Bukharest: Prime Minister Victor Ponta looked set to win the first round of presidential elections in Romania on Sunday, despite fears he could reverse reforms aimed at tackling the rampant corruption that blights one of Europe`s poorest countries.
Prime Minister Victor Ponta looked set to win the first round of presidential elections in Romania on Sunday despite fears he could reverse advances in the justice system if elected.
Exit polls were expected to give a first idea of results around 1900 GMT, when voting stations were due to close after opening at 0500 GMT.
Ponta, a 42-year-old centre-left politician, has enjoyed a comfortable lead over 13 other candidates and looks set to face 55-year-old liberal Klaus Iohannis, from the German-speaking minority, in a second round on November 16 in the former communist country.
The elections are seen as a crucial test for Romania, as well as central Europe, at a time when democracy has suffered setbacks in some neighbouring countries, such as Hungary, and as the Ukraine crisis has shaken relations between the European Union and Russia.
Popular centre-right President Traian Basescu, a long-term rival who has accused Ponta of being a former spy, is ineligible to run for a third term.
The new president will face a number of pressing issues, including an economic recession and persistent accusations of corruption and bad governance.
Romania is the second poorest country in the European Union after Bulgaria.
"I think these elections can be a maturity test for Romania," said Corina Rebegea from the Centre for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) 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 proves that 25 years of transition are worth something."
Forty percent of the population "still believe life under communism was better."But despite great progress in the justice system in recent years -- which has even jailed a former prime minister found guilty of corruption -- many fear a backlash is coming.
The electoral campaign was marked by numerous criminal charges and announcements of probes by the anti-corruption prosecutor (DNA), including many aimed at political allies of the prime minister.
Although Ponta has promised to keep the justice system independent, his regular criticism of the DNA, which he has accused of bias, has stirred trouble.
On what was dubbed "Black Tuesday" in December 2013, Ponta`s government passed a series of new laws granting powerful immunity to elected officials.
The changes were ultimately blocked but the episode served as a wake-up call to Ponta`s critics.
Advances in the justice system could be "reversed in two days" and more progress was needed, Livia Stanciu, president of the Supreme Court, told AFP.
Ponta`s allies who are under investigation will no doubt pressure him to "change the course of justice once becoming president", said Laura Stefan from the Expertforum think tank in Bucharest.
"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," a voter, 70-year-old retired engineer Ileana Diamantopol, said.Experts hope that increased surveillance from Brussels will be a safeguard against any regression in the southeastern European country bordering the Black Sea.
But Romanians must ultimately be in control, said Monica Macovei, a European deputy and independent candidate.
"I would be ashamed to ask for help from the European Union," the former justice minister said recently.
After two stormy and paralysing years of cohabitation between Ponta and Basescu, the country needs to carry out reforms quickly, particularly in public administration.
The recession-hit economy is desperately in need of a boost in a country where the average monthly salary is 380 euros ($480) and more than a fifth of under-25s are unemployed, according to official statistics.
"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 investments have 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, from the Vienna Institute for International Economic Studies.
Growth is due to drop to 2.2 percent this year, from 3.5 percent in 2013, according to the government.