployment and a limping government since the ruling coalition fell apart two months ago amid party squabbling.
“We conclude 20 years since the end of communism. Today we end the transition. Starting from tomorrow we will go firmly toward Europe,” Geoana said. “We are committed to put an end to political crisis and in a few days we will have a government . . . with an authentic plan to fight against the economic crisis.”
Romania is seeking to unlock a C1.5 billion ($2 billion) International Monetary Fund bailout loan to pull it out of its deep recession but is unlikely to get one this year due to its political instability.
Geoana, 51, who served as Romania’s ambassador to the U.S. and then as foreign minister, heads the Social Democratic Party, the successor to the Communist Party that ruled for more than 40 years until the 1989 anti-communist revolt.
He styles himself as a modern Social Democrat, with former U.S. President Bill Clinton and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair his political role models. He lacks Basescu’s popular appeal but is seen as a clever negotiator.
Geoana polled slightly lower than Basescu in the first round but was ahead in the most recent opinion poll after getting support from conservative rival Crin Antonescu, who won 20 per cent of the vote in the first round of the presidential race.
Basescu’s image was also damaged after a video appeared of him appearing to punch a 10-year-old boy during an election rally in 2004.
Geoana claimed in a Friday interview with The Associated Press that Basescu has fomented political instability and used Romania’s secret services to monitor his opponents.
Basescu, 58, had seen his popularity drop this year due to the economic downturn and political feuding, but still enjoys support, especially in rural areas and among the working class. He is a formidable fighter, feuding bitterly with all the political parties in recent years except for the Liberal Democrats he used to lead.
He argues he will modernize and reform Romania, saying much of the economy is under the control of corrupt oligarchs and media moguls with whom he links Geoana, a charge that has resonated with voters amid Romania’s economic woes.
Romania’s economy, already in a deep recession, is expected to shrink some 8.5 per cent this year with unemployment at more than 7 per cent, 3 percentage points higher than last year.
Basescu takes credit for raising Romania’s international profile by leading the country into the European Union in 2007, and hosting a major NATO summit in 2008 — the high point of his presidency.